Steptoe and Son is a British sitcom written by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson about a father-and-son rag-and-bone business. They live on Oil Drum Lane, a fictional street in Shepherd's Bush, London. Four series were broadcast by the BBC from 1962 to 1965, followed by a second run from 1970 to 1974. Its theme tune, "Old Ned", was composed by Ron Grainer. The series was voted 15th in a 2004 BBC poll to find Britain's Best Sitcom. It was remade in the US as Sanford and Son, in Sweden as Albert & Herbert and in the Netherlands as Stiefbeen en zoon. In 1972 a film adaptation of the series, Steptoe and Son, was released in cinemas, with a second Steptoe and Son Ride Again in 1973.
The series focused on the inter-generational conflict of father and son. Albert Steptoe, a "dirty old man", is an old rag-and-bone man, set in his grimy and grasping ways. By contrast his 37-year-old son Harold is filled with social aspirations, not to say pretensions. The show contained elements of drama and tragedy, as Harold was continually prevented from achieving his ambitions. To this end the show was unusual at the time for casting actors rather than comedians in its lead roles, although both actors were drawn into more comedic roles as a consequence.
The show had its roots in a 1962 episode of Galton & Simpson's Comedy Playhouse. Galton and Simpson's association with comedian Tony Hancock, for whom they had written Hancock's Half Hour, had ended and they had agreed to a proposal from the BBC to write a series of ten comedy shows. The fourth in the series, "The Offer", was born both out of writer's block and budgetary constraints. Earlier shows in the series had cost more than expected, so the writers decided to write a two-hander set in one room. The idea of two brothers was considered but father and son worked best. Ronald Fraser was second choice for Harold, which would have produced a totally different character.
Galton and Simpson were not aiming to make a pilot for a series, having worked for seven years with Hancock. However, Tom Sloan, the BBC's Head of Comedy, told them during rehearsals that "The Offer" was a definite series pilot: he saw that the Steptoe idea had potential, as did the audience of that edition of Comedy Playhouse. Galton and Simpson were reportedly overwhelmed by this reaction, and the first of what became eight series was commissioned, the first four of which were transmitted between 1962 and 1965. The last four series were broadcast between 1970 and 1974, now in colour. At the peak of the series' popularity, it commanded viewing figures of some 28 million per episode. In addition, the early 1970s saw two feature films, two 46-minute Christmas specials. In 2005, the play Steptoe and Son in Murder at Oil Drum Lane, written by Ray Galton and John Antrobus, brought the storyline to a close.
The series was one of the first UK situation comedy programmes to employ actors rather than comedians in the principal roles. Galton and Simpson had decided that they wanted to try to write for performers who "didn't count their laughs".
The series' title music, "Old Ned", won its composer Ron Grainer his second successive Ivor Novello award. The series had no standard set of opening titles but the opening sequences would often feature the Steptoes' horse, Hercules. "Steptoe and Son" is the Steptoes' trading name, but as established in the first episode, the "Son" is not Harold but Albert. The name dates from when he and his mother—Mrs. Steptoe—worked the rounds. The first series has the pair as very rough looking and often dirty and in ragged clothes but they quickly "tidied up" for later series.
The father, Albert Edward Ladysmith Steptoe (Wilfrid Brambell), was born on 21 January 1899, though he always claimed to have been born in 1901. His father was unknown but is believed to have been a local muffin man who died in 1910; the portrait Albert keeps of his father is in fact of William Gladstone. However, information delivered in some episodes suggests Albert's father was also a rag and bone man. For example, it is revealed that the "...and Son" in the business name referred to Albert, when his father had "Steptoe and Son" painted on the yard gate. Albert appears to have joined the army underage at the start of the First World War, and is seen wearing the Mons Star medals to prove it. On one occasion he tells a reporter that he joined the Grenadier Guards, somewhat unlikely given his small stature. Among his claims, he says he was hit by a grenade in 1917 which did not explode. He threw it back to the German trenches with devastating effect, especially on the canteen, sending sausages and sauerkraut flying into the air.
He apparently served with the British Expeditionary Force to Archangel, White Russia, in 1919. Steptoe Senior is lazy, stubborn, narrow-minded and foul-mouthed, and has revolting personal habits. Albert is content with his place in the world, utterly unpretentious and downright cynical. He can be extremely vindictive and does everything he can to prevent Harold, his son, from improving himself — especially if it means him leaving home. He is normally unshaven and wears a very old pair of false teeth, discoloured and with teeth missing. His wife died in 1936. He mentions in one episode that he was one of fourteen children.
Harold Albert Kitchener Steptoe (Harry H. Corbett) was born in 1925 (Corbett's birth date) in the 1960s series, or around 1930 in the 1970s series. In the episode "Loathe Story" he says he was aged ten just before the outbreak of the Second World War, which would indicate a birth year in 1928 or 1929, and in the episode "A Star is Born" he claims to be the same age as Sean Connery, born August 1930. Harold was educated at Scrubs Lane Elementary School. He too is obstinate, though prone to moments of enthusiasm about an idea. Harold has aspirations. He wants to move up in the world — most of all to escape from the family home and his stifling relationship with his father. This is the subject of the first episode, "The Offer".
He likes to see his business as antiques rather than junk. He bitterly regrets leaving the army; his army service took him to Malaya and he achieved the rank of Corporal. He nearly always wears a workman's belt adorned with army cap badges. In the 1960s series he was a veteran of World War II. He is a dreamer and idealist. Politically, Harold is a Labour supporter who is appalled that his father is a Conservative Party supporter. He aims to improve his mind and his social circle but always fails, often thanks to Albert's deliberate put-downs or sabotage. Harold's exasperation and disgust at his father's behaviour often results in his repeating the catchphrase "You dirty old man".
The episodes often revolve around (sometimes violent) disagreements between the two men, Harold's attempts to bed women and momentary interest over things found on his round. As in many of the best examples of British comedy, much of the humour derives from the pathos of the protagonists' situation, especially Harold's continually thwarted (usually by the elder Steptoe) attempts to "better himself" and the unresolvable love/hate relationship that exists between the pair.
Albert almost always comes out on top, and routinely and effortlessly proves himself easily superior to his son whenever they compete, e.g. in their frequent game-playing, such as snooker played into the night and pouring rain in 1970 and the Scrabble and badminton games in the 1972 series. Harold takes them desperately seriously and sees them as symbols of his desire to improve himself, but his efforts come to nothing every time. His father's success is partly down to superior talent but is aided by cynical gamesmanship and undermining of his son's confidence. In addition, Albert habitually has better judgement than his son, who blunders into all sorts of con tricks and blind alleys as a result of his unrealistic, straw-clutching ideas. Occasionally the tables are turned, but overall the old man is the winner, albeit in a graceless fashion.
Harold is infuriated by these persistent frustrations and defeats, even going to the extent in "Divided We Stand" (1972) of partitioning the house in two so that he does not have to share with his selfish, uncultured and negative father. Predictably, his plan ends in failure and ultimately he can see no way out. However, for all the bitterness there is an essential bond between the pair. Deep down, Albert seems to love his son and his behaviour is perhaps a selfish but misguided way of holding on to him so he does not have to face life alone. When the crunch comes, Harold sticks by his father. This protective bond is much in evidence in "The Seven Steptoerai" (1974) when they are menaced by a local gangster running a protection racket.
Typically though, it is Albert who gets them ingeniously out of a very hazardous predicament. The 1974 Christmas special ended the run and seems Harold once again is on the bad end of poor planning on finding his passport is out of date. His father must go alone, and Harold, tearfully it seems, waves him off to enjoy a potential good time without his son. Harold trudges away, alone, before breaking into song and meeting up with some friends to have his great festive time - without his father. A win but only a temporary one - the viewers know that once their holidays end they will return to the familiar status quo once more.