Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Curse of Steptoe

The Curse of Steptoe (BBC4, repeated 10.45 Easter Sunday) was surprisingly good. Jason Isaacs was a convincing Harry H. Corbett and Phil Davis was brilliant as both the dapper Wilfrid Brambell and the on-screen Steptoe Senior.

I'm a huge fan of Phil Davis and I would probably even watch Heartbeat in the unlikely event that he had a guest role in it. He should be far more famous than he is but I suspect he is too self-effacing for his own good. A lot of lesser talents probably achieve stardom through egotism and assertiveness. I remember being told that a famous actor, early in his career, had shocked people at the BBC by saying he would only do a Wednesday Play if his name was above the title. But it worked because he turned a modest talent into international success.

This play was the first in a 'Curse of Comedy' series that includes Hancock, Frankie Howerd and, for some inexplicable reason, the loathsome game show host Hughie Green.
My one quibble is that this 'tears of a clown' thesis is a little simplistic. All these people had their problems but they also had success, fame and great wealth. They must surely have had great joy in their lives as well.
I could sit down now and fill a page of A4 with reasons why I've had a life of almost unmitigated misery.
I could fill another page of A4 with reasons why I've led a blessed life of boundless love, joy and laughter.
The former, of course, would make better drama, as did the fictional angst-ridden life of Harold Steptoe and this drama about the angst-ridden lives of Harry H. Corbett and Wilfred Brambell, two men trapped for years in the most successful sit-com in TV history.
'I should be so lucky!' you can hear struggling actors cry.

I mentioned here a few years ago how I met Harry H Corbett at a party in a London theatre. Having both arrived early, we were the only people in the room. I now regret that I didn't say very much to him. But having watched him on television from the age of 10 I was somewhat over-awed. I knew that he was rather ambivalent about Steptoe so I didn't like to mention that and I didn't know enough about the Orton play he was starring in to say anything sensible about it. As we gazed out the window, the illuminated sign of his name suddenly switched off. "The fame doesn't last long, does it?" he said. I'd love to be able to record my witty reply, worthy of Dorothy Parker in her prime. But I think I just said "No, it doesn't" and took another slug of wine.

His name in lights suddenly going dark, the bitter was like one of those contrived, invented scenes so beloved of dramatists.
Talking of which, the play had a scene in which Wilfrid Brambell goes into a London pub and flees when everyone starts saying "You dirty old man!"
I once saw Wilfred Brambell sitting in a London pub and nobody took a blind bit of notice of him. This was partly because Londoners are often unfazed by the sight of celebrities, especially in West End pubs, but also because Brambell bore little resemblance to old man Steptoe, always being impeccably turned out and with a good a set of teeth.

The Steptoe drama was followed by an hour-long interview with Galton and Simpson, two of the greatest writers of the 20th century. I refuse to qualify that by saying 'comedy writers'. For their admirers, there wasn't much new material in it but it was riveting nonetheless.

I warmed to Ray Galton because although loving comedy he very rarely laughs.
I warmed to Alan Simpson because he hated writing and found it very difficult.
And I warmed to both of them because they wrote very slowly, famously sitting in a room for days without writing anything or spending an hour getting the rhythm of a sentence right.
Alan Simpson said he loved the experience of having written something but hated the process of doing it. I'd suggest that if someone loves writing or writes very quickly or finds it easy, there's a high probability that they're not a writer.
But the opposite isn't necessarily true: you can spend days of torture writing a single paragraph and it can still be crap. These days, unfortunately, it might still be commissioned for a prime-time series on ITV1.


At 11:53 AM, Anonymous wyndham said...

Nice post, Willie. Your meetig with Corbett was as tragic as The Curse of Steptoe was excellent. Interesting to see Corbett's ex-wife Sheila Steafal on The Frost Report celebration - Corbett wasn't too happy about that either, according to the drama.

At 12:13 PM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

To Corbett's credit, he didn't have to come over and make conversation with an unknown, scruffy youngster like me.
In some ways, I think it better that I was tongue-tied than that I had said something crass - and I've done that a few times!


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