When judging a good sitcom there’s many factors to consider. It has to be bent-double funny, of course. You’d expect to see great actors, perfectly cast, giving career-defining performances. Longevity, both in terms of the number of episodes and how well they’ve stood the test of time, is important, too.
What separates a good sitcom from a truly great one is, however, when it transcends the merely comedic and tells us something about ourselves.
The jokes in Fawlty Towers, for instance, make it a good sitcom but what it says about snobbery, marital disappointment and impotent rage makes it one of the true greats. I’d argue, though, that the crown for The Greatest should reside in a grimy totter’s yard in Oil Drum Lane.
Steptoe & Son started life in 1962 as a one-off TV play called The Offer. Writers Galton and Simpson had just finished a seven-year shift working with Tony Hancock, inventing the modern sitcom in the process, and were not looking for another long term project after life with the difficult, troubled alcoholic.
The public reaction to The Offer was so overwhelming, however, that the BBC quickly commissioned a series which would eventually run for another eight series, two feature films and fourteen years.
Let’s put that first episode into historical context. This was before The Beatles’ first album, the same year as the first Bond film and Gagarin had made the first manned space flight just eight months previously. But look past the crackly sound and the fuzzy camera quality and the script fizzes with energy and sparkles like it was minted yesterday.
Wilfred Brambell is a scuttling, Dickensian gargoyle as Albert, all tattered trousers and manky false teeth. He’s a Hogarth painting made flesh, by turns wheedling and bullying his son. Harry H Corbett, and this isn’t said often enough, was a handsome sod. One of the first British method actors, he brings an intensity to Harold that’s unusual in sitcom actors even today.
The Offer set the scene for the series to follow, the entire episode depending on two actors and that iconically grotty house to provide all the laughs and, significantly, all the drama. Because what sets Steptoe apart from most sitcoms is the deep vein of tragedy that runs through it.
Watch the last five minutes of that episode again and you see a whole lifetime of thwarted ambition as Harold breaks down, trying to escape a life that’s slowly killing him. Albert hovers on the sidelines, terrified that his son, his livelihood that he both resents and relies on, is going to leave forever. It’s a genuinely heartbreaking piece of television.
Harold’s attempts to better himself and Albert’s constant undermining of him would be a major theme. Whether it’s amateur dramatics, dancing, tennis or political activism, Harold throws himself into them with an equal level of enthusiasm and ineptitude, usually shown up with vindictive glee by his dad.
If Harold can’t escape through ambition, Albert also makes sure he can’t escape through marriage, either. Time and again, Harold’s attempt at romance is thwarted by Albert - giving the girlfriend’s mother fleas, bursting Harold’s water bed or suggesting his second cousin might actually be his step-sister.
But this ignores how incredibly funny Steptoe still is after all these years. Written quotes don’t do justice to Brambell’s crabby, bronchitic delivery or Corbett’s florid monologues but all the episodes are the on Youtube to see for yourself. Desperate Hours, The Stepmother and Divided We Stand are all fine examples.
Okay, here’s the pseud bit so if you have an issue with somebody considering a sitcom to be a work of art, better skip this paragraph. Steptoe & Son deals with all the major themes that great art does - death, loneliness, love, anger, family, ambition. The depiction of working class life is as culturally important as that of Tressell or Orwell. Corbett and Brambell give the finest sustained performances British television has seen, in any genre – by turns hilarious, brutal and tragic. It shares as much with Beckett as it does Blackadder.
And all of this with none of the props of modern sitcoms – no fancy editing, no gimmicks or quirky neighbours. This is raw, uncut comedy at its most primal and beautiful.
Yes, beautiful. God bless you, ‘Arold. And you. Your dirrrty old man.