Monday 5 February 2018

Guest Blog: John Hewer on the Carry On Connections with Steptoe & Son

In this wonderful guest blog, John Hewer writes about the wonderful BBC comedy series Steptoe and Son and the Carry On connections with that brilliant tale of the warring rag and bone men. John is currently starring in a stage version of Steptoe and Son, produced by Hambledon Productions. More on that below!

Don’t baulk at the title; this is neither an article to initiate rumours of a strange new hybrid between two comic institutions, nor is it intended to be a piece to derive lamentations as to ‘what might have been’. The joyous fact is, without any sort of obvious crossover, that both these iconic franchises have a striking amount in common; they are of similar age (the “Carry Ons” have just turned 60, “Steptoe and Son” is merely four years away), they still enjoy frequent and, more to the point, popular repeats, and both seem to be intrinsically British. Yes, the “Carry Ons” are loved around the world, but their reliance on ‘toilet humour’ and instantly recognisable stock characters make them unmistakably from these isles, and while “Steptoe” has seen quite a few imitations made in different countries, no-one has managed to recapture the markedly grim and demonstrably class-conscious world of Oil Drum Lane. 

Both series, in fact, feature many of the same topics to generate their comedy – the aforementioned toilet humour is just as ripe in “Steptoe” as it is in the “Carry Ons”; who can forget poor Harold returning to the yard after a hard day’s totting, going to sit on the khazi (that’s the Cockney slang for toilet, and not the Khazi of Kalabar…) and getting a nasty shock from the holly wreath, placed absent-mindedly by his old man. And although there’s rarely anything as stark or grim in the “Carry Ons” (apart from the painful demise of the original series in the late 70s), there’s plenty of comedy based on class riddled throughout the films – from snooty snobs as portrayed by Kenneth Williams and Frankie Howerd, to clear social commentary surrounding management and labourers depicted in “Carry On At Your Convenience”. In “Carry On Camping”, we have Sid James bent double in the wooden ablution hut trying to cop an eyeful of Barbara Windsor through a knot in the wall. In “Steptoe and Son’s” episode “Back in Fashion”, we have Albert Steptoe, the eternal dirty old man, drilling a hole in his bedroom floor so he can have a quick butcher’s at the female models changing in his living room below. 


“Steptoe and Son” was written by the grandfathers, and I’d argue godfathers, of sitcom – Ray Galton and Alan Simpson (an interesting aside, Galton frequently worked with scriptwriter John Antrobus, who was commissioned to write the first draft of “Carry On Sergeant”.) The original batch of series were broadcast from 1962-1965, returning for a further four series (this time in colour) from 1970-1974. It was their second hit, after already earning their place among the greats with their catalogue of work for comedian Tony Hancock (and subsequently, writing for “Carry On” favourites Sid James, Kenneth Williams and Hattie Jacques.) The five-year hiatus in the late 60s came about because the writers felt they had successfully exhausted the storylines for the two warring rag-and-bone men, and both Wilfrid Brambell and Harry H. Corbett (who remained loyal to playing Steptoe and Son respectively, through TV, film, radio and stage adaptations) were ready to move on to something new. 

In 1966, Harry was secured to replace Sid James in the twelfth “Carry On”, a hilarious and particularly polished entry sending up the hammer horror genre – “Carry On Screaming.” Harry plays the lead, Detective Sidney Bung, on the case of the disappearing women in the local Hokum Woods. The majority of “Carry On” fans, and I am no different, think Harry was a great asset to the team and a fair, temporary stand-in for Sid. Harry secured the biggest wage assigned to a “Carry On” star to that point – a whopping £30,000, which stood head and shoulders over “Carry On” regular Kenneth Williams’ £5,000. Harry demonstrates clear capability in delivering the gloriously ribald dialogue. He spars well opposite Jim Dale and Williams, suitably melts next to the smouldering Fenella Fielding and creates a particular stand-out performance paired with Peter Butterworth in one of the series’ most dynamic and amusing double-acts. Wilfrid Brambell, who returned to the West End stage in the late 60s, managed to find time to pop in and pop out of the Long Hampton Hospital in “Carry On Again Doctor” (1969), typecast as a dirty old man (albeit a lot cleaner, and with his better set of gnashers in), enjoying a very memorable cameo as the aptly-named Mr. Pullen, checking in to see Dale’s Dr. Nookey regarding his latest hormone injection. The entire segment is over in a matter of seconds, but it’s a wonderful slice of mime and playful grimacing. Resident “Carry On” composer Eric Rogers was quick to utilize the presence of the Steptoe family in the films; when Harry has to break in to a shopkeeper’s window to steal a mannequin, we are treated to a quick rearrangement of Ron Grainer’s immortal “Old Ned”, which served so fantastically as the theme tune to the sitcom. When Wilfrid is being helped into the consultation room by Nurse Willing, Rogers disguises the theme even less. They’re affectionate nods to the actors’ previous success.

Elsewhere, in the “Carry On” cast lists, there are many crossovers, particularly when the sitcom returned in the early 1970s.  The pressure from the BBC was too great to ignore, and Harry and Wilfrid agreed to come back provided that Ray and Alan considered that the creative well had been re-filled enough to warrant it. The lads didn’t let us down. The most iconic, most fondly-remembered episodes (and the ones we’ve focused on reviving for the stage) stem from this second burst of life for the series. Frank Thornton, engraved on our minds for his portrayals of Truly in “Last of the Summer Wine” and Captain Peacock in “Are You Being Served?” returned to the Steptoe stable on no fewer than six separate occasions. Avid “Carry On” fans will no doubt recall he also appeared in a supporting role as the distressed shopkeeper in “Carry On Screaming.” June Whitfield, who’s “Carry On” career spanned from 1959’s “Carry On Nurse” to 1992’s ill-fated “Carry On Columbus” also notched up a “Steptoe” appearance. One of the more memorable cameos from the sitcom was Nemone Wagstaff, a member of the local amateur dramatics society, played by starlet Margaret Nolan, who’s “Carry On” contributions include Miss Dawn Breaks in “Carry On Girls” and Lady Daley in “Carry On Dick”. Madeline Smith starred in the episode “Back in Fashion” shortly after filming her cameo role as Miss Pullitt for “Carry On Matron”. Harry Fielder cropped up as a holidaying monk in 1972’s “Carry On Abroad” before appearing in the closing scene in the classic episode “Porn Yesterday”.

As was the norm for any successful sitcom in the late 60s and 70s, a “Steptoe and Son” feature length spin-off was rushed into production. A sequel followed, but, thankfully, both have stood the test of time fairly well, particularly in comparison to their contemporaries. More “Carry On” names line the credits, including Milo O’Shea (from “Carry On Cabby”), Fred Griffiths (from “Carry On Nurse”, “Carry On Regardless” and “Carry On Loving”) and Bill Maynard, who, after promising roles in “Carry On Loving”, “Carry On Henry”, “Carry On At Your Convenience” and “Carry On Matron”, would see his part as manager of Wundatours Ltd. hit the cutting room floor.

The humour of both these institutions is, evidently, timeless. Whereas there’s never a week when a “Carry On” isn’t enjoying a broadcast, “Steptoe and Son” has recently been revived on stage in a touring production, hosted by Hambledon Productions. As is the case of some of the “Carry Ons”, the setting may appear dated, even unrecognizable to some theatre-goers, but the characters, relationships, scenarios and, most importantly, the jokes, continue to delight audiences young and old. There’s just as much relevance (and humour) these days in Harold and Albert having to split their house in half because neither of them can afford to move out as there is in Peter Butterworth trying to get an extra “pahnd” out of his holidaymakers at Paradise Camp. 

By John Hewer

“Steptoe and Son” is touring throughout 2018. Dates and venues are available at             

And you can follow Hambledon Productions on Twitter here: @HambledonProds


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