The truth about my dad 'Arold: After TV shows branded, Steptoe And Son star, Harry H. Corbett, bitter and unfaithful, his daughter Susannah hits back
00:34 GMT, 21 April 2012
Harry H Corbett rose from the Manchester slums to become one of the best-known television stars of the 20th century thanks to his role in Steptoe And Son.
Some 28 million viewers switched on each week to watch the love and loathing between rag-and-bone men Albert, played by Wilfrid Brambell, and his hapless son Harold. Steptoe And Son ran from 1962 to 1974 and is widely regarded as the first modern British sitcom.
‘Harry was already a huge star when I was growing up. I spent most of my childhood kicking my heels on the way to the swings while fans asked for his autograph,’ says his daughter, Susannah Corbett. ‘No one realised how huge Steptoe was going to be.’
Fond memories: Susannah with her father in 1972
’Arold, dubbed the working-class Hamlet, was the classic tragi-comic character – a 30-something virgin who dreamed of escaping his debauched and irascible father. But Susannah was enraged by two programmes she feels destroyed her father’s legacy. The 2002 Channel 4 documentary When Steptoe Met Son claimed Harry and Wilfrid hated each other.
Then, the 2008 BBC4 biopic The Curse Of Steptoe said Harry was tormented at being typecast as Harold rather than the classical actor he aspired to be. But worst of all, says Susannah, was the suggestion that her mother, Maureen Blott, was responsible for the break-up of Harry’s first marriage to the actress Sheila Steafel. Now Susannah, 43, and an actress herself who has starred in Peak Practice and Dalziel And Pascoe, has written her father’s biography to set the record straight.
‘I couldn’t let those programmes be the last word, and this was the only form of redress I had,’ she explains. ‘I was deeply angered by them, particularly the claims about his personal life. I understand they have dramatic license but they went too far.’
With Wilfrid Brambell in Steptoe And Son
When Hancock’s Half Hour writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson wrote a one-off show in 1961 called The Offer as part of their BBC Comedy Playhouse series, they had Harry, then a method actor described as the English Marlon Brando, in mind for the role of Harold. He wired back after reading the script, ‘Delicious, delighted, can’t wait to work on it.’
‘But during rehearsals for The Offer, Tom Sloan, who was the BBC head of Light Entertainment, saw the chemistry between Dad and Wilfrid. Before they knew it, they had commissioned a further six episodes,’ says Susannah.
‘Dad, like Harold himself, was fairly socialist and thought the character was a marvellous tool to express the lives of the working classes. His favourite line was, “I didn’t get rickets from over-eating.” It hit a chord with everyone at the dawn of the Swinging Sixties who had lived through deprivation and war. Far from disliking Harold, he had great sympathy with the character and really enjoyed playing him.’
Certainly Harry, who received an OBE in 1976, had a tough upbringing. He was born in Burma where his father was an Army officer, but after his mother died from dysentery when he was 18 months old he was sent back to England and brought up by his Aunt Annie in Manchester. He served during the Second World War with the Royal Marines, killing two Japanese while fighting hand-to-hand in New Guinea.
Susannah, an actress herself, has starred in Peak Practice and Dalziel And Pascoe
No wonder he later joined Joan Littlewood’s east London Theatre Workshop, the left-wing school of method acting where he was able to draw on his own experiences to bring out his characters. After deciding to call himself Harry H Corbett to differentiate himself from the Sooty creator, he went on to star in films such as Carry On Screaming, Jabberwocky and Silver Dream Racer. ‘Like Harold, Dad didn’t have a good education which is why every Sunday he read every paper voraciously. But he was great at pathos, and that’s why millions connected with him.
‘There was an immediate chemistry the moment Dad and Wilfrid got together. People who said they loathed each other are wrong,’ she insists. ‘They had great mutual respect. They only got tetchy towards the very end of filming because Wilfrid was enjoying one more gin than he should have, so rehearsals had to be cut short.’
In 1972 Steptoe And Son was made into a film, followed by Steptoe And Son Ride Again the following year. Then in 1977, Harry and Wilfrid took a Steptoe stage show to Australia, which Susannah says the BBC wrongly portrayed as a bitter experience due to Wilfrid’s alcoholism. At one point Brambell almost killed a drunken woman by kicking her into the stalls when she staggered onstage, shouting and swearing.
Susannah, who had accompanied her parents on the tour aged nine, says it was her mother who smoothed things over. ‘Mum stepped in and said in her clear-cut voice, “How dare you use such language in front of my daughter!” The truth was I’d heard much worse at home.’
‘Harry was mortally embarrassed, so was Wilfrid, but there were no cross words between them. The next day all was forgotten. Quite the opposite of the BBC’s claim that Dad was disgusted by Wilfrid’s antics. Dad wouldn’t have done a tour if things were sour, nor would he have been looking forward to a second tour of Australia.’
This was planned for 1982, but before they were due to leave Harry died of a heart attack. He was 57. ‘Wilfrid was devastated and my mother collapsed. Her world fell apart. They were totally in love. Harry had already filed for divorce from Sheila Steafel when he met my mother. She was a 21-year-old actress and, though married, she was separated. He came to watch her on set one day and made a fuss of her. She told him to leave her alone, which was like a red rag to a bull.
‘It wasn’t long before she succumbed to his charms. They both got divorces and she and Harry married and had my brother and me. It’s not exciting, but it’s the truth. So I took particular exception when the BBC showed Mum turning up at Harry’s door heavily pregnant. The implication was it was just a fling while he was still with Sheila and Mum was trying to trap him. That’s just not true. Nor did Dad feel typecast as Harold. He was very proud of Steptoe, how truthful it was about human relationships and how it’s still funny even today.’
Harry H Corbett: The Front Legs Of The Cow by Susannah Corbett is published by The History Press.