Saturday, November 17, 2012

No Colour for Steptoe and Son

I know I make pleas about series that I think people should check out. Often at the end of an article, I note that this is a series that is particularly good and suggest people to seek it out. I am not going to end this article that way; I am going to start out this way. Steptoe and Son is beyond exceptional. Written by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson this series was a triumph for situation comedy. Generally, comedies at the BBC at that time employed comedians to be in these programs. For example, Tony Hancock was a known comedian when Galton & Simpson wrote Hancock’s Half Hour for him. When it came time for them to do Steptoe and Son, they cast two actors who were not comedians. Instead, they felt that the comedy came from the situation and the reaction of the cast in these situations. The results were hilarious but also there was drama and as I loathe to say it, pathos. I cover the first two episodes of Steptoe and Son here. It is about a father and son business. They are rag and bone men. They go out and get stuff that no one wants and sell it from their yard. The problem is that the younger Harold Steptoe is in his 30s and desperately wants to leave home to make a fresh start with his life. Meanwhile, his father Albert doesn’t want Harold to leave and in fact will try to sabotage any attempt to leave.

On the surface it is quite funny. In fact, it is hilarious. The situations they get themselves into, the names they call each other or the way they try to sabotage each other is quite funny. They are actually quite competitive with each other too which brings out a lot of hilarious situations. The problem is that deep down, the series is actually kind of dark. In one episode Harold is sleepwalking with a knife and tries to kill Albert; he is also seen choking Albert one many occasions when Harold has had enough. It is also sad. Harold thinks himself as a higher class than what life has dealt him yet he gets no breaks. One of many examples is in the episode A Star Is Born, Harold has a chance to be a star in a local play. The problem is that Harold isn’t exactly very good at it. By chance Albert is able to perform in the play too and he is a natural. No one pays attention Harold and all of the excitement of the success of the play goes to Albert. The episode ends with Harold going home basically disgraced by his father. It’s funny yet really sad at the same time. You can’t help but feel sad for Harold. The two episodes I looked at this week are not quite so vicious and in fact the first one is actually kind of sad and shows the close bond the two have for eachother.
Two’s Company TX: 16/11/70

The two episodes I looked at this week come from the 6th series. The episode begins with Albert extremely happy because he is in love. His first wife, Harold’s mum, died many years ago and he is has been on his own ever since. He met a woman at the Darby & Joan club. Albert is out late, it is quarter pass 12 in the morning and Harold is starting to get concerned. Albert gets into the house and after some questioning from Harold, Albert tells Harold that he met a woman by the name of Mrs. Goodlace months ago, fell in love with her and asked her to marry him. She accepted!
Of course Harold is a little unsure of what to make of all this. What is really nice about the episode is that Albert is really sweet in these scenes between Harold and him. Albert often is very rough around the edges and you never know if he is being sincere but here he is being very honest. He is honest about his feelings for Mrs. Goodlace and is also honest about how he is hoping Harold takes the news. It had been a while since I had seen the episode so I was kind of expecting Harold to explode but he didn’t. As usual, he ribbed his father but ultimately was very supportive. They decided to have her over the next day so Harold could meet her.

The next day arrives and Albert is so nervous. He asks Harold multiple times how he looks and is just all jittery. Suddenly, there is a knock at the door. She has arrived! Albert goes to the door to bring her in. In a fantastic moment in the episode, Mrs. Goodlace and Harold look at each other. The camera has a close up of each of them and it is clear that they know each other. Mrs. Goodlace and Albert are only going to stay for a few minutes as they have dinner plans that night. As Albert goes on and on about how happy he is and how happy he is going to make Mrs. Goodlace, he needs to leave the room to get the minicab to come by and pick them up.
After he leaves the room, the two of them stare at each other, both get up at the same time get nearer to each other and start kissing each other. The two had been lovers before. They were together while Harold had to go into National Service. Harold sent her many letters but apparently her mom intercepted them and threw them out. A female version of Albert for sure! In fact, Mrs. Goodlace was someone who Harold was very serious about and never forgot her.Tthat feeling was reciprocated by her. The one thing I wondered about immediately was why she didn’t realise that Albert’s surname matched that of Harold’s? Harold didn’t like his name Steptoe and used Faversham. Albert comes back to the room beaming at Mrs. Goodlace and continues to talk about how happy he is. He even comments to Harold how much he would like Harold to get married. He thinks Harold should find somebody and they could possibly have a double wedding. Harold needs to let his father know what is going on and he breaks the somber news:

Harold: “Daphne and I are lovers”
Albert: "but she’s only been here 10 minutes".
It’s kind of dark that a series would have a story that a father and son who are so different would have a relationship with the same woman of course at different times. The tide changes in the room. As Albert is reeling from the shock of the news, Harold starts talking about marrying Mrs. Goodlace. Albert is deeply upset by this and talks about moving out. Harold is trying to cheer him up and both of them are going back and forth. While all of that is going on, Mrs. Goodlace sees what is going on and quietly leaves. As soon as they realise she is gone, Albert and Harold go after her only to find she has left a note basically saying she wouldn’t want to split them up because they are already married. Albert and Harold are shocked. To cheer themselves up, they decide to go to dinner at the fancy restaurant that Albert was going to take her to eat. As they are leaving, they are taking care of each other, fixing each other’s tie and Harold making a fuss to make sure Albert was wrapped up to go out in the cold. Yet, neither of them could figure out what she meant by both of them already being married.

As I mentioned earlier, both Harold and Albert were very kind to each other as they deal with each other’s feelings about what is going on with Mrs. Goodlace. It’s very funny and what makes this series always good is that there is always a minimal cast. Sometimes it’s just Harold and Albert. These episodes are like plays and Harry H. Corbett as Harold and Wilfrid Brambell as Albert can easily carry the series just between the two of them. In fact when it’s just them the episodes are mainly them arguing but when there are other characters in the episode, it seems like a lot of times they get along and they are defending themselves or supporting themselves against these other people.
Tea for Two TX: 23/11/70

This is an episode you have to have a little understanding of what was going on at the time. There is a fierce political battle going on in Oil Drum Lane (where the Steptoe’s live). Harold is the branch secretary for the local Labour party. There is precedent for Harold to be involved with politics as we seen him heavily involved in the Series 4 episode My Old Man is A Tory. Now, Albert hardly ever gets involved with such things but this time he has as he is supporting the Tory party which at the time had a Prime Minister in office. Both of them are doing work to further their political party’s chances of winning. Unfortunately, neither of them plays fair. Harold defaces a poster of the Prime Minister that Albert put up outside their house. Albert switches the mailers of their respective party’s so Harold is actually delivering Tory information to everyone on their street.
One thing I enjoy about the series is how Albert is able to get Harold off his high horse. Harold thinks he is a more enlightened thinker than his father so when they actually get into a debate, his father usually sets him straight. For example, a discussion of the different races on their street comes up. Harold accuses Albert and the Tory party of not looking at people of different races as equals. Albert prods Harold about it only for Harold to answer questions which makes him sound exactly the way he is accusing Albert of being. It is pretty funny as it does knock Harold down a couple of pegs.

While Harold is out, members of the Tory party come by to let Albert know that the new Prime Minister Ted Heath, while touring the neighborhood, would like to come by for tea at Albert’s home. Albert sees this as quite the honour while the Tory representatives see it as a wonderful press opportunity especially as the place is so rundown. It’s like the Prime Minister meeting the poor people in his country. Albert goes all out and gets in a ton of food. Harold comes home to find out what is happening. Of course Harold isn’t too thrilled especially as the head of the Tory government is going to have tea at the home of the branch secretary for the local Labour party. Always the thinker, Harold has a plan. He knows that when the Prime Minister gets to their home, there will be a ton of press and photographers. Harold will make sure that when the Prime Minister is there Harold will be walking around completely nude. It will be amazing! Unfortunately, the Prime Minister will not be able to make it. Albert is saved from the embarrassment from his son prancing around in the nude. Unfortunately for one of the Prime Minister’s men, there was one more surprise waiting compliments of Harold. Not only was Harold planning on being nude, he concocted other booby traps for the Prime Minister. As this guy uses the loo outside in the yard, a bucket of paint falls on him.
Steptoe and Son started out in 1962 and ran for 4 series in black & white. It took a hiatus and returned in 1970 with Series 5 in colour. As I mentioned above, these two episodes I watched are from Series 6. If you look at the pics in this article, you will notice that they are in black & white. Why is that?

It wouldn’t be a BBC series from the 1960s or early 1970s if episodes weren’t missing. As standard at the time, the 1970s episodes of Steptoe and Son were recorded on 2” colour videotape. The colour episodes from Series 5 and 6 were destroyed with only 2 episodes of the 15 from that period still existing in colour. Now, this is where it becomes interesting. Unlike something like the colour Pertwee episodes of Doctor Who, there were no black & white film telerecordings in existence. Basically, these episodes did not exist in any form.
Image from
For years fans thought that these episodes were gone but something extraordinary was discovered. It was discovered that Ray Galton got one of the BBC engineers to record the entire run of Steptoe and Son for him from the master tapes onto Shibaden SV-700 half-inch reel-to-reel black & white videotape. VCRs are reel to reel in a sense but both reels are housed in a cassette but the Shibaden are open reel to reel video, similar to the reel to reel audio tapes. This find was a triumph! It returned these episodes that didn’t exist. The only problem is that the quality is not great. These are 405 line videos that are fuzzy old looking recordings. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter as having these episodes completed the run of Steptoe and Son episodes in the BBC Archives. Not only did Ray Galton have the episodes that didn’t exist from Series 5 & Series 6 but they also got a recording of the Series 4 episode My Old Man is a Tory from Series 4. The BBC were so happy to get these episodes back that they ran a season of repeats on BBC2 in the 1990s that showed these missing episodes from Series 5 & 6. I remember a friend from the UK sending me these episodes and it was so good to see these. At the end of the episodes, a little card came up thanking the Steptoe and Son Appreciation Society for these archive recordings. These episodes were released on DVD in the UK and still have those title cards at the end of the episodes. In 2008, a black & white telerecording did turn up of one of the colour Steptoe and Son episodes. It was the first reel of A Winter’s Tale. One reel would be about 15 minutes. It would be interesting to know if the film print has chroma dots and if any kind of colour information could be sourced from it even though it is a partial print. As for the videos that Ray Galton have in black & white of the colour episodes, there is no hope for colour recovery from those recordings. The tape would not have any chroma dots since it would have recording strictly to black & white, that machine would not have recorded colour. Those recording will stay black & white.

As I go on about how wonderful this series is, if you are in the US it may not be as easy to see it. Back in the day when BFS would release VHS tapes of British television series, Steptoe and Son was one of the series. It was only some of the colour episodes but still some is better nothing. Unfortunately, none of the DVDs made it to the US so if you want to enjoy one of the best comedy series made and you are in the US, you will need to import the British PAL set and watch it on a Region Free DVD player. After all, that’s what I did and I have never regretted it.

Don't forget: I am giving away 2 copies of each Doctor Who: The Claws of Axos Special Edition and Doctor Who Series 7 Part One. Both R1 DVD courtesy of BBC Home Entertainment. To enter for your chance to win, please check this out: Doctor Who DVD Giveaway!

Next week: To celebrate Doctor Who’s 49th Anniversary, I thought I would look at one of my favourite parts of fandom which became a lifelong hobby: videotape trading. What is it? Why did I do it? Take a look next week and find out!
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Dave G said...

Ahhh, Steptoe and Son. I really have mixed feelings about this. After I got the dvd set, I watched the entire run of episdes in order. It was interesting to see how the show and characters developed, but it was almost too much. For all the good times the two shared, there were an equal number of times where they were mean, if not downright cruel to each other. They certainly looved each other, but that love was buried deep inside, only leaking through the outer hatred and loathing from time to time.

After the idea was imported to the US as Sanford and Son, the relationship between the two was toned down. The viciousness is gone while the basic premise remains. It really is a revelation to watch an episode from the first season of Sanford and Son and compare it to the original. Virtually the same script but the tone is different.

All in all Steptoe and Son remains a classis, and like many classics, best enjoyed in small doses. Do not overinfulge - savor the experience.

Greg said...

I have to admit, I never thought the series to be anything other than comedy but in later years I found that there was a distinct darkness to the show.

I think that really came out to me when the play Murder at Oil Drum Lane came out in 2005 where we found out that Harold actually murdered his father and 30 years later the ghost of Albert comes out to haunt him. I wouldn't have thought too much about it but it was co-written by Ray Galton so it definately is canon.

warewolfboy said...

there is chroma dots on the film print of a winter's tale.theres a pic of it here:

Mikey said...
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