Saturday, December 12, 2015

Harold Steptoe Finally Wins!

I’m not going to lie. I have a fairly comprehensive collection of British television with titles being added all the time. Even though the last couple of months have been mostly about other ventures and interests, I have taken a lot of time to continue watching the series that I love.

I am sure this is the same for a lot of other people too but those shows that we loved and watched over and over from years ago sometimes start to fade away a little when our focus points to new shows. Shows like AreYou Being Served?, ‘Allo! ‘Allo! or Keeping Up Appearances were once shows I watched religiously but slowly just ended up going to the bottom of the pile. Even Black Adder is one that used to be on constant circulation in my house is now rarely watched. I don’t like these series any less but with each purchase of new series I hadn’t seen before such as Dr. Finlay’s Casebook, Softly Softly: Taskforce or even Z Cars this becomes the norm to the point that I need to force myself to watch some of these wonderful gems I haven’t seen in a while.

The same could be said about Steptoe and Son. Back in the mid to late 1990s, I was getting VHS tapes from friends in the UK and was lapping it up. This is truly quality British television that worked on many more levels than I think the populace realised. It was, like the titles above, something I watched so much that I just moved away from it. I always felt disappointed because I had all these series on VHS from friends long before DVD and once they came out on DVD, I never watched them. I should have been watching them more because they were in better quality but I didn’t. I kept getting these to keep up with them coming out but would get series I only heard about before but never seen and watched those. In fact the only times I have recently watched Steptoe and Son was when I wrote the articles for them on this site here and here.

A Christmas Holiday TX 26/12/74

To even start talking about this episode, we need to first discuss the title of this story. This is the type of minutia that I really enjoy. Unlike most of the other episodes of Steptoe and Son, this episode has no on screen title. That is rather strange to me since everything else seems to have an appropriate title. So the next place to look is to see what is listed on the DVD. The DVD lists this episode as A Perfect Christmas. When I looked at that, I thought that didn’t really feel that sounded like a simpson/galtonesque episode title so I was dubious about it. Finally, I went to my handy dandy Kaleidoscope Comedy guide that tells me also sorts of fun facts about episodes not least what format these episodes exists on. That guide lists this episode as A Christmas Holiday and lists A Perfect Christmas as an alt title. Does that mean A Perfect Christmas title had shown up in production paperwork? In any case, I decided to use the title that Kaleidoscope list in their amazing publication.

It’s Christmas at Oil Drum Lane and Albert is decorating their home. It’s just the simple streamers and occasional decorations in their drab home. Harold comes home and as soon as he sees the room, he starts ripping into it. He uses a great amount of sarcasm to get his point across about the room and lack of decoration. At one point he tells his father that coming into the room with a few streamers in it reminds him of “the transformation scene from Cinderella”. This is what sends Albert into a tizzy and he goes around tearing down all of the decorations and swears at Harold.

There is a reason that Harold is acting this way. Instead of sitting at home over the holidays in that room watching telly with his Dad and getting into arguments, he wants to go on holiday. And he wants to bring his Dad with him!  He doesn’t want to sit and watch Z Cars or Coronation Street which both get a mention. Nor does he want to watch Cliff Richards. He wants to go somewhere exotic. When watching this, I thought it was nice that Harold wanted to bring his Dad along on the holiday. I also wondered something that I had thought about for a while…..how do they afford these things?

Being a rag and bone man and pretty much owning a junk yard is not going to make you a millionaire. It’s hard labourious work that lends little monetary results. That is, unless you are I.M. Foreman and own the junkyard (at 76 Totters Lane) that made it’s first appearance in the first episode of Doctor Who and then showed up 3 more times including The Day of the Doctor from 2013, that actually appears to be a remarkably successful junk yard lasting for so long! But looking at Steptoe and Son, they don’t seem to be doing that well yet they are always getting amazing stuff. Such as a fancy new car, a professional billiards table, water beds, new bathroom, etc. At least in this episode, we get an answer to how they can afford the holiday.

Lucky for Harold, Albert loves to swear and Harold just so happens to have a swear jar. Every time either of them swear, 10p goes into the jar. It’s not so much a jar but a collection bank molded as a couple of dogs. Maybe that’s how they bankrolled a lot of these other things because Albert has such a potty mouth!

As far as the scope of the holiday is concerned, it looks like Harold is open to pretty much anything in the world. The world is literally their oyster. Albert, on the other hand, is a lot more critical. He would just prefer to go to Bognor. He was treated well there when he’s been there before. Harold thought it would be nice to go to Acapulco but Albert thinks he is talking about acupuncture! Albert doesn’t want to go to France because when he was last there it was muddy and full of trenches. That was back in World War I.

Series 8 of Steptoe and Son that ran just before this special is among my favourites of the entire series but a lot of it is more outlandish and in some ways far-fetched. Episodes include a fashion show or Albert and Harold competing for popularity in the same stage production. This episode is very simple basic Steptoe and Son. Most of the episode takes place in their house with the two of them bickering back and forth. What makes this interesting is that this episode might be even more serious than we have seen before now.

There are a few references by Harold in this episode to explain how disturbed he was brought up by his father. These are generally not outright comments but mainly side comments Harold would say almost under his breath.  A couple of examples would be when Harold is messing about and Albert tells him “You’re living in a dream world!” with Harold responding regrettably, “It’s better than here.” It could have been delivered as a pure comedy moment but that is not the direction it took. It was delivered almost invisibly where Albert didn’t hear it…..or ignored it.

The other comment that caught my attention was more interesting to me. They were talking about the space under the stairs where Albert may have kept his birth certificate that he needs to get an updated passport. Harold mentions to Albert that Albert was always at the pub during the blitz bombings during World War II. Albert said that Harold was alright though since he put Harold under the stairs during the blitz where it was pitch black. Harold then says, “I’ve never forgiven you for that.” That was such a powerful statement and delivered in such a hurtful way. If you think about it, Harold as a characer was always younger than Harry H. Corbett who played Harold. They were still trying to pass him as a man in his late 20s or possibly early 30s even when the series came to an end. So Harold would have been very, very young. Probably under the age of 5 with these bombs going off around him and his father disappearing for no reason. It would be horrible. Suddenly, I got a lot more insight into Harold Steptoe than I ever did before. Harold is probably a lot more messed up than I ever realised and he had been really hurt by his father. I think I always took the series at face value of a grown man who wanted his own independence but never really thought about the mental turmoil he went through growing up. It is really great to see how many levels this series played at even for its final episode.

Albert has his own problems. Once the birth certificate is found Harold uncovers the truth of his father. His father has no idea who his own father ever was. In fact, Albert had a picture of his mom on the wall in their house. Next to that picture is another picture that Harold always thought was his dad but turned out to be Prime Minister Gladstone.

There is still a lot of discussion about where the two should go for their holiday. Harold brings up Australia and they think about it and decide not to go. No mention is made Harold’s step brother from there. Of course the series has never been great on continuity. How many horses names Hercules did they have over the series? They also think about Denmark until Harold brings up the live sex shows there. According to Harold, the live sex shows are like pantomime is to the UK!

They decide to go to Switzerland. They get everything together and go to the train station to get on a train that will itself get on a boat to bring them over. As they get ready to show their passports, someone did not have the correct passport and is stopped from continuing on to the train. Surprisingly, it’s not Albert but Harold! The two get into an argument and of course although Albert didn’t want to travel any way, he decides that he will go on holiday and leave Harold behind in the UK. Harold lost again. Or did he?

Harold makes his way sadly out of the train station looking back and seeing his father board the train. As Harold lumbers out of the train station, a sporty car pulls up with a sexy lady in the driver’s seat. Harold gets in car and excitedly yells, “He went for it! “ Harold planned it this way the whole time just to get Albert out of his hair so he can spend time with this girl. Guess what? They’re going to Bognor. Guess what else? Harold finally won!

The Radio Times listing. Not much fanfare
for being a new episode of one of their
classic series. 
The feeling of this episode is, to me, like no other. It’s been years since I have seen it. To be honest, I probably haven’t seen this since the late 1990s. It’s a little darker tone that I think gets a little ignored. By this time, the series is pretty much laughs only. Although this is not a departure from this, it certainly has a different feel for me. It certainly feels more in line with the earlier black & white episodes. It’s nice to see that they moved away from some of the more extravagant plotlines of later series. Even the end credits didn’t have the usual cut away to both stars, their names just appeared on screen. There was a sort of finality with this episode though I might be thinking that in hindsight.

There is a longer cut of this episode by about 4 minutes but what has been included on the DVD is the broadcast version. The longer version was originally included on the VHS before that was recalled from stores. This episode fared better than the 1973 Christmas special, A Christmas Party, which had a shorter version of the episode included on this DVD and was not corrected for the boxset. If you want to see the longer version of this episode, check on YouTube. It’s there.

This is the final episode of Steptoe and Son. After 12 years and 8 series the series did not return although Harry H. Corbett and Wilfrid Brambell continued to record the radio versions of the episodes for another 2 years. This is one of my favourite series and I have seen many of these episodes many times. I am happy that I am still finding new things about it. If you haven’t watched it, give it a shot. It’s worth it.

Our friend Richard Latto works for BBC Radio Solent where he is a Producer and Presenter. He sent me a note this week of a filmed interview with Harold H. Corbett probably right before this episode of Steptoe and Son aired. It’s kind of magical and I didn’t want to see it end. It’s a shame that these DVD releases are vanilla with no extras. Something like this is perfect and I have never seen it before. Check it out for yourself here. Thank you Richard for alerting us to this little gem! 

Next week: Just because it is a Christmas episode it doesn’t mean it has to be about Christmas. We look at the Doc Martin feature length episode On the Edge!

Have a great week!

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