Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Harold Steptoe - The life of Harry H Corbett

The actor Harry H Corbett is instantly recognisable to many people as Harold Steptoe - I imagine that more people will recognise Harold Steptoe than will be able to name the actor who played the role.

Strangely, there hasn't been a biography of Harry H Corbett till now.  The attitude of Harry and his wife and family was to let his work speak for itself  -
Sadly this biography was rather prompted by a couple of docu-dramas which were very misleading. When Steptoe met son on Channel 4 and The Curse of Steptoe on the BBC.
The care taken by BBC is easily illustrated. They had the actor playing Harry H Corbett wear brown contact lenses - to hide his blue eyes. Harry had blue eyes - as any colour photo or colour episode would have shown !

One of the authors of the docu-drama discovered the 'shocking' fact that when Corbett and Brambell toured Australia they travelled in separate cars and had separate dressing rooms. This is given as evidence that they hated each other, rather than the more obvious conclusion that Harry travelled with his family and that as stars they would expect their own dressing rooms.

Despite entirely justified complaints that the programme was unfair and inaccurate, it took the BBC years to concede the obvious and grudgingly accept they were wrong.  Does it matter if these things are wrong ?  Even today Harry's co-star Wilfrid Brambell name is often given as Wilfred Bramble !   If Harold wins the Battle of Hastings - is that artistic license ?
Is Mel Gibson's Film Braveheart a film or a history lesson?

So Harry's daughter, the actress and author Susannah Corbett has written the book (The Front legs of the cow, ISBN 978-0-7524-7682-7 the History Press) 

It is an excellent book, well written and researched and comprehensive. May favourite discovery was that the film The Bargee - was originally given an X certificate :-O  by after cuts was releases as a U.  That such drastic editing was made makes me yearn for a directors cut, to see the original concept of the film.
The appeal of Steptoe and Son was enormous,  viewing figures of 27 million ! That puts it  up there with the Olympics opening ceremony, Royal weddings, etc

Was Harry H Corbett  trapped by the curse of Steptoe ?

There is a debate about actors and actresses and the 'dangers' of type casting and being for every associated with one role.  

I think the dangers are overplayed  - most actors wish to earn a living- they have lifestyles and usually families to support. To be cast as a major part in a long running series is usually seen as a godsend.

The evidence of Harry being 'cursed' by Steptoe is rather thin.  As he himself pointed out - "I had appeared a hundred times on TV in the six years before Harold Steptoe came into my life. And I can't count the number of parts I have played in the theatre."

He appeared in at least 32 films, and actually the money he earned from Steptoe and Son allowed him to have more choice about what other acting he did.

Harry wasn't the stereotype clown  that wanted to play Shakespeare - he was an actor, not a comic and he did play Shakespeare.  

I fear the reality is that it is the public as much as casting directors who type-cast actors.  In the USA, the film system was basically run on actors playing to type.  

Few actors are lucky enough to make a massive impression in more than one TV role.  David Jason - as Derrick Trotter, Granville, Pa Larkin and Jack Frost did it. 

Harry wasn't stopped from having a glittering film career by Steptoe but by the state of the British Film  Industry in the 1960's and especially 1970's.

However brilliant Harry was on stage - and everyone agrees he was brilliant - a few hundred or several thousand people could see each performance - minuscule compared to the number who saw him on TV.

I think the worse things about the 'curse of Steptoe' theory is that it rather belittles the towering achievement that Steptoe was.    For some people who work in Theatre or on Film, TV, especially in the 1960s and 1970s was seen as inferior. To me - it is neither better or worse, just different.   Steptoe was hugely influential on almost all the comedy and many drama shows that followed.  It is a fantastic legacy that can still be enjoyed today.

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