First and Last: How Steptoe and Son Walked the Walk of Class-based Comedy

Tristan Ettleman
11 min readFeb 5, 2024

This is First and Last, an essay series examining my favorite TV show debuting each year through its first and last episodes. The tenth installment features STEPTOE AND SON, created by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson. The show ran for eight seasons from 1962 to 1974 across 57 episodes, the first being “The Offer” and the last “A Perfect Christmas.”

I admit a bias against British television, especially of the “retro” kind, even as I enjoy our Americana nostalgia of 1950s and ’60s sitcoms. A remarkable exception, one that I thankfully spent the time to search out from this side of the pond, is STEPTOE AND SON. The basis of a number of international adaptations, including the much-more-familiar-to-me SANFORD AND SON (1972–1977), the working class comedy following a father-and-son rag-and-bone man (junk dealer) operation may actually yield more laughs from me than warmer American sitcoms of the same era. STEPTOE AND SON’s somewhat grim comedy, which is lightened at times by sympathetic portrayals of its dysfunctional duo, was consistent during its run from the premiere “The Offer” to the finale “A Perfect Christmas.”

Part of why the series could remain so consistent was its relative production restraint. American sitcoms of the day often produced at least 30 episodes a season. At most, STEPTOE AND SON did eight for two of its eight seasons. And those eight seasons were spread over a long hiatus; it ran annually from 1962 to 1965 and again from 1970 to 1974. In the midst of that second run, the show even hit a level of popularity that allowed for two feature films with the series’ stars, STEPTOE AND SON (1972) and STEPTOE AND SON RIDE AGAIN (1973).

That duo was Wilfrid Brambell as father Albert Steptoe and Harry H. Corbett as son Harold Steptoe. They really are the center of STEPTOE AND SON because most of its episodes proceed like a limited stage play, focusing almost purely on the dialogue and interaction between the constantly bickering father and son in one location. The films moved beyond that, and as the show went on, especially in the ’70s seasons, other characters and settings beyond the “company” yard and its adjacent residence expanded the world. But the inconsistency of personal and familial backstories, illustrated perfectly by the premiere and finale, make clear that STEPTOE AND SON was about using such things only in service of the comedy between Albert and Harold.

Both Brambell and Corbett dove into accents and upbringings different than their own in portraying their overtly poor (not just working class) residents of Shepherd’s Bush, London. Brambell was an Irish actor playing quite a bit older than he was, as he was only 13 years older than Corbett (and indeed outlived him by three years, although Corbett died much too early). His next most notable role was as Paul McCartney’s grandfather in A HARD DAY’S NIGHT (1964), following the sudden popularity of STEPTOE AND SON. Both Brambell and Corbett were not essentially comic actors, but the latter especially spoke on the nature of typecasting during and after the STEPTOE years. Corbett would indeed become best known for his comic persona on television, but would also appear (admittedly in a comic role) in Terry Gilliam’s film JABBERWOCKY (1977), among other cinematic productions. For my money, Corbett is the true gem of STEPTOE AND SON, providing an ever more franticly frustrated man full of unactionable ambition, although Brambell’s “dirty old man” character is also full of its own laughs and complexities.

STEPTOE AND SON was created by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, who wrote every script of the show during its entire life. Its premiere, “The Offer,” was produced as a one-off installment of the anthology series COMEDY PLAYHOUSE (1961–1975), which gave birth to other fabled shows like TILL DEATH DO US PART (1965–1975), and was later aired as the first official episode of the show. Unlike many other British shows, and especially BBC productions, of the time, every STEPTOE AND SON episode survives and none were totally wiped out in the process of clearing tapes for new broadcasts (but only thanks to transfers to film). But “The Offer” does admittedly survive in rough condition, although its low resolution doesn’t eliminate the quality of the show’s debut.

Unlike the filmed American sitcoms of the day, STEPTOE AND SON was initially captured on video tape, and that contributes to its more stagey and “live” feel even beyond its limited scope of characters and settings. “The Offer” gives a glimpse of a world outside the junkyard as Harold approaches its gates on a horse-drawn cart, but once inside, the premiere stays squarely in the yard and the Steptoes’ living room. As the show went on, the layout of their property and the surrounding area was mapped out even as it shifted in puzzling ways, although admittedly that mostly came through in the much more visually different feature films. Regardless, I love the look of their cluttered and maximalist living room, full of junk that isn’t so junky that I wouldn’t allow it in my own home.

The plot of “The Offer” can be easily summed up by saying Albert and Harold argue about the latter’s inability to get good items and treat the horse well and the former’s inability to let things go to actually sell and stop faking heart attacks and other ailments to get his way. But the titular concern is Harold’s perhaps mythical threat that he could walk away from the family concern, apparently founded by Albert’s own father (more on that in a moment), to work elsewhere. This blows up by the end of the episode into a whole fantasy about becoming a wealthy entrepreneur who golfs and has a chauffeur when Harold packs up the cart to leave for the first of many times across STEPTOE AND SON’s run. Albert refuses the use of the horse and Harold goes to push the cart himself. Of course he can’t, and in a beautiful display of comic and tragic physical acting, Corbett communicates humor and hopelessness until Albert comforts him and brings him inside for some tea. The whole of “The Offer” establishes the toxic back-and-forth of the father and son with both humor and heart.

Throughout STEPTOE AND SON, Harold is shown to be a not-so-driven dreamer, or at least a dreamer who has a lot of daddy issues/genuine sympathy. His father being a widower, the son has some obligation to help out emotionally and physically. But Albert is obviously shown to be a conniving manipulator, even as Harold tears mercilessly into his dad about his conservative views and lack of taste. Albert is a Tory and Harold is Labour, and besides that, the latter fancies himself a sophisticated member of his lower class, striving to rise above his station. Rather than laugh at Harold’s delusions, STEPTOE AND SON sympathizes with him and exemplifies England’s rigid class structure, especially when the characters come into contact with the upper crust, even as it definitely cements the son’s inaction as a kind of obligation to his father and fear of change.

It’s not happenstance that Corbett is the more compelling actor to me because Harold is written as the more complex individual. But there are glimpses of Albert’s depth throughout STEPTOE AND SON as well, such as his understated protection of his son through skilled displays of gambling and intimidation. Part of that depth, in a more superficial way, is the history of Albert’s family, which changed throughout the series. That even applied to Harold’s own age.

Much of this inconsistency is revealed in “A Perfect Christmas,” STEPTOE AND SON’s finale. While most of the regular episodes, barring some earlier Christmas specials, ran a full 30 minutes, the uncut finale runs 47 minutes (and 42 in the original broadcast). Starting with the 1970 return, the series was also produced in color, although only beginning with two episodes of the sixth season does that manifest for modern viewers. In any event, “A Perfect Christmas” indeed survives in color today, and besides that, the improved video technology and higher resolution in its surviving status makes it a much more visually appealing episode than “The Offer.” Twelve years after STEPTOE AND SON’s debut, the actors’ advancing age does show, but I like Harold’s more “hip” look with the longer hair and sideburns. And it reflects the slight adjustments to the characters’ backstories.

During the ’60s run, it was mentioned a number of times that Harold fought at the tail end of World War II, setting his birth year somewhere in the mid-1920s. But in “A Perfect Christmas,” it is said that he had to hide under the stairs during The Blitz as a child, setting his birth early in the 1930s. This shows STEPTOE AND SON’s attempts to keep its father-and-son dynamic consistent, even in temporal qualities more than a decade on from the show’s inception by adjusting Harold’s age. “A Perfect Christmas” also reveals, after years of twists and turns about a hidden sibling and various paternal and maternal aunts and uncles, that Albert’s father was actually unknown and his mother bought the property where Steptoe and Son now stands. It also explains that Albert never had to lie about his age to fight in World War I, as had been said many times before, because he was actually born in 1899. The explanation of these canonical developments is not about how an understanding of the show’s timeline is necessary to appreciate it, but that STEPTOE AND SON indeed made a big point of explaining family histories and changed those histories to fit each story’s needs and keep its characters’ ages consistent across a long run.

By the end of its run and especially through the ’70s series, STEPTOE AND SON also exhibited British television’s ability to be a little more risque than America’s. The show had always had its share of innuendo, cultural references, and working class slang, much of which was hard to parse for this American many decades on, but overt references to porn, sex, and race were much more prevalent in the last few seasons of the series. That is at least one factor at play in my estimation that STEPTOE AND SON got even better as it went on, as opposed to the typical sitcom formula of petering out…again, helped by its relatively few number of episodes.

“A Perfect Christmas” actually isn’t one of the best late era episodes, but its final moment is a near-perfect summation of the themes of the show, especially compared to the finales I’ve been writing about for this series. Forty minutes of its 47 minute runtime up until the concluding set piece takes place entirely in the Steptoe living room, not even with the quintessential yard. Harold is cynical about Albert’s annual decorations and wants to get away for Christmas (a premise that had been done before). Through a lengthy and humorous process of elimination, the boys settle on a Switzerland vacation. They go through the various things hidden under the stairs, leading to the aforementioned familial reveals, and head off to the ferry station for the final minutes. What this summary so far does not explain is that Corbett’s performance borders on the manic, especially compared to the relative restraint of “The Offer.” I actually appreciate, both within the universe and in the actor’s own ongoing development of the performance, Harold’s increasingly over-the-top behavior in the ’70s run, but there are a few grating moments coming from him in “A Perfect Christmas.”

What’s not missing from the finale is Corbett’s ability to blend schtick with pathos. Harold and Albert get to the customs checkpoint at the ferry and the old man gets through fine. But Harold is kept back because his passport is expired. Albert has resolved himself to enjoy a vacation so he goes on without his son. In a brilliantly protracted bit of Charlie Brown-esque disappointment, Harold walks away in one of the show’s more cinematic moments…until it is revealed that a red sportscar and a beautiful woman are waiting for him and that Harold orchestrated the whole affair. It’s a wonderful misdirect, especially considering Harold has never been successful in such a way for the entirety of STEPTOE AND SON’s run. And it brings things full circle from Harold’s desire to break free in “The Offer,” even if this is only implied for a vacation rather than a full occupational change.

I couldn’t help but feel a bit sorry for both Harold and Albert as the former speeds away with his heretofore unseen girlfriend in the closing shot of the whole series, as their toxicity leads one to yearn leaving and the other to grasp on for dear life. Ultimately, though, the ending of “A Perfect Christmas” implies a change to the dynamic that had seen some hope multiple times throughout the series but had never taken hold…especially in the context of a new love for both men, which came up a number of times throughout STEPTOE AND SON.

I was impressed by how often STEPTOE AND SON made me laugh. There are American shows I might consider “better” from its time that don’t actually produce audible reactions at the same frequency as this grungy British sitcom. And I found a thread of consistent emotion that spaced out the laughs (including the audience’s coughs you could hear from time to time, even in the finale) to foment a feeling of sympathy and understanding of the father and son toiling in obscurity, even as the latter dreams of more. “The Offer” illustrated the futility of class movement in England, a cynical position and/or reading to be sure, but the ending of “A Perfect Christmas” also depicts the satisfaction of a yearning for freedom. In these episodes and in between, STEPTOE AND SON made a sociological impact even as it based itself so squarely in constant, clever streams of dialogue between two well-defined comic characters and actors in limited settings, making it a tight comedy with an appealing rhythm even today.