The Very Best Of Steptoe and Son Vol 1 Review
Following their success with Tony Hancock, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson went on to create two of the greatest comic characters to ever emerge from BBC television. The consistently good writing, at least for the first eight series, and the superb acting of Harry H.Corbett as Harold and Wilfred Brambell as Albert resulted in something really special. At its best, the series rose above sit-com and entered the territory of genuine art. It also broke down barriers, resulting in the ground-breaking likes of "Till Death Us Do Part". Like Hancock, Albert and Harold Steptoe are trapped by circumstance and forever dreaming of better things; the past, in Albert's case, and a glorious future without his father for Harold. The series ran from 1962 to 1974 with only a slight decline in quality, and this new BBC DVD release contains five representative episodes.
Men Of Letters
Beginning with an epic bout of Scrabble, in which Albert triumphs through his impressive knowledge of obscenities, this is one of the best episodes, consisting of a clear three-act structure. The Vicar's request for articles for the centenary edition of the Parish Magazine inspires Harold to dreams of a great journalistic career. His hopes are dashed when his father's contribution leads to the vicarage being raided by the Obscene Publications Squad. Excellent writing is the key to the success of this episode, with Harold rising to heights of derision when challenging his father's use of the word "bum" in Scrabble. Nice to see Anthony Sharp as the Vicar - trivia fans might be interested to know that this was the job he did immediately after playing the Minister in A Clockwork Orange.
A Star Is Born
Another good example of Galton and Simpson's versatility in that this is one of the rare ensemble pieces in this series. Harold joins an amateur dramatic group, run by a pre-Mr Lucas Trevor Bannister, and gets the lead part in an exciting drama about the North West Frontier called "Guilt - the White Man's Burden". Albert's attitude is all too predictable - "Actors ? They're all poofs" - until his own star potential is spotted by the producer. This is all familiar stuff but it is sharply written and manages to find one or two nice twists on the whole putting-on-a-show theme. Wilfred Brambell is wonderful here too, especially when he comes out with a note-perfect Sandhurst accent.
Oh What A Beautiful Mourning
Probably the funniest episode on the disc, this has a great ensemble cast including George A.Cooper, Mollie Sugden, Tommy Godfrey and Rita Webb. Corbett and Brambell are on their very best form too and relish the opportunity to conspire against Albert's horrendous family members at the funeral of his brother George. The byplay between the characters is delightful here - I particularly enjoyed Tommy Godfrey's surreal drunken asides - and Albert is given one of the best one-liners in the entire series. The little flourish at the end is delightful as well. Along with "Men Of Letters", this episode demonstrates all the strengths of the series.
The Desperate Hours
A nice example of the more subtle aspects of Galton and Simpson's writing, this features Albert and Harold at their most poverty-stricken. Suffering in a hard winter with serio-comic despair, they find their house invaded by two escaped convicts from Wormwood Scrubs. The relationship between the convicts, young Johnny (Leonard Rossiter) and ageing Frankie (J.G.Devlin) mirrors that of Albert and Harold and the implication that the two rag and bone men are in as much of a prison as the convicts adds a delicate poignancy to what is already a very strong script. Not the funniest episode on the disc, but probably the most touching.
Back In Fashion
Unquestionably the worst episode on the disc and not even a good representation of the generally mediocre last series. The daft plot involves the rag and bone yard being used as a location for a fashion shoot and is an excuse for some weak peeping-tom jokes. The references to "nig-nogs" and "poofters" seem to date it as well because there is no real point being made; they're simply used to get a cheap laugh. The slapstick is badly timed as well and the two leads seem bored with the whole thing (understandably given they'd been doing it off and on since 1962). The only real reason to watch the episode is the appearance of the delightful Madeline Smith.
Four out of five isn't a bad hit rate for this sort of compilation, although I was a bit frustrated at the inclusion of the weak "Back In Fashion" over the likes of "Divided We Stand" or "Live Now PAYE Later". It would also have been nice to have at least one of the original black and white episodes, some of which still exist despite the wholesale carving up of the BBC archives which occurred in the seventies; perhaps the most unforgivably short-sighted example of cultural vandalism in recent British history.
Not much to say about this DVD release in terms of picture and sound. Nor are there many extras to get excited about. Complacent competence is the phrase that springs to mind.
The picture quality is surprisingly good for video material which is now almost 30 years old. Good, strong colours, a good level of detail and pleasing contrast all result in a much better image than I had expected. There is some grain but not too much and the only real problem is a slightly unpleasant shimmering in places, particularly during the credits. Overall, a considerable improvement on the muddy transfer used for the original video release.
The soundtrack is, as you would expect, the original mono track heard on the original broadcast. Nothing wrong with this - it's clear and pleasant to listen to without presenting any real challenges to even the most basic sound set-up.
The main extra is a twenty minute interview with Galton and Simpson. This is pretty interesting although all the material will be familiar to anyone who has read about the show in any depth. Alan Simpson does most of the talking as he does in the Hancock interview. Ray Galton appears to be unwell in some way, although I don't know what's wrong with him - I'd be interested to know more details if anyone can supply them. We also get brief but interesting profiles of the two stars.
There are four chapters to each episode and the menus are backed by the theme music.
This is a good package overall, although the inclusion of "Back In Fashion" is disappointing in what is supposed to be a "Very Best" collection.