Interview with Susannah Corbett: Writing Steptoe and Son's Harry H Corbett's biography
PUBLISHED: 01:52 03 August 2012 | UPDATED: 12:26 11 January 2018
After TV shows branded her father bitter and unfaithful, actress Susannah Corbett - daughter of Steptoe and Son's Harry H Corbett - decided to set the record straight by writing his biography
One of Susannah Corbett’s most abiding memories of her father is the ritual which often accompanied a family viewing of Steptoe and Son, the sitcom which made him a household name.
“As children, my brother and I used to insist on watching it,” she says. “We would leap onto our parents’ bed and the four of us would watch the opening credits. But this was always followed by Dad leaving the room, and us rolling our eyes and joking that he was going to watch it from behind the crack in the door. He never did because he said he’d spend the rest of the night gnashing his teeth.”
On the face of it, this charming anecdote appears to underline one of the most common perceptions about Harry H Corbett – that he was a classical actor frustrated at his inability to break out of his typecasting as Harold. But it’s a myth – a myth first promulgated by theatre director Joan Littlewood in her obituary of Corbett, and compounded by the 2008 BBC4 biopic, The Curse of Steptoe.
In fact, far from disliking Harold, he had great sympathy with the character and enjoyed playing him. It was his perfectionism – and the fact he cared so much about the role – which made him flee from the room.
But the myth persists, like the claim made in the 2002 Channel 4 documentary When Steptoe Met Son that Harry and his co-star Wilfrid Brambell hated each other. Worse still, says Susannah, was the suggestion that her mother, Maureen Blott, was responsible for the break-up of his first marriage to the actress Sheila Steafel.
As the only person who can authoritatively refute these allegations, these falsehoods have weighed heavily on her shoulders. Corbett, after all, rose from the Manchester slums to become one of the country’s best-known television stars, thanks to his role in Steptoe and Son. Some 28 million switched on each week to watch the love and loathing between rag-and-bone men, Albert and his hapless son Harold. And the show, which ran from 1962 until 1974, is widely regarded as the first modern British sitcom.
But there has been an increasing trend to debunk our ‘light ent’ national treasures – Hattie Jacques, Tony Hancock and Frankie Howerd among them – and Susannah, herself an actress who has starred in Peak Practice and Dalziel and Pascoe, has now written a biography of her father to set the record straight.
“I’d been approached before, as had Mum, but we never felt the need,” she says. “Mum, who died in 1999, never spoke about him publicly after his death because she felt the work should speak for itself. But I couldn’t let those programmes be the last word. I understand they have dramatic licence, but they went too far.”
Susannah, 44, who closely resembles her father, is speaking from the delightful cottage in Ashburnham near Battle that she shares with her husband, Dan, an assistant director who she met on the set of Peak Practice, and their two children, Elena, five, and Lily, eight.
Her parents initially bought the cottage as a weekend retreat in 1972, before moving lock, stock and barrel seven years later. She has fond memories of her Sussex childhood and, now that she has children herself, appreciates just how good a parent her father was. “He’d often roll around on the carpet to play with us and he was a brilliant bedtime story teller, who’d have us in hysterics with his jumbled-up words and malapropisms.”
But their comfortable existence was a world away from Corbett’s tough beginnings. He was born in Burma where his father was an Army officer, but after his mother died from dysentery when he was 18 months old he was brought up by an aunt in Manchester. During the Second World War he served with the Royal Marines, and killed two soldiers while fighting hand-to-hand in New Guinea. It’s not surprising perhaps that he joined Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, the left-wing school of method acting, where he was able to draw on his own experiences to bring out his characters.
His big break came in 1961 when Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, the writers of Hancock’s Half Hour, wrote a one-off show called The Offer (about a father and son in the rag-and-bone trade) as part of their BBC Comedy Playhouse series, with Harry in mind for the lead. After reading the script, he wired back: “Delicious, delighted, can’t wait to work on it.” But during rehearsals, Tom Sloan, the BBC Head of Light Entertainment, saw the chemistry between Corbett and his co-star Wilfrid Brambell, and commissioned a further five episodes. Steptoe and Son was born.
“Dad, like Harold, was fairly socialist and thought the character was a marvellous tool to express the lives of the working classes,” says Susannah. “His favourite line was:
‘I didn’t get rickets from over-eating.’ It hit a chord with everyone at the dawn of the Swinging Sixties who had lived through deprivation and the war.”
There was an immediate rapport the moment Corbett and Brambell got together. “People who said they loathed each other are wrong,” says Susannah. “They didn’t adore each other, but they had mutual respect and worked well together. They only got tetchy towards the end of filming when Wilfrid enjoyed one more gin than he should have, and rehearsals had to be cut short.”
Half the nation tuned in to watch the sitcom, and Corbett became a huge star. “Dad opened a fete almost every weekend, and press photographers would scale our garden wall to get a picture of him. But he’d spent most of his life as a jobbing actor, so he didn’t let it go to his head. It’s also hard to be a man of the people if you’re trying to rise above them.”
Besides, Corbett was a shy man, who relished his time away from the spotlight. “He’d even steel himself to make a business call,” smiles Susannah. “He’d square his shoulders, let out a big sigh and then dial the number. Most of us have a phone voice, but he had a phone character. He’d turn into a luvvie and start calling the grown man on the other end of the line ‘darling’. It taught us to see his fame, and the resulting press attention, for what it was.”
His family was the great stabiliser. “Without them, he said he’d be a raving neurotic. Mum was the rock he needed to keep him in the game.” But sadly her parents were cruelly torn apart when Corbett died of a heart attack in 1982 at the age of 57. Susannah, who was just 14, blames his lifelong smoking habit and the fact that every male in his family had died of a coronary in their mid-fifties.
“I’ve never forgotten the tone of Mum’s voice when she woke me up to tell me he was ill,” she says. “While she tried to start the car, Dad got himself dressed, in great pain, and asked me to fetch his shoes. I brought the wrong pair – he wanted the ones with the split for his bunions. And in later life, when I’ve caught myself planning my future,
I remember, amusingly, that the last thing I ever did for Dad was to give him the wrong bleeding shoes!
“Mum was devastated after his death because they’d been totally in love. Dad had been a bit of a hell raiser before they married, but he changed completely. They both got divorces, Mum and Dad married, and then they had my brother and me. It’s not exciting, but it’s the truth. That’s why I took particular exception when the BBC showed Mum turning up at Dad’s door heavily pregnant. The implication was that it was just a fling while he was still with his first wife Sheila, and Mum was trying to trap him. But that simply isn’t true.”
After a three-year battle, Susannah received an apology from the BBC Trust, who promised not to rebroadcast The Curse of Steptoe without the necessary cuts. “They changed the rules on making biopics after my family complained and hopefully the same thing will never happen again,” says Susannah with satisfaction. But in the meantime, it won a Royal Television Society Award, and Jason Isaacs was nominated for a Bafta for his portrayal of Corbett.
One might legitimately argue of course that a daughter can never be wholly objective about a cherished parent, but Susannah, who plans to write more biographies, says she “dug and dug” for things that didn’t show her father in a good light, and the little she found she put in the book.
Nevertheless, researching the book proved to be a real eye-opener. “I loved Dad before, but I have enormous respect for him now,” she says with pride.
Harry H Corbett: The Front Legs of the Cow by Susannah Corbett is published by The History Press at £20.