One of the truly innovative things about the Ray Galton and Alan Simpson writing team was that they took the catchphrase out of radio and television comedy in the 1950s and 60s. By and large, they relied instead on strong characters, believable situations and truthful comedy acting rather than slick gags every 20 seconds.
Watch Wilfred Brambell and Harry H Corbett in any of the reruns of Steptoe and Son - quite rightly hailed as one of the most successful and popular TV sitcoms of all time - and there are whole sequences when no one in the studio audience is required to laugh at all at whatever’s going on between lonely old father Albert and his aspirational, culture-loving son Harold in their grim junk yard somewhere off the Goldhawk Road. As one critic wrote at the time, the series virtually "obliterates the division between drama and comedy".
There was, however, one phrase that always got a huge reaction in every episode. Whenever put-upon Harold turned on his weasly old git of a dad and out of sheer frustration threatened to throttle him: "I'll kill you, I'll kill you," he'd spit - usually through clenched teeth. And in their new stage incarnation of the original odd couple, Galton and his newly recruited writing partner John Antrobus have taken Harold at his word. The Steptoe's sitcom yard and home has been turned over to the National Trust as an important part of the national heritage, complete with fake dust for 'authenticity', and Albert is long dead, having finally been harpooned by Harold when the old boy was fending off the rats in the outside loo.
But, frankly, with a weak sit and not enough com, the first act of Roger Smith's York Theatre Royal production will disappoint all but the most obsessed Steptoe fans. Jake Nightingale easily captures Harold's slightly posh cockney vowels, and Harry Dickman gets manipulative old Albert's pathetic wheedling down to the last leer.
Unfortunately, somewhere between Oil Drum Lane and the West End, Galton and Antrobus seem to have dug up their plot in the last remaining knacker's yard. Harold returns home after years on the run in South America only to be confronted by Albert's ghost, which triggers a rewind of past feuds and family episodes involving, bizarrely, the Hitler Youth and Harold's dismal school days. A much more believable second half picks up on the terrible tie between this odd couple and explains why Harold finally had to use murder to escape from under his scheming father's greasy thumb.
Enjoyable enough in a nostalgic kind of way - and yet, after Harold, Albert and Hercules the horse fly off to the great junk yard in the sky, I came away feeling that these immortal comic characters are best left keeping the angels laughing in TV heaven.
- Roger Foss