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Michael Coveney: Television comedy's strong theatrical roots

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The recent death of Richard Briers and the revival of Steptoe and Son at the Lyric in Hammersmith remind us of a television era when writing and acting in situation comedy was as good as anything in the theatre, and often considerably better.

Indeed, there was often a total correlation between the media. Richard Briers was a light comedian in the tradition of Charles Hawtrey and Gerald du Maurier (Daphne's dad), although he had an Indian summer of Shakespearean roles with Kenneth Branagh, both on stage and on film. And he is best remembered for the long-running BBC series - 30 episodes between 1975 and 1978 - of The Good Life, written by John Esmonde and Bob Larbey, and co-starring Felicity Kendal, Penelope Keith and Paul Eddington.

All four of those fine actors, of course, came from, and continued to work in, the theatre, Briers and Eddington even appearing together in the Gielgud and Richardson roles in Harold Pinter's No Man's Land towards the end of Eddington's life.

The Good Life followed on from Steptoe, written by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, which had also been shown on BBC TV, and which ran from 1962 to 1974 (with a five-year break in the middle), attracting audiences of over 20 million viewers. While Steptoe spoke primarily to a London working class audience which had survived the war, The Good Life caught the suburban, middle class recovery and aspirational mood of a decade awaiting anointment in the arrival of Mrs Thatcher as Prime Minister in 1979.

The Good Life also owed a lot to Alan Ayckbourn's The Norman Conquests (in which both Kendal and Keith had appeared in the London premiere), while you can't easily imagine Steptoe being written without the example of Beckett and Waiting for Godot.

And Harry H Corbett, who played the younger rag-and-bone man, was a leading light in Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop (famous for his performances in Arden of Feversham and Richard II) and a West End star. Corbett died in 1982, aged just 57, and Wilfrid Brambell, who played the irascible, wheedling older Steptoe, three years later in 1985.

The two actors themselves became "characters" and were played in a 2008 television drama, The Curse of Steptoe, by Phil Davis - lately cited by Daniel Day-Lewis as one of his greatest influences, along with Robert De Niro and Marlon Brando - and Jason Isaacs, though the drama's suggestion that the two of them hated each others' guts was hotly contested by family friends as well as Galton and Simpson.
The drama also alleged that Harry H Corbett - he'd had to insert the middle initial in his name so as not to be confused with Harry Corbett, the puppeteer of Sooty and Sweep fame - felt that the success of Steptoe had ruined his theatrical career, while Wilfrid Brambell was unmasked as a heavy-drinking homosexual, once arrested for "cottaging" in a public toilet.

This was a sadly ironic revelation as Corbett's favourite term of insult in the television sitcom was "you dirty old man." And last year, in the wake of the Jimmy Savile enquiries into child abuse, poor old Brambell was posthumously tarred with that brush, too, when his alleged victims came forward on Jersey.

The Lyric Hammersmith was packed last night for Emma Rice's Kneehigh production, which only quotes Ron Grainer's catchy signature tune right at the end. Some may miss the grating edge and sheer nastinesss of the television portrayals, but I reckon most of us will settle for a kinder, softer view of the characters, if only to assuage the troubled ghosts of the actors who first played them. Indeed, it's as though Mike Shephered and Dean Nolan, both superb, have created two entirely new Steptoes altogether. And I'm not all that sure I prefer them.


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