Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Steptoe and Son

1970 - An antiques' dealer named Timothy takes a special interest in Harold. Steptoe Snr attempts to warn him that it's not his mind Timothy's interested in, but Harold refuses to listen...

I don't think there's anything here that would interest me... What a fine looking boy!
He fancies you, Harold. He's a poof, I'm telling you! Everyone's a poof to you, ain't they? ... You've got poofmania!
Don't go on the bus looking like that, Harold. The skinheads'll have you! Is it me, or is it warm in here?
It's still awfully hot, feel my hand. Why don't you take off your scarf and relax? Hello, Edgar. You're home early.
Get out! Your bags are packed, you're no son of mine. You stayed out all last night, you ought to be ashamed of yourself! You think I spent the night around... How dare you!! How could you think a thing like that, what an evil little mind you must have! How could you think that of your own son!?

Steptoe and Son was a massively popular BBC sitcom which ran from 1962 to 1965, then again between 1970 and 1974. It was so popular, especially with working class viewers, that the decision to push back an episode until after the polls had closed is widely credited to have swayed the 1964 general election! The show followed the lives of two rag-and-bone men, Harold Steptoe (Harry H. Corbett) who dreamed of a better life, and his father, Albert Steptoe (Wilfrid Brambell), who was determined to keep him in his place - dreams, in Albert’s view, only lead to disappointment.

These clips are from S5:E3 ‘Any Old Iron?’ which originally aired 8th March 1970. (Probably the 8pm time slot, but don’t quote me on it!) Timothy - ‘Timmy’ as he insists Harold call him - is an antiques dealer who drops by the scrapyard on the off chance of discovering a hidden gem. Immediately captivated by Harold, he keeps returning, gifting him a pair of Venetian buttons he has had set as cufflinks and offering financial assistance so Harold can set up his own antiques business. Harold refuses to believe Timothy’s interest in him might be anything but platonic, much to Albert’s distress, at least until a candlelit dinner at Timothy’s flat ends with the older man trying to feel him up on the sofa.

Things go from bad to worse when Harold attempts to leave and opens the door to find a uniformed police officer standing on the other side of it. Harold panics, gives a false name, and flees to the house of sometime squeeze Dolly Miller to reaffirm his heterosexuality. Meanwhile, we learn that Timothy hasn’t been entirely honest himself - the policeman is actually his partner, home from work early! The next morning Albert has packed Harold’s bags and plans to disown him, at least until he realises Harold spent the night with a woman, not Timothy. Harold does not react well…

Hardly the most sensitive treatment in the world this - the predatory older gay trope is played up to the max, with Albert even suggesting he’ll have Timothy reported for corrupting a minor. (To which Harold plaintively responds: ‘Dad, I’m 39!’) Still, when you consider homosexuality had only been legalised three years earlier - on the grounds that, in the words of the Home Secretary, ‘those who suffer from this disability [already] carry a great weight of shame all their lives’ - it’s somewhat impressive that a very popular show like Steptoe even got away with committing a whole episode to the theme.

It didn’t seem to attract any particular comment either, at least not based on a cursory google / newspaper search. It did prove controversial when it was repeated for the first time in the 1990s, simply because acceptable attitudes and language had moved on such a great deal. (The clip quality is so poor because this was one of the episodes wiped by the BBC, as was their standard policy back in the 1970s, and later salvaged from a home recording.) Brambell himself was gay, of course, and after his lavender marriage broke down was even arrested for cottaging in 1962, though it did little to dent his popularity.

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TV and Film History

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