At long last, the tale of Steptoe and daughter

Susannah Corbett has written a revealing biography of her father

For those who only ever saw him as Harold Steptoe, the rag-and-bone man trapped in a stifling relationship with his "dirty old man" of a father, Albert (Wilfrid Brambell), it might seem unlikely that Harry H Corbett was once a highly regarded "method" actor described as "a British Marlon Brando".

As part of the legendary Joan Littlewood's troupe, and in various other plays and British films of the 1950s, Corbett – who died in 1982 at 57 – seemed destined join Richard Harris and Stanley Baker as one of the new breed of working-class leading men.

"He was well known and respected within the industry", says his daughter Susannah Corbett, an actress herself as well as a children's author – and now her father's biographer. Amazingly, Harry H Corbett: The Front Legs of the Cow (the title refers to Corbett's first starring role) is the first biography of an actor whose tragi-comic " 'Arold" – the original 40-year-old virgin, and dubbed "the working-class Hamlet" – once drew a weekly audience of 28 million viewers.

"I've been approached before and they approached Mum but we never felt the need", says Corbett, whose mother, Maureen, died in 1999. "She never spoke about him publicly after his death... because she always said that the work should speak for itself".

What changed her attitude were two programmes: a Channel 4 documentary, When Steptoe Met Son, which claimed that Corbett and a booze-sodden Wilfrid Brambell hated each other; and a BBC4 biopic, The Curse of Steptoe, that suggested that Corbett was angst-ridden by his typecasting as Harold. Worse, says Susannah Corbett, was the assertion that her mother was responsible for the break-up of Corbett's first marriage.

"You can say what you like about his career", she says, "but I took exception to the portrayals of his personal life. I didn't particularly feel it was a balanced view of their life and nor did an awful lot of the people I spoke to when I started interviewing them for my book".

Corbett complained, finally receiving an apology from the BBC Trust, and the promise not to re-broadcast it without the necessary cuts, and to withdraw the DVD from sale. But in the meantime, Curse of Steptoe won a Royal Television Society Award, and Jason Isaacs was nominated for a Bafta for his portrayal of Corbett.

"They changed the rules on making biopics after we complained. It took three years but they apologised. But I don't want that to be the only word on him."

Her book follows Harry H Corbett (the 'H' was added to differentiate him from the children's entertainer and Sooty manipulator of the same name) from the slums of Manchester, through wartime action with the Royal Marines – including hand-to-hand combat in the jungle and witnessing the devastation at Hiroshima – to becoming a leading light in Littlewood's Theatre Workshop. And it was Littlewood's obituary of her father that Corbett believes created the myth that he felt trapped by the role of Harold Steptoe. "So many of my old company", wrote Littlewood, "so many beautiful clowns type-cast in their dull brothel, the endless repetition of the act, the spurious success which kills".

" 'Dull brothel'... wasn't that great?", laughs Corbett, who remembers the playful family man and brilliant bedtime storyteller who died when she was just 14. "Part of me thinks my parents would be rolling in their graves at the thought of my book", she says, "another part thinks it was the right thing to do – these are my parents and I loved them and a lot of people will understand that I shouldn't let that lie".

'Harry H Corbett: the Front Legs of the Cow' is published by The History Press

Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
    Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

    Marian Keyes

    The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

    Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

    Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
    Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

    Rodgers fights for his reputation

    Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick