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
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