Ray Galton: The creator of Steptoe and Son reveals why they're back

As a new play reveals what happened next to TV's best-loved rag-and-bone men, its writer, Ray Galton, tells Lynne Walker why Albert and Harold Steptoe are returning
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The Independent Culture

When Steptoe and Son finally bowed out in 1974, after 55 television episodes and two Christmas specials, the original concept of Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, among Britain's most successful comedy writing partnerships, had come a long way. The father-and-son firm of totters was first featured in 1962 on the BBC's "Comedy Playhouse" in a one-off show called The Offer. Its potential was quickly spotted and, under the name Steptoe and Son it became - thanks to the peerless performances of the late Wilfrid Brambell and Harry H Corbett - one of comedy's greatest hits.

Now, after an absence of 30 years, the characters are about to be reborn on stage in Murder at Oil Drum Lane with new dialogue by Galton, partnered this time by the playwright John Antrobus. Here again are the leering, mittened "dirty old man" Albert and his son, Harold, whose dream of being sophisticated in the swinging Sixties was constantly shattered by his cunning, dependent dad. Had the pair been niggling away at each other in Galton's head since the 1970s?

"No, but from time to time I would wonder what they'd be doing now that we weren't writing the programme," confesses Galton. "Lying in bed with their boots on, perhaps, wondering what to do with themselves? "I always thought Harry would have killed the old man by now, so when John Antrobus approached me about putting Steptoe and Son into a theatre the only way I could really conceive of doing it was by having Harold doing away with Albert."

"So as the curtain goes up on Murder at Oil Drum Lane Harold's been found guilty of murder and sentenced. But he's managed to escape en route to Broadmoor and made his way to South America. When he eventually returns to London and to Shepherd's Bush he finds that their old home in Oil Drum Lane has been bought and maintained in its decrepit state by the National Trust. It's dusk and the curators are preparing to pack up but they kindly allow this stranger a quick look round. Harry conspires to get himself locked in overnight, and so encounters the ghost of his father."

The National Trust? It's an unlikely scenario and three decades on it's anyone's guess how the very particular dynamics between these two antagonistic characters will work on stage. They survived the transformation from black- and-white television to colour, though. "We worried that the colour would take away the dirt and the grime, but it didn't," says Galton.

What about the challenge faced by Jake Nightingale as Harold and Harry Dickman as Albert at York Theatre Royal as they attempt to fill the doubtlessly smelly boots formerly occupied by Corbett and Brambell in the roles? Galton is quick to point out that the creators of the parts weren't Cockney: Brambell was from Dublin, Corbett was a Mancunian. "There's absolutely no need for Jake or Harry to impersonate the original cast," says Galton. "Once they're in the clothes, they're Cockney rag-and bone men, and a son trying to escape the ghostly clutches of his wily old man."

With viewing figures of well over 20 million, Steptoe and Son established itself in the nation's heart and consciousness. There was a radio version, and two feature films - Steptoe and Son and Steptoe and Son Ride Again. A transatlantic spin-off, Sanford and Son, with a multiracial cast, was set in Los Angeles with the American producers casting the comedian Redd Fo in the role of Albert.

According to Galton, the use of a well-known comedian in the American version changed the relationship between the two characters into that of star and stooge, something Galton and Simpson had successfully resisted. "We had always insisted on working with actors because they do what they're told. You can make actors play the character exactly as you want him, expressing opinions on politics, religion, all aspects of society. No comedian would do that for fear of alienating their following. Actors brush off criticism by attributing offending mannerisms or material to the role. Besides, comedians argue about the laughs."

In 1966 Harold Wilson asked the BBC to delay the transmission of a repeat episode of Steptoe on election day until after the polls closed, he was so concerned that Labour Party supporters would be distracted from voting. Galton thinks that it was the mixture of drama and comedy, the balancing act between laughter and tears that made it so appealing.

He's too modest to point out that in his and Simpson's brilliantly perceptive scripts the pleasure has much to do with dark undercurrents. Tension between the manipulative dad and the son whose ambitions he so callously thwarts gave an unexpected complexity to their claustrophobic existence. It was a direction in which future TV sitcoms such as One Foot in the Grave would travel, but Galton and Simpson were there first. Galton remembers Corbett weeping from bitter resentment and frustration at the end of one episode, taking humour into tragi-comedy.

Hasn't humour moved on in 30 years? "What you can say today is different," agrees Galton. "Taboo subjects like sex or words like 'shagging' used to be greeted with gasps. Now that sort of thing is scarcely noticed. Jokes haven't changed much, though."

Does he have a favourite comic situation from the original series? "It would be the whole episode The Desperate Hours, based on the Edward March/Humphrey Bogart film. Leonard Rossiter and JG Devlin joined Harry and Wilfrid to play escapees from Wormwood Scrubs. They can't believe their bad luck in choosing Oil Drum Lane in which to hole themselves up. There's no food, no heating, no cash and no getaway car, which leads the convicts to conclude that they were better off 'inside'. They all brought out the best in each other. Harry had become a bit mannered, but, faced with Leonard, he had to pull out all the stops and it was riveting stuff."

So is Murder at Oil Drum Lane now the end for Albert and Harold? "It's a new chapter and I suppose it's the final one," says Galton a touch ruefully. "I can't see anything else that could be done with Steptoe and Son except another play. I don't envisage that but I would never rule it out."

Premiere of 'Steptoe and Son - Murder at Oil Drum Lane', York Theatre Royal (01904 623568) Monday to 12 November