186. Steptoe and Son (GB 1971)

Harold Steptoe falls in love with a stripper.

Starring: Harry H Corbett, Wilfred Brambell, Carolyn Seymour

Directed by: Cliff Owen

Bit parts:  Victor Maddern (as 'The Chauffeur'); Mike Reid (as 'The Comic')

FACT: Harold calls the rugby players (who are pawing at his stripping wife) "wankers". Is the first use of this word in cinema naughty language history?

A strange film, but still one of the better tv spin offs. Galton and Simpson eschew the usual stream of gags and concentrate almost solely on the debilitating effects of Albert Steptoe's dependency on his son.

Harold attends a football club do (with father in tow) and meets stripper Zita (the goddess-like Carolyn Seymour) in the grubby, deserted bar whilst the other men are listening to Mike Reid's comic turn.

In a rapid turn of events: Zita gives Harold her number; they get married; go on honeymoon (with Albert in tow again); Albert gets sick and has to go home with Harold; Zita runs off with a rep; Harold meets her again in London; loses her again; finds a baby in the stable; finds his missus stripping again and gets battered up by rugby players and then realises that his relationship with Zita is finally over when he discovers her mixed race baby.

There are some vulgar gags/set ups in the film. Albert is seen bathing in the kitchen sink and pouring Vim on his bollocks and Steptoe and son turn up at the big wedding smelling of shite after Harold's wedding ring is catpulted into a pile of manure in the yard. However, the writers seem more concerned with Harold's tragic fate than anything else. When I first saw this (in one of the two ABCs in Lime Street) I thought it the most miserable film I'd ever seen and was only topped by seeing Liv Ullman's Swedish suicide fest 'Faithless' a few years ago.

Harold's cuckolding, his father's pleas to be taken home rather than dying alone, the loss of the mysterious baby and Harold's debagging and beating (he ends up covered in blood) are not really the traditional staples of the tv comedy spin off. Generally, anything can be comic, but if the tone of a film is telling you otherwise, you know that the writers/director are not asking you to look at these things ironically.

 I remember thinking (as a boy) that Zeta was 'a big slag' for her behaviour, but an adult viewing suggests that the Steptoes are (obviously) at fault for all that goes wrong. Mind you it's probably the casting of Seymour that leads to such a subjective interpretation and it would have been a different story if 'Babs' Winsor had been cast as the stripper:

 

The final cop out of the film is the cutting from Harold's despair at his situation ('his' son is taken away, his wife has deserted him, he is kecks-less and blood soaked and he is totally bewildered by he the revelation of the colour of Zeta's baby - a highly dubious 'gag' that requires a serious Marxist interpretation) to a shot of the Steptoes flicking the v's at the Royal limousine. The suggestion is an 'oh well, mustn't grumble' one and strikes an incongruous note after all that has transpired.

Still, I don't think they could have finished in any other way. Somehow, I don't think the producers were aiming for an art school crowd.

Best bit? Harold drags the pregnant Zita home to Oil Drum Lane in an attempt at a fresh start. Steptoe senior's nasty comments lead Zita to leave, but not before she points out the reality of the Steptoes' parasite/host relationship. It's a great piece of drama mixed with deliberate bouts of pathos and bathos.

'187' will look at BBC's 1970s eco-drama 'Survivors' as part of the 'I'm fed up with Carol Kane/I'm getting a Carolyn Seymour tattoo on my arse' series.

7/10