Tony Grist (poliphilo) wrote,
Tony Grist

The Curse Of Steptoe

Rufus Isaacs is a good actor. Harry H. Corbett was a great one. First they showed us Isaacs impersonating Corbett in a TV biopic which characterised him as a wanker and a loser- and then- as an appendix-  gave us the first ever half-hour of Steptoe and Son. The difference was immediately apparent. Corbett is extraordinary as Harold Steptoe. It's a tremendous, bravura performance.  No wonder the public couldn't get enough of him.

It's become a genre- this skewering of comic heroes of the past in reductive TV films.  We've had Sellers, Williams, Cook- and over the next three weeks they're going to give us Hancock, Howerd and- erm- Hughie Greene. I freely admit my complicity. I'm almost watering at the mouth to see what David Walliams makes of Frankie Howerd. And at the same time I wish they'd stop. It's a mean-spirited genre. These people made us laugh. So now lets cut them open and see if we can locate the funny bone.

Michael Sheen got a lot of praise for impersonating Kenneth Williams. I thought he was dreadful. Mainly because he wasn't funny. He gave us the mannerisms and the adenoids and they added up to the sort of grotesque you'd cross the street to avoid. Williams, like all great comedians, made a connection with his audience; he drew them in. Sheen couldn't begin to suggest that connection. Isaacs as Corbett was less embarassing but it was still a fairly dull impersonation- a shell. Whatever it is that makes a comedian great, it isn't anything to do with technique. You can copy a performance tic for tic but still not hit on what makes it work.

Almost the first thing you notice about Corbett is the eyes. They're big and round and sad. They're spaniel eyes. Isaacs is a very handsome man, but he doesn't have eyes like that. Without the eyes you haven't got Corbett. And the eyes are only the start of it. There's also the thing- whatever it is- behind the eyes. 

As a young actor Corbett got himself compared to Marlon Brando. He was a member of Joan Littlewood's troupe at Theatre Workshop. A lot of those people- smart, hungry, working-class actors- Roy Kinnear, Barbara Windsor, Stephen Lewis-  went on to have careers like his- bitty, under-achieving careers in British TV comedy and in movies made for the home market- like the Carry On series. It was all that was available.  Had Steptoe not intervened, Corbett might have been a contender; that was what the film last night was saying. Well, maybe, maybe not. A great career isn't just about having the ability, it's also about making your luck. Corbett had a bit of luck delivered to him and he rode it and- for all he fretted at the typecasting- never seems to have tried very hard to turn things round. He had the raw talent to have challenged Brando or Olivier but not the will power. No big deal really. Most of us lack that killer instinct. By all accounts he was a nice enough human being- which is more than can be said for Marlon.

The Curse of Steptoe skated over the surface of his career. It was too superficial, unsubtle, generic to offer any insights.  It was a production-line hatchet-job, a belittling portrait of a vain, weak, immature man, which never- because Isaacs wasn't up to it- gave us a glimpse of his genius as a performer.  It did an even worse disservice to his screen partner- Wilfrid Brambell- who was lazily characterised as a sexually frustrated drunk. Brambell wasn't in Corbett's league, but he too created a character that will live forever- and he owns A Hard Day's Night. 

In the end what matters is the work. It's the only reason we continue to be interested in these people. If the work continues to deserve our respect, then so do they.

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