Wednesday, 4 April 2018
"Don't forget to keep the lumps in!"
"Don't forget to keep the lumps in!"
If ever I was to run a course on Classic British Comedy, I think 'Steptoe And Son : The Desperate Hours' would be one of the set texts.
It was broadcast on Easter Monday 1972 (3rd April) as part of a line-up that included 'Billy Smart's Circus', Bruce Forsyth presenting 'Disney Time' and two appearances by Bernard Cribbins (first on 'A Question Of Sport' and then 'Carry On Spying').
It's the final episode of Season Seven (the first one to survive completely in colour) and showcases the ability of writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson to conjure magic out of thin air.
We do not move from the Steptoe house for the entirety of the story - what we have here is a stage play with some cameras pointed at it. There are only two guest actors in the form of Leonard Rossiter and J.G. Devlin (plus a couple of voice-overs on the radio from Corbet Woodall and Tommy Vance) but the ingredients have been put together magnificently.
Of course, it should not to be confused with the 1976 'Porridge' Christmas Special that shares the same title, although it's interesting that the 'Steptoe' episode is shown almost exactly a year before 'Prisoner And Escort' and with hindsight you do wonder if Spooner and Ferris have ever had cause to encounter Norman Stanley Fletcher...
'The Desperate Hours' is beautifully structured in that (even for new viewers) it establishes how badly off our heroes are with their reliance on foreign coins to feed an ever-hungry electricity meter. I've got a tin of old coins knocking about and some of them have come from far and wide, though I've no idea how I ended up with most of them.
The interplay between Harry H Corbett and Wilfrid Brambell is as accomplished as ever. They know their characters inside-out, and just a look can convey layers of meaning.
You get a chance to appreciate the care that has gone into the set dressing and the ploy of the lights going out (most appropriate for the early 70s with its recurrent power-cuts) gives us some atmospheric shots with candles and use of shadows.
But enter Rossiter and Devlin and the episode really comes to life. Although Spooner and Ferris have escaped from prison, they soon find that the Steptoes are in a worse position with Harold's pockets containing the vast fortune of three-and-a-half pence.
It soon becomes apparent that the convicts have relationship very familiar to Albert and Harold and everyone takes the opportunity to act their socks off. Season Seven has already featured such names as Trevor Bannister (in 'A Star Is Born') and Joanna Lumley (in 'Loathe Story') but it's arguable that they saved the best for the season finale.
Rightly chosen as one of the script to feature in the book 'The Best Of Steptoe And Son', this one perfectly balances the humour with the more poignant moments. It's fine example of writing and acting, of course, but the fact that the cameras are right in there capturing every flicker of emotion, make this a textbook example of how studio comedy never really dates.
In fact, put this one on the National Curriculum - the kids of the future would thank you!
(By Andrew Trowbridge)
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