More than Steptoe: a tribute to Harry H Corbett

Harry H Corbett always said the H in his name stood for ‘Hanything’, as it was simply there to distinguish him from Sooty’s owner of the same name (sans ‘H’).  Born on 28th February 1925, he is known best these days for his role as rag and bone man Harold Steptoe in the television sitcom ‘Steptoe and Son’ (which ran from 1962-65, and from 1970-74, starting with a Comedy Playhouse pilot called ‘The Offer’).

Born in Rangoon, Burma, young Harry was raised near Manchester by an aunt following the death of his father, an officer in the Army, and mother.  His acting roots were in repertory and in Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, and on his London debut in 1956 he was already drawing attention as a serious Method performer, even called by some sections of the British Press ‘the English Marlon Brando’.  Such high praise was possibly a little over the top, but his character playing in several episodes of ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’ (as different characters), and performances in films like ‘Cover Girl Killer’ (1959), ‘Shake Hands With The Devil’ (1959) and ‘Sammy Going South’ (1963) show an actor who is at least capable of more than one stock character.

It was Steptoe, though, which gave Harry his most enduring character, a comedy figure of fun who was in the most tragic of familial relationships with his father Albert.  Throughout the series the mix of humour and pathos brought the series wide praise and attention, and although it has been surmised that he came to resent the character and the straightjacket it placed upon him, he was quick to accept references to it in good humour (as can be seen, for example, in a 1972 episode of the quiz panel show ‘Jokers Wild’).

First married to Sheila Steafel (who wrote a memoir partly about their time together entitled ‘When Harry Met Sheila’ (2010)), and then to Maureen Blott, he is followed in the acting business by his daughter Susannah (who also writes children’s books and who has recently completed a biography of her father to be released this month in commemoration of the thirtieth anniversary of his death, 21st March 1982). 

DVD releases have allowed a fairer assessment of Harry’s work than has been previously available in the days of Steptoe alone: in the ‘Armchair Theatre’ play ‘The Hothouse’ (1964) he shines opposite Diana Rigg as a supermarket king who lives for his fascinating plants; in ‘Cover Girl Killer’ (1959) he convinces as a shady and seedy dispatcher of women of sin; in ‘Carry on Screaming’ (1966) he takes over a part intended for Sid James as if he was born for it; in ‘The Bargee’ (1964), a flawed film by Galton & Simpson, the Steptoe writers, he is a kind of canal-based Alfie; and in ‘The Magnificent Seven Deadly Sins’ (1971) he invests the lonely Ambrose in the ‘Lust’ segment with real feeling and pathos.  He also appears in the all-star Michael Bentine vehicle ‘The Sandwich Man’ (1966).

In material yet to be officially released, Harry’s starring roles in ‘Joey Boy’ (1965) and ‘Rattle of a Simple Man’ (1964) are worth a look, albeit recognising the latter is more successful than the former.  He also appears in two of the ‘Edgar Wallace Mysteries’ – ‘A Marriage of Convenience’ in 1960, and ‘Time to Remember’ in 1962.  Good later roles include Harry Tombs in the Arthur Lowe series ‘Potter’ and the sitcom ‘Grundy’ (both 1980).

Harry’s final roles for television were a Kenco coffee commercial in Steptoe garb opposite ‘Albert’ (Wilfrid Brambell), and an episode of the long-running Anglia anthology series ‘Tales of the Unexpected’ called ‘The Moles’ (1982).  By the time this episode was aired he had died from a massive heart attack.

Harry H Corbett will always be remembered as Harold Steptoe.  However, his earlier promise and career are commemorated in the Corbett Theatre, East 15 Acting School, Loughton, Essex, and can be glimpsed in the few non-Steptoe pieces of material we have available.  He also had the distinction of being one of the numerous stage Sherlock Holmes’s – albeit as ‘Justin Playfair’ who thinks he is Holmes, in ‘They Might Be Giants’, and also played Hamlet and Richard II in the theatre.  He seems to have been an actor with more promise than he achieved, but perhaps not as much as the Brando comment in the newspapers might have suggested.

Susannah Corbett’s book, ‘Harry H Corbett: The Front Legs of the Cow’, was published on the 1st March 2012 by The History Press, and is also available as an e-book for Kindle readers.

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