Harry H Corbett, OBE
Harry H. Corbett was born on February 28th, 1925 in Rangoon, Burma - now ‘Yangon, Myanmar’. It was still a British colony and his father was an officer in the British Army who was stationed in the country as part of the occupying forces there. His mother died when he was 3 years old and he was then sent to England.
When his mother died he was sent back to England to be brought up by an aunt in Ardwick and later moved to Benchill, Wythenshawe. Inspired by a favourite teacher at Sharston Senior School, he wrote his first play before leaving school at age 14. A series of dead-end jobs ensued, grocer's delivery boy, plumber, male nurse, car sprayer, until he joined the Chorlton Repertory Company at the age of 23, and later the Theatre Workshop Company in Manchester working under Joan Greenwood. He appeared in many comedy films, including the "Carry On" series, "The Bargee", "Crowns and Coronets" and "The Magnificent Seven Deadly Sins". In 1962 he auditioned and got the role in a "one-off" play called "Steptoe & Son". It was such a success that the series ran on television for 13 years. He was named Actor of the Year in 1962.
After working as a radiographer, the deceptively oafish-looking Corbett began his acting career in repertory and, in the early 1950s, he added the middle initial 'H' to his name in order to avoid confusion with the then-popular television entertainer Harry Corbett, who was well known for his act with the puppet Sooty. When asked, he would often joke that the 'H' stood for "h'anything" - a manner of saying the word 'anything' once popular in some English regional dialects.
Early in his career he was dubbed "the English Marlon Brando" by some sections of the British press, but due to typecasting his career never really developed as a major film actor, much to his frustration.
Spending several seasons with Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop, he made his film bow in 1957, playing brutes and lunatics before gaining TV fame. A chance meeting with writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, at the time basking in the success of their groundbreaking project Hancock's Half Hour, would then change Corbett's life.
And so in 1962, Corbett appeared in The Offer, an episode of the BBC's anthology series of one-off comedy plays, Comedy Playhouse, written by Galton and Simpson. He played Harold Steptoe, a rag and bone man living with his irascible father Albert, played by Wilfrid Brambell, in a junkyard with only their horse for company.
The play was a huge success and a full series was soon commissioned, which eventually ran, with some breaks, until 1974, where the Christmas special became the final ever episode. Although the enormous popularity of Steptoe and Son - as the series was titled - made Corbett a star, it proved to be a dead-end to his serious acting career, as he became irreversibly associated with the Harold Steptoe character in the public eye. Production on the series was also made stressful by Corbett's strained relationship with his co-star Brambell. Brambell was an alcoholic and would often be ill-prepared for rehearsals, forgetting his lines or blocking.
By the end of their time on the series they were not on speaking terms outside of takes. A subsequent tour of a Steptoe and Son stage show in Australia in the late 1970s proved to be a complete disaster, as any sort of working relationship between the pair of them was now impossible. On this tour Brambell also drank heavily, which sometimes affected his ability to perform.
Honoured with the OBE in 1976, Harry H. Corbett went into virtual retirement thereafter. As well as doing pantomime, Corbett also returned to do stage plays, something he was doing long before the days of Steptoe and Son. The pair did finally work again in 1981 in a short television commercial for a well known coffee brand.
Steptoe and Son did lead to Corbett gaining some work in comedy films, most notably starring in Carry On Screaming in 1966 and appearing in Terry Gilliam's Jabberwocky (1977). He also appeared in the Lust segment of The Magnificent Seven Deadly Sins. As with many other British comedy programmes of the era, there were also two theatrically-released Steptoe and Son films: Steptoe and Son (1972) and Steptoe and Son Ride Again (1973).
Corbett suffered his first heart attack in 1979 and appeared in pantomime at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley within two days of being discharged from hospital. He then suffered a serious car accident, in which he was badly hurt. He appeared shortly afterwards in the BBC detective series Shoestring, with his facial injuries sadly obvious.
Other work included a BBC comedy series entitled Grundy and the film Silver Dream Racer with David Essex, both made in 1980. Corbett's final acting role was in an episode of the Anglia Television anthology drama series Tales of the Unexpected. Entitled The Mole it featured a man who planned to tunnel into a bank, only to have forgotten that the following day was Bank Holiday Monday and that there would be no money in the vaults. Shot shortly before his death, it was transmitted two months afterwards, in May 1982. He had died of a massive heart attack in the March of that year, at the age of fifty-seven, in Hastings, East Sussex.
Corbett was twice married, firstly to the actress Sheila Steafel, and then to Maureen Corbett, who bore him two children, one of whom, Susannah Corbett, is an actress, best known for the role of Ellie Pascoe in the BBC's television adaptations of Reginald Hill's Dalziel and Pascoe detective novels.
Best known as Harold Steptoe in the 1960s and 70s TV series "Steptoe & Son", Corbett was actually born in Burma in 1925, but when his mother died he was sent back to England (aged three) to be brought up by an aunt in Ardwick. Later, inspired by a favourite teacher at Sharston Senior School, he wrote his first play before leaving school at age 14. A series of dead-end jobs ensued, grocer's delivery boy, plumber, male nurse, car sprayer, until he joined the Chorlton Repertory Company at the age of 23, and later the Theatre Workshop Company in Manchester working under Joan Greenwood. He appeared in many comedy films, including the "Carry On" series, "The Bargee", "Crowns and Coronets" and "The Magnificent Seven Deadly Sins". In 1962 he auditioned and got the role in a "one-off" play called "Steptoe & Son". It was such a success that the series ran on television for 13 years. He was named Actor of the Year in 1962. He died of a heart attack in 1982 aged 57.
"The Curse of Steptoe" is a television play which was first broadcast on 19 March 2008 on BBC Four as part of a season of dramas about television personalities. It stars Jason Isaacs as Harry H. Corbett and Phil Davis as Wilfrid Brambell. The drama is based upon the actors' on- and off-screen relationship during the making of the BBC sitcom Steptoe and Son, and is based on interviews with colleagues, friends and family of the actors, and the Steptoe writers, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson.
The family of Harry H. Corbett released a statement which claimed the drama was inaccurate and defamatory. Specific complaints include overstating the significance of Corbett's affair with Sheila Steafel, and implying that Corbett's becoming a father led to the show's demise - when this in fact happened eight years before the show ended. The BBC says it will not be repeating the show without correcting these inaccuracies.