The Curse of Steptoe

The Curse of Steptoe
The Curse of Steptoe
Curse of steptoe.jpg
Phil Davis and Jason Isaacs recreating the roles
of Steptoe and Son
Format Television play
Written by Brian Fillis
Directed by Michael Samuels
Starring Jason Isaacs
Phil Davis
Roger Allam
Zoe Tapper
Burn Gorman
Rory Kinnear
Clare Higgins
Country of origin United Kingdom
Executive producer(s) Ben Evans and John Yorke
Producer(s) Ben Bickerton
Running time 66 min.
Original channel BBC Four
External links
The Curse of Steptoe at

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.[1]

The screenplay was written by Brian Fillis, also responsible for the similarly themed 2006 drama Fear of Fanny, which is about television personality Fanny Cradock off-screen. The 66-minute film is directed by Michael Samuels and produced by Ben Bickerton.

The drama was widely acclaimed and won the Royal Television Society Award 2008 for "Single Drama".[2] However, the drama generated controversy due to perceived historical inaccuracies, and following complaints to the BBC by Corbett's family, two revised versions of the drama have been broadcast. Despite these revisions, an investigation by the BBC Trust found that the drama was still unfair and inaccurate. DVDs of the drama have been withdrawn from sale, and there will be no future broadcasts without further editing.


Plot summary

The play covers the entire history of the televised series, skipping over the five-year break between 1965 and 1970 when no episodes were recorded. It starts with Corbett, then a rising Shakespearean actor, starring as Richard II at Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, looking beyond that to Henry V at the Old Vic, and tipped to eclipse Gielgud. Meanwhile, across town at the BBC Television Centre, writers Galton and Simpson have parted from their longtime star, Tony Hancock, and are given a free hand. They write a series of one-off plays starring actors, not comics who will expect every line to contain a laugh.

The Offer, in which they cast Corbett in his first television role, is wildly successful and evolves into an uneasy, decade-long comedy partnership between Corbett and the alcoholic, self-loathing homosexual Brambell. Corbett's stage career fades quickly from typecasting, and his first marriage to comic actress Sheila Steafel suffers from his womanising, while Brambell's drinking and his relaxed approach to acting cause conflict between him and Corbett, a method actor once described as "the British Marlon Brando". Off-screen, Brambell is secretive and dislikes the trappings of fame, and his worst fears are realised when, entrapped by a policeman in a public toilet, he is prosecuted for gross indecency and the details of his failed marriage are published in the newspapers.

The show, and the actors' careers, are milked dry. Corbett is unable to obtain work that is not a variation on his cockney rag and bone man persona. At the start, Corbett as Richard II had spoken the words "I wasted time and now doth time waste me," and at the end he says them to himself as he awaits his cue in a live recording of Steptoe and Son. Finally Corbett is unable to find any work except pantomime or a stage version of Steptoe in Australia. This, however, was untrue (see Harry's filmography for 1977). They also implied that Harry was reluctant to partake in the tour when it was in fact his suggestion. The idea was put to him by a theatre producer. Having then contacted Wilfrid Brambell to see if he was available, it was Harry who put the idea forward to writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, not the other way round as the writers fictionalised in the show.


The 19 March 2008, broadcast of The Curse of Steptoe brought BBC Four its highest audience figures, estimated as 1.41 million viewers, a 7% share of multichannel audiences between 9pm and 10.05pm, based on overnight returns.[3] Reviews were good. The Guardian described the two stars as "striking, like Walter Matthau and George Burns in The Odd Couple [sic]"[4] (cf. The Sunshine Boys), and The Times praised "the tough, funny, sad script...and the subtly glorious performances".[5] The Independent's reviewer said "Anyone who remembers David Barrie's Channel 4 documentary When Steptoe Met Son, broadcast in 2002, won't have found all this particularly revelatory, but Isaacs and Davis played it so well that it had a fresh life."[6]

The drama won the Royal Television Society Award 2008 for "Single Drama", beating Margaret Thatcher - The Long Walk To Finchley and The Shooting of Thomas Hurndall. However, the Royal Television Society have since added a caveat to the award that "since the award presentation to The Curse of Steptoe, complaints about the programme were made to the BBC Trust which found it to be 'unfair and inaccurate'".[7]



Following the broadcast, Harry H. Corbett's nephew from his second marriage released a statement which claimed the drama was inaccurate and defamatory.[8][9] In addition to numerous factual errors, he claimed that the two actors did not hate each other, and that the suggestion that Steptoe ruined either actor's career was nonsense.

The writers of Steptoe and Son, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, also distanced themselves from the drama stating in a letter to The Times published shortly before the drama aired that "during this entire [12 year] period we were unaware of any conflict between the actors save from the occasional gritting of Wilfrid's false teeth when Harry had the perceived audacity to give him a little direction. At all other times they were the acme of professionalism".[10] In a radio interview on 15 January 2009, Alan Simpson stated that the drama was "not at all accurate", while Ray Galton claimed "We didn’t recognise any of that. Really didn’t". Both agreed that any notion of friction or hatred between Corbett and Brambell was inaccurate, stating "They worked beautifully together".[11]

BBC response

On 1 October 2008, the BBC Editorial Complaints Unit upheld a complaint by the brother-in-law of Harry H. Corbett, regarding comments made by Phil Davis in an interview on BBC Breakfast. Davis gave the impression that The Curse of Steptoe was entirely factual and claimed that Brambell and Corbett loathed each other, whereas the balance of first-hand evidence is that this was by no means the case.[12]

On 24 November 2008, the BBC Editorial Complaints Unit upheld another complaint by Corbett’s brother-in-law regarding the drama itself. It ruled that the drama gave the impression that Corbett’s relationship with his second wife (Maureen Corbett) "preceded, and might have contributed to, the breakdown of his first marriage to Sheila Steafel, whereas the chronology it had established did not support this. The drama also gave the impression that the end of Steptoe and Son was immediately preceded, if not precipitated, by the birth of Corbett's first child. However, the two events were separated by eight years, so the device tended to mislead viewers significantly on an aspect of the narrative central to their interest in the drama". The drama would not be re-broadcast without appropriate editing and content information.[13]

A revised version of the drama was broadcast on 28 and 29 December 2008 on BBC Four, running 23 seconds shorter than the original, and preceded by an on-screen disclaimer: "The following drama is inspired by the lives of real people. For the purpose of the narrative some events have been invented or conflated".

The BBC Trust Editorial Standards Committee partially upheld a complaints appeal by Corbett’s brother-in-law, stating on 30 June 2009 that "the essential elements of unfairness to Maureen Corbett were still present in the revised version of the programme and that this constituted a breach of the Fairness and Accuracy guidelines". In particular, "the timeline of the drama with regard to the relationship between Maureen and Harry, and Harry’s separation from his first wife, did not correlate with the facts", and "the implication in the drama that the child of Maureen and Harry had been conceived as a result of a casual relationship between the two was inaccurate and unfair". The Trust also warned the BBC that “while it was the right of dramatists to change events for dramatic purposes, the basic facts should remain as a framework on which to build the drama”. The Trust also thought the on-screen caption could have been clearer, and warned “the use of captions such as this should not be regarded as a ‘blank cheque’ for the indiscriminate and excessive use of dramatic licence”.[14] Once again, the drama would not be shown again until further editing had taken place.

A third, re-revised version of the drama was broadcast on 2 December 2009 on BBC HD, now running 69 seconds shorter than the original. The same version was also released on a BBC DVD on 14 June 2010 entitled “Legends of Comedy”, together with two other episodes from the drama series Frankie Howerd Rather You Than Me and Hughie Green Most Sincerely.

On 22 December 2010, the BBC Trust Editorial Standards Committee upheld a further appeal by Corbett’s brother-in-law. The ruling stated that the revised portrayal in The Curse of Steptoe was still “unfair and inaccurate”, and “despite the edits made, further action was required by the BBC to remove the impression of a casual relationship between Maureen and Harry”.[15] The BBC Trust subsequently ordered that DVDs of the drama should be recalled.[16][17]

On 23 March 2011, the BBC Trust Editorial Standards Committee published a report into the withdrawal of the DVDs. Evidently the publisher 2Entertain failed to inform the BBC Shop that the DVD should be withdrawn, and sales continued until 3 January 2011. 2Entertain subsequently instructed its lawyers to perform a worldwide trawl to ensure that no other retailers were still selling the DVD. The Committee was concerned by the failure to withdraw The Curse of Steptoe from sale in a timely manner but was satisfied that the problem had been treated seriously and steps had been taken to prevent similar issues in the future. It also "wished to apologise on behalf of the BBC for the original editorial breaches in The Curse of Steptoe and the fact that subsequent remedial action had been ineffective in removing the unfairness."[18]

Wider implications

After complaints about The Curse of Steptoe were upheld, the BBC Trust said it would write to the BBC Executive requesting that the BBC Editorial Guidelines be revised to address dramatised biopics (also termed "docudrama") with regard to the presentation of fact and the use of dramatic licence.[19] The new set of guidelines were published on 12 October 2010, with Section 6.4.29 specifically addressing "Portrayal of Real People in Drama". Where the drama goes against the wishes of the individual portrayed or their surviving near relatives, approval must be sought from the BBC's Director of Editorial Policy and Standards, and will be given only if three criteria are met: (1) the portrayal is fair; (2) the portrayal is based on a substantial and well-sourced body of evidence whenever practicable; and (3) there is a clear public interest.[20]

Shortly after the BBC Trust upheld the further appeal by Corbett’s brother-in-law on 22 December 2010, it was announced that the drama's Executive Producer, Ben Evans, had been made redundant by the BBC, along with 21 other drama production posts. Evans confirmed to The Stage newspaper that he was leaving the BBC, but refused to comment on whether his redundancy was compulsory or voluntary.[21]

In an article in The Guardian newspaper published on 15 January 2011, writer Sarah Dempster pointed out that The Curse of Steptoe and other "nostalgic retellings of the lives of Tony Hancock[22], Frankie Howerd[23], Kenneth Williams[24] and Eric & Ernie[25] have been ratings winners, but fictionalised accounts can land the Beeb in hot water", and she questioned whether the latest, examining Hattie Jacques[26], will be the last. "The biopic's central tenet appears to be that lurking within a dead star's private life – or rather her "private life" as according to scriptwriter, touchy BBC mandarin, etc – is the secret to their genius or, at the very least, their lasting popularity. While the prurient appeal of such an approach is obvious, there remains the fact that this is someone else's version of events. It reveals nothing. Would anyone have made Hattie if she hadn't been famous? Is the plot interesting enough to stand on its own merits? Not really. So. Enough with this mass light-ent grave plundering. Down with the heritage fossicking, the interpretive biographical brass-rubbing, the wilting tropes, broken metaphorical harnesses, deserted theatres, beige tanktops and indiscriminate mythologisation of performers who happened to live during a perceived Golden Age™ of Our Collective Cultural Past® Let's instead allow our heroes and heroines to gather dust in our memories, their talent allowed to live for ever – free from the reductive pincers of the gimlet-eyed TV biographer – in their films, TV specials and yellowing holiday snaps. It's what they would have wanted."[27]

Cast (in order of appearance)

Character Actor
Tom Sloane [sic] Roger Allam
Harry H. Corbett Jason Isaacs
Sheila Steafel Zoë Tapper
Joan Littlewood Clare Higgins
Young Blonde Actress Elspeth Rae
Ray Galton Burn Gorman
Alan Simpson Rory Kinnear
Wilfrid Brambell Phil Davis
Costume Designer Ken Oxtoby
Wilfrid's Young Blonde Man Ben Parr
Director Peter Hamilton-Dyer
Maureen Corbett Sophie Hunter
Clive Goodwin Julian Forsyth
Plain Clothes Policeman Jamie Lennox
Boy Outside Theatre Scott McNess
Harry's Son Buddy Wallis


Date Time Channel Running Time Notes
Wed 19 March 2008 21:00 BBC Four 66m 44s Original release
Thu 20 March 2008 00:05 BBC Four 66m 44s Repeat
Fri 21 March 2008 22:00 BBC Four 66m 44s Repeat
Sun 23 March 2008 22:45 BBC Four 66m 44s Repeat
Sun 28 December 2008 22:30 BBC Four 66m 21s Revised repeat
Mon 29 December 2008 03:40 BBC Four 66m 21s Revised repeat
Wed 2 December 2009 22:00 BBC HD 65m 35s Re-revised repeat


See also


  1. ^ BBC press release (11/11/07)
  2. ^ "Royal Television Society Awards 2008", Grosvenor House Hotel, 17 March 2009. Retrieved on 2011-04-15.
  3. ^ BBC4 breaks ratings record, March 19, 2008, The Guardian
  4. ^ Last night's TV, Nancy Banks-Smith in The Guardian, March 20, 2008
  5. ^ The Curse of Steptoe, March 20, 2008, The Times
  6. ^ Last Night's TV: The Curse of Steptoe, BBC4, Countdown to War, BBC2, The Independent, March 20, 2008
  7. ^ "Royal Television Society Awards 2008", Grosvenor House Hotel, 17 March 2009. Retrieved on 2011-04-15.
  8. ^ "An important message from the Corbett family". Retrieved 2011-02-07. 
  9. ^ "Steptoe Drama Is Slammed", The Daily Express, Published online 25 March 2008. Retrieved on 2011-02-07
  10. ^ "Scriptwriters reject the 'Curse of Comedy', The Times, Published online 8 March 2008. Retrieved on 2011-02-07
  11. ^ Simon Mayo Programme, BBC Radio 5 Live, 15 January 2009.
  12. ^ "Editorial Complaints Unit report July-September 2008". BBC. Originally published 1 October 2008. pp. 4. Retrieved 20 March 2011. 
  13. ^ "Editorial Complaints Unit report July-September 2008". BBC. Originally published 24 November 2008. pp. 3. Retrieved 20 March 2011. 
  14. ^ BBC Trust "Editorial Standards Findings: Appeals and other editorial issues to the Trust considered by the Editorial Standards Committee", May 2009, Published 30 June 2009. Retrieved on 2010-12-22.
  15. ^ BBC Trust "Editorial Standards Findings: Appeals and other editorial issues to the Trust considered by the Editorial Standards Committee", November 2010, Published 22 December 2010. Retrieved on 2010-12-22.
  16. ^ "BBC withdraws Steptoe and Son documentary after complaints", The Telegraph, Published online 22 December 2010. Retrieved on 2010-12-22
  17. ^ "BBC pulls DVDs of Steptoe drama", The Guardian, Published online 23 December 2010. Retrieved on 2010-12-28
  18. ^ BBC Trust "Editorial Standards Findings: Appeals and other editorial issues to the Trust considered by the Editorial Standards Committee", February 2011, Published 23 March 2011. Retrieved on 2012-03-25.
  19. ^ BBC Trust "Editorial Standards Findings: Appeals and other editorial issues to the Trust considered by the Editorial Standards Committee", May 2009, Published 30 June 2009. Retrieved on 2010-12-22.
  20. ^ "BBC Editorial Guidelines", Published online 12 October 2010. Retrieved on 2011-02-11
  21. ^ "Exclusive: Fear of Fanny producer among 22 redundancies at BBC, The Stage, Published online 5 January 2011. Retrieved on 2011-02-11
  22. ^ "Hancock and Joan", BBC website, Published online March 2008. Retrieved on 2011-02-12
  23. ^ "Frankie Howerd: Rather You Than Me", BBC website, Published online OCtober 2008. Retrieved on 2011-02-12
  24. ^ "Kenneth Williams - Fantabulosa!", BBC website, Published online December 2008. Retrieved on 2011-02-12
  25. ^ "Eric & Ernie", BBC website, Published online December 2010. Retrieved on 2011-02-12
  26. ^ "Hattie", BBC website, Published online January 2011. Retrieved on 2011-02-12
  27. ^ "Will Hattie Jacques be the last to get the BBC biopic treatment?", The Guardian, Published online 15 January 2011. Retrieved on 2011-02-12
  28. ^ "The Curse of Steptoe transmissions". BBC website. Retrieved on 2010-12-22.

External links

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