Back in the 1960s, one of the gravest off-screen dangers faced by on-screen sitcom stars centred on sexuality - or, more specifically, homosexuality. The fact that homosexuality remained illegal in Britain until 1967 meant that, at least up until that time, any gay actor in a sitcom (or, of course, anywhere else on the stage or screen) lived in fear not only of being beaten up, blackmailed or exposed, but also prosecuted and potentially even imprisoned. The consequence was that many actors were forced to lead two separate lives, a fake one in public, a real one in private, and some of sitcom's most memorably heterosexual characters were actually played by gay actors, whose careers would have been ruined if their true sexuality had ever been revealed. One such performer, who came as close as was possible to suffering such a sad and sorry fate, was Wilfrid Brambell.
In the summer of 1962, at the age of fifty, Wilfrid Brambell suddenly became, within a matter of weeks, one of the biggest sitcom stars in Britain by playing the growling, gurning, grumbling old rag and bone man Albert Steptoe, alongside the younger Harry H. Corbett as Harold, in the first series of Steptoe And Son. In the autumn of 1962, however, just a few months later, he was within a whisker of swapping stardom for public shame and professional ruin.
The reason was that, while audiences quickly came to love Brambell for his brilliant portrayal of the down-to-earth, no-nonsense and fiercely masculine old man Steptoe - a character who would wince in disgust at anything he regarded as 'soft,' 'effeminate,' 'poofy' or 'poncey' - the Metropolitan Police already had him marked down on their lengthy list of covert homosexuals, and, now that he had been elevated to the status of television celebrity, his value as a potential 'prize' arrest had suddenly been radically inflated. He was thus being watched intently - not only for what he did on the screen, but also, more pointedly, for what he did off it.
It was known, for example, that he was something of a loner. Ever since he had moved to London from his native Dublin shortly after the end of the Second World War, he had remained a solitary and seemingly rootless figure. He moved from one small apartment to another on a fairly regular basis, as a perusal of the phone books of the time underlines: in the early 1950s, for example, his address was 31 South Audley Street, W1, phone number: Grosvnor 1474; in 1955 it changed to 40 Whitehall Gardens, NW6, ACOrn 7574; two years later it was 111 Fellows Road, NW, PRImrose 1270; and by the start of the 1960s, and during his early years in Steptoe And Son, it was 10 Lynton Court, Horn Lane, W3, with the telephone number ACOrn 3803.
He had actually once been married, in 1948 to a fellow actor named Molly Josephine (with whom he settled in Chesterfield while they both worked there in rep), but, after they decided to take in lodgers to help pay the bills, a handsome young student, a New Zealander named Roderick Fisher, moved in and promptly had an affair with Molly, and she became pregnant. At first, Brambell had thought that the child was his; when, however, he found out that it was actually the lodger's, he promptly filed for divorce. Years later, one of his closest friends, Anne Pichon, who took him in for a while after he abruptly left the marital home, would remember the powerful emotional shock that he suffered: 'He was staying in my home and I would hear him wake up in the night, literally screaming, howling with pain'.
How conflicted he had been, up to that point, about his sexuality is open to conjecture, but what is clear is that, following the collapse of the marriage, his subsequent relationships would be exclusively homosexual in nature, obliging him to partition his life and relationships carefully, and hiding his personal life from all kinds of prying eyes.
The consequence was that, to most of his colleagues in the profession, he would always seem a lonely and somewhat mysterious figure, swanning into studios to do his work and then slipping back out again into the night. 'One never saw him with anybody,' Alan Simpson (who, along with Ray Galton, was responsible for the Steptoe And Son scripts) later recalled. 'He never brought any friends to the show. None of his relatives, if he had any, ever came. We were surrounded with friends, Harry had his family and one or two other friends, but Wilfrid was always on his own'.
His private life, his secret life, consisted mainly of briefly liberating vacations in more liberal, and less intrusive, cultures, supplemented during the year by occasional and hastily arranged meetings after a brief meeting in a pub or club, or following a sudden call on the telephone, resulting often in short-lived but mutually enjoyable sex, or, on the odd occasion, a beating and/or a mugging. The rest of his free time would be spent drifting in and out of several self-contained circles of friends, including the rather posh couples who invited him for dinner, the local drinking companions with whom he would gossip and share a succession of his favourite gin and tonics, and the coterie of mature women he would take for pedicures, plays and carefully-edited confidences.
As with most other gay people of that era, however, there was never a single day without the horrible nagging fear of being found out, exposed and destroyed. By the late 1950s, it was not just a case of trying to be discreet. It was also necessary, but far from easy, to work out who was interested in intimacy, and who was driven by deceit.
Spurred on by the Government's obsessive 'drive against male vice' to 'rid England of this plague,' the police, in those days, had spies, informers and agents provocateurs in and around all of the places and spaces - clubs, pubs and brothels, streets, parks and public conveniences - known for the crepuscular comings and goings of homosexuals, and many famous faces, no matter how shadowy they strived to seem, were soon spotted and put under special surveillance. As to how and when they were, or were not, arrested, it depended on a number of factors, including the popularity of the particular star, the propensity of certain policemen to being paid-off (or being paid repeatedly and regularly) in return for their discretion, the attitude of the press, and the estimated pros and cons of an intervention prompting good or bad publicity for the police rather than the personality.
Some stars survived through a volatile combination of bribing 'tame' newspaper editors, submitting to blackmail, and gambling on dodging the police. The sexually reckless Frankie Howerd, for example, just managed to keep going during the first half of the 1960s by maintaining all three of those measures.
Others were simply extraordinarily lucky. Gilbert Harding, for example, who through his regular appearances during the Fifties and early Sixties as a panellist on the hugely popular show What's My Line? became British television's first so-called 'Mr Nasty' figure (and thus the template for Simon Cowell), was a promiscuous homosexual and alcoholic who somehow managed to avoid scandal time and again much more by chance than judgement. On one occasion, for example, he woke up to find himself stranded stark naked - save for his horn-rimmed spectacles - in his room at Edinburgh's North British Hotel, after the young man whom he had picked up in a nearby bar an hour or two before made off with his wallet and watch, his list of questions and answers for that evening's live edition of the BBC's Round Britain Quiz and every single item of his clothing. A quick telephone call to his puzzled producer ('There're a few things I'll be needing...') led to a bundle of new clothes and a fresh pair of brogues being deposited outside his door, and his public humiliation (and probable arrest) was averted, and his gambling with his own career went on just as rashly before.
For other closeted gay celebrities, however, the gamble sometimes went horribly wrong, and, if they were especially famous, the consequent embarrassment was immense. At around eleven o'clock at night on 20 October 1953, for example, John Gielgud, the great Shakespearean actor, entered a public lavatory and gave the glad eye to a man who turned out to be an undercover policeman (part of a special Metropolitan Police squad, established in 1930, that regularly lurked in central London toilets). He was promptly arrested, and it was reported a couple of days later in The Times that 'John Gielgud, aged 49, described on the charge sheet as a clerk [...] was fined £10 at West London yesterday on a charge of persistently importuning male persons for an immoral purpose at Dudmaston Mews, Chelsea. He pleaded guilty'. Gielgud, although plagued for a time with abusive mail and a number of physical threats, would survive the negative publicity. When he returned to the theatre, where he was appearing in a play called A Day By The Sea, the rest of the company, led by his co-star, Dame Sybil Thorndike, welcomed him back with open arms. 'Oh, John,' she said, in one of the most apposite theatrical double entendres of all time, 'you have been a silly bugger!' - but the 'gentlemen' of the press would never allow the story to fade entirely away.
The chances of a television star, however, rather than a stage actor, surviving any coverage of such an embarrassing incident were far slimmer, as the controversy was bound to be followed avidly by many millions of, rather than merely a few thousand, admirers, and the ramifications could not be managed merely by one low-key and trouble-free tour of the provinces, instead of another peak time broadcast to the nation. For a television star in the early Sixties, one was either in and on or out and off.
This was the crisis facing Wilfrid Brambell when, on the evening of 6 November 1962, he was arrested outside of a public lavatory in Shepherd's Bush Green, west London, on a charge, under the Sexual Offences Act, of 'persistently importuning for an immoral purpose'. He was, it appears, a victim of an exceptionally blatant example of police entrapment.
Michael Fielding, at that time a member of the local Vice Squad, would later confirm that it was common practice for him and his colleagues to lie in wait for any 'suspicious' activity in the area: 'We started work any time between six and eight o'clock in the evening. We went around to the various locations and see if there was any activity. Shepherd's Bush Green was well known [as a meeting place for homosexuals], and we noticed that there was a lot of action, so we decided we would keep observation there'.
This, however, only tells part of the story. In Brambell's case, it seems that, once he was recognised, there was simply no way that he was going to be allowed to escape arrest. He was deemed too famous to go free.
Even though, as one of the plain-clothed policemen loitered in the lavatories with him, Brambell did nothing more - apart from relieve himself - than smile pleasantly at others present, that, apparently, was deemed sufficiently 'provocative' for the Vice Squad to eagerly intervene. According to Fielding, their somewhat risible checklist of 'suspicious' lavatorial behaviour included: 'Raising of the eyebrows; eye contact; looking in the person's eyes and then looking down at their private parts, or looking at their own private parts - that's what draws attention to [potential offenders]'.
Fielding, along with his sergeant, Vivian Allan, and a constable by the name of Findley, duly grabbed Brambell by the arm as he emerged from the building and arrested him. 'Oh, no, please,' he was alleged to have said repeatedly as, much to his obvious distress, they marched him off to Hammersmith police station and charged him.
Two weeks later, on 21 November at West London Magistrates' Court, Brambell, always impeccably-dressed off-screen (with smart suits picked off the peg in Blades of Dover Street, and bespoke ones bought from Anderson & Sheppard in Savile Row), arrived looking suitably soberly attired as he walked past the assembled members of the press and the public to enter the building. Standing up to hear the charge against him, he pleaded 'Not Guilty' in a strong actorly voice and was remanded on bail for a fortnight. Back in court on 5 December, the proceedings began in earnest.
Brambell had hired a prominent barrister named Wilfred Fordham to defend him. Fordham was a plump and rather scruffy man in his late middle-age, somewhat reminiscent in looks of the actor Sidney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon. He was well-known in legal circles for his sharp wit, great charm with juries and slyly mocking interrogations of policemen. He would later go on to defend two (Ronnie Biggs and Gordon Goody) of those accused of the Great Train Robbery, but even at this stage in his career, marked by his growing tendency to nod off in court, he was already well past the peak of his powers.
The Prosecution, meanwhile, had appointed a younger, hungrier, man called Quentin Edwards to lead its case. The eminently colourful and extravagantly-dressed Edwards, instantly recognisable for his abundant side-whiskers, half-moon spectacles and rubicund cheeks, looked as though he had just emerged from a bucolic H.E. Bates short story, but he was actually a very worldly metropolitan figure, an exceptionally disciplined lawyer and a formidable performer with a firm mastery of his brief.
(It would also transpire, some four decades later, that he had been involved in a brief but intense homoerotic relationship with John Mortimer, the creator of Rumpole of the Bailey, when the former was at public school and the latter an undergraduate at Oxford, and Edwards, after his headmaster found Mortimer's intimate letters in his desk, was promptly expelled - a fact that now only adds to the sense of deep-rooted institutional hypocrisy about what was to come as Edwards doggedly pursued the prosecution of Brambell.)
In the context of a magistrates' court, without a jury for Fordham to engage and entertain, it was Edwards, with his more disciplined forensic skills brought to the fore, who looked the more likely figure to win this particular contest. While the evidence of an offence was strikingly slight, Edwards merely had to support the testimony of the police, whereas Fordham had to tear it apart.
It was therefore with an intense sense of trepidation that Brambell sat, looking blank in expression but physically decidedly nervous, as the case against him started to be made. He knew that his whole career was hanging in the balance.
What followed might have made him and his supporters laugh had it been heard in the context of a studio instead of a court of law. The basic allegation, for example, was that Brambell had made four visits to two public lavatories in Shepherd's Bush Green, over the course of about twenty minutes, on the night in question and had, it was noted gravely, 'smiled at men'.
A straight-faced Sergeant Allan told the court in a slow and ponderous voice that he had 'vaguely recognised [Brambell's] face, but it was not until I was standing right next to him that I realised who he was'. This prompted a loud snort of derision from Wilfred Fordham, and the barrister intervened to point out that, as the very distinctive-looking actor had only recently appeared in one of the biggest shows on British television, and his picture had been regularly printed in the papers, it was unlikely that an alert and well-informed London policeman would have been completely ignorant of his identity. 'I am not a fan myself,' muttered Allan sullenly by way of a reply.
Allan then claimed that, as he and his constable walked Brambell to the local police station, the actor had moaned, 'I can't believe I did that. I am not that type'. When duly charged, he was alleged to have exclaimed, 'It's absolute nonsense'. The police surgeon who examined him at the station then reported that Brambell was under the influence of alcohol but 'not drunk'.
Quentin Edwards, seeking to clarify the prosecution's case, declared, with an impressively solemn expression, that it was not being alleged that Brambell had importuned 'by word or touch or by pestering anyone'. The claim was that the actor had done so by 'looking and staring at people and smiling at them'.
Wilfrid Fordham responded by questioning how the police, on the night, had been able, without premeditation, to chance upon such sexually-charged smiling by the urinals. If those policemen had simply been patrolling the general area, he pointed out, the only means of accessing even an extremely restricted view into the lavatories would have been via a high and narrow window.
As the discussions continued, the in-court reporters scribbled away. Brambell, glancing at them as their pages kept turning and their pens kept moving, knew that bad publicity was building in front of his eyes.
The initial news of the proceedings certainly startled those who knew the actor, as did the extraordinary argument that smiling at people, and keeping one's eyes open while aiming at the urinals, was deemed sufficient cause for being arrested as a dangerous sexual deviant. As his Steptoe And Son associate Alan Simpson would remark, if that was indeed enough to be judged provocative, it was a mystery as to why Brambell had not been arrested multiple times every week.
'Wilfrid was a very friendly man,' Simpson explained, 'in as much as, when he was drunk, he'd smile and chat to everybody: "Good evening, dear sir, how are you tonight?" You know, he'd smile at everybody. And when we were told that he was seen smiling at passers-by down the Uxbridge Road, Shepherd's Bush, we thought, "Yeah, that sounds like Wilfrid". He would, you know, eight gin and tonics later, as they say: "Hello, my dear sir, good evening!"'
In order to illustrate this point in court, a number of Brambell's friends were called by the defence to vouch for his good character. A local businessman, Francis Ridgeway, spoke of the many times that he and his wife had entertained the actor in their Bayswater home, and how he had often brought a female friend with him for the evening. 'Never has his behaviour,' Ridgeway stressed, 'suggested homosexuality to me'. The writer Ray Galton was another one there to show his support, saying that, during the one year in which he had known and worked with the actor, he had 'always found him very pleasant' and, he added helpfully, 'normal'.
It was then Brambell's turn to address the court. Standing up straight but, with his diminutive height and whippet-thin frame, looking painfully vulnerable, he began his own defence.
Recalling the events of that night in November, he said that he had, as he often did, attended a cocktail party at the BBC's Television Centre between 6 and 8.30pm, 'drinking large gin and tonics'. Explaining what happened next, he said: 'I was fuddled. I was proposing to go home. I believe I left by myself. I walked as far as Shepherd's Bush Green. I was proposing getting a taxi home'. He then said that, when no cabs came into sight, he walked on and looked for one at both ends of the Green, and, while he was waiting, used the lavatories several times.
When accosted by the two policemen, he said, he was shocked and confused by their accusations, and had protested his innocence vigorously. He denied having apologised for his behaviour.
A hush then fell on the court room when Wilfred Fordham looked the actor in the eye and asked sombrely: 'Mr Brambell, are you a homosexual?' Brambell replied, loudly and firmly, by saying: 'No, sir'.
The case was then adjourned for a week, partly so that the magistrate (the aptly-named Seymour Collins) could, out of judicial curiosity, go and see the lavatories in question for himself. Brambell, meanwhile, was put on bail.
When the hearing resumed on 12 December, Mr Collins was ready to reveal his verdict. Looking directly at Brambell, he said: 'It may be accepted that you are a friendly person, and on this occasion drink did bring out, in addition to excessive friendliness, some sexual tendencies which normally are controlled or sublimated. It is not necessary for a person to be a homosexual to do this sort of thing. Regretful though I am, I must find this matter proved'.
Brambell was conditionally discharged for a year and ordered to pay 25 guineas costs. Emerging from the court to face the crowd of cameramen and the many rows of reporters, he put on a brave face and told them: 'Thank God my five weeks of hell are over. Now I just want to get back to work'. He then got into a taxi and set off for the BBC's Television Centre, where he was due to rehearse an episode of the next series of Steptoe And Son.
The following day, the newspapers were surprisingly restrained in their coverage of the verdict, with most of them burying it away on the inside pages in a short and sober paragraph. Journalists knew that they had witnessed both sides lying: the police with their ludicrous efforts to turn smiling into a dangerous act of solicitation, and Brambell with his blatant denial of his homosexuality. Their muted reaction was prompted mainly by their belief that the actor had not deserved the public humiliation caused by the case and had therefore suffered enough, and they were content to hold back, at least for a while, and gauge public opinion.
The BBC, meanwhile, was in crisis over the controversy. Without a clear and transparent in-house procedure, during this era, for responding to sexual scandals, the BBC's management had been plunged into a period of panic when the case first went to court, with a perplexingly varied range of arguments being proffered, privately, as to how the broadcaster could and should respond.
Some, angered and alarmed at the kind of allegations that were being made, had said they should sack Brambell with immediate effect, while others had wanted to show faith and stick with him; some had pondered possible ways to ease him back in to his television work once the issue was over, while others argued that he should be thrown to the wolves. The clock had ticked on, louder and louder, while the arguments continued, and by the time that the verdict appeared in the newspapers on the morning of 13 December, and with the first episode of the new series about to be recorded just a matter of hours later that same day, Wilfrid Brambell's future was still acutely uncertain.
Anyone in his position, drained and humiliated by the past month on trial, would probably have said, as they prepared to stand before the public again, that they felt naked. It was Brambell's misfortune to do so when he actually was naked.
The episode due to be recorded that evening was entitled The Bath, and, as if he was not feeling vulnerable enough in the circumstances, the script required him to spend the first eleven minutes with nothing on except a Homburg hat while sitting in a tin bath, and then, with cruel irony, he was later obliged to stare at a poster of a lavatory and bidet. It was actually set up to be a real tour de force by him, with old Albert centre stage and at his best and most grotesque, caterwauling The Foolish Things as he scrubbed his back, fishing his pickled onions from out of his bath water and gurning in pleasure as a new infusion of hot water begins to circulate around his body.
Brambell, arriving at the studios in Lime Grove, felt terrible. He wanted to vomit, was sweating profusely, and felt faint. Always an extremely skinny man, the trauma of the trial had seen him lose several more pounds in weight (he later described himself as resembling at that time 'a rusted wooden washboard'), and he had also picked up an infection, giving him a temperature of 103 degrees.
Fortified by several large gulps of gin, Brambell, accompanied by his supportive co-star Harry H. Corbett, waited in the wings, with only a dressing gown to cover his emaciated naked frame, and prepared to walk out on to the stage and stand in front of the audience for the first time since his trial. As he emerged blinking nervously into the spotlight, his bosses stayed hidden in the shadows, waiting to witness the reaction.
'If they cheered him,' the executive Bill Cotton later revealed, 'he would stay. If they jeered him, he would go. It was really as stark and dramatic as that'.
They cheered him. In fact, after he and Corbett had been introduced to the audience and the recording actually began, with the camera focussed on Brambell in his bath, the applause could not have been louder or warmer.
His memories of that particular recording session would in part involve his loss of any love for pickled onions (a 'favourite food' of his, up to that point, until the 'revolting realism' of the scene, which led to one of the larger onions, submerged underwater, ending up slipping 'into my anal orifice'), but would mainly focus on his gratitude to the assembled members of the public for being so supportive. Without knowing how much power they held in their hands that night, they clapped him so enthusiastically that they actually saved his career.
A few months later, after the series had been screened, Brambell was again being treated like a beloved celebrity, invited to take part in The Royal Variety Performance and being nominated for numerous awards, and, in 1964, he even found himself alongside The Beatles in a major international movie (A Hard Day's Night). He would also continue to play fiercely heterosexual, and often fiercely homophobic, roles, including the character who would serve as the template for Rigsby in Rising Damp.
During the 1970s, he shared his basement flat in Pimlico very discreetly with his new partner Yussof Bin Mat Saman (a much-younger Malayan man to whom he would refer in public as his 'valet'), and, every summer, holidayed alone in a Hong Kong hotel, where he would drink far too much gin and flirt with innumerable men who usually had no idea who he was. He also published his memoirs, the ironically-titled All Above Board, which made no reference either to his true sexuality or his unhappy past experiences with the police. It was as if the court case had never happened.