The Steptoe And Son Radio Show 2022 tour

Image shows from L to R: John Hewer, Jeremy Smith. Copyright: Andy Evans

You'd be hard pushed to find any sitcom connoisseur who wouldn't contend that Steptoe And Son continues to provoke and to entertain. Surely, it should be impossible to find anybody who doesn't recognise that it paved the way for the genre to be implicit in its handling of both comedic and dramatic storylines, and, in particular, with its complex central characters - those of the equally flawed, equally ardent, equally tragic eponymous Steptoes.

For those reading this who are unfamiliar with the set-up, each of the fifty-seven episodes, originally broadcast 1962 - 1974, tells the story of a father and son (rag-and-bone men/second-hand traders, although this is rarely more than a fabulously decaying backdrop), who are bound by blood. Harold, whose age varies from mid-30s to mid-40s throughout the fourteen year tenure, tries desperately to escape their Oil Drum Lane home, and, moreover, the poisonous relationship he has with his overbearing, under-caring father, Albert. While each episode would invariably focus on Harold's exasperation at being shackled to "a festering fly-blown heap of accumulated filth", Albert, meanwhile, is equally determined not to see his son rise above 'the mire' because, unlike Harold, he sees only a steady business, with regular homecooked meals and the security of companionship. Having survived two world wars, Albert has an unyielding appreciation of the simpler things. So who needs Majorca at Christmas-time when you can go to Mrs. Boxwood's Boarding House in Bognor?

Despite this constant friction, Steptoe And Son has a heart, fractious though it may be, and a gritty, realistic approach to its comedy that was unprecedented in its day. And as for laughs, writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson never left you short-changed. Some episodes are more distinctive than others, but each carries measures of pathos, angst, and a style of comedy rarely surpassed.

Steptoe And Son. Image shows from L to R: Harold Steptoe (Harry H. Corbett), Albert Steptoe (Wilfrid Brambell). Copyright: BBC

In 2017, with my theatre company Hambledon Productions, I first staged a production of Steptoe And Son. Why we did so can be re-discovered here, in a feature I wrote back in 2018. That was more than four years ago now... So what exactly goes into these 'comedy tribute' shows? When and where is the source material so sacrosanct that, to offer a stark, different interpretation, would defy the very reason you're attempting a revival in the first instance?

In 2016, I was standing in the wings of my local theatre, The Riverhead, in Louth, Lincolnshire. There was a performance going on, and I was waiting for my cue. I turned to my left to speak to the assistant director, Jeremy Smith, but was shut down by the sight of his silhouette against the black drapes and the stark lighting spilling from the stage. The image it conjured up was quite eerie... I lowered my voice: "Jerry... you really mustn't take this the wrong way... but in a certain light... you do have the resemblance of Old Man Steptoe..." Jeremy turned to me, looked me square in the eye, gurned impeccably, and growled "meeeeh! Git orf art of it!"

Image shows from L to R: Jeremy Smith, John Hewer. Copyright: Andy Hollingworth

To say, 'the rest, as they say, is history', would be to undermine the careful thoughts and processes that unfolded over the next eleven months. Bringing such iconic characters back to life is tremendous fun, if daunting and riddled with a few, natural insecurities. To have the public support and endorsement of Ray Galton, when he viewed a recording of the production in 2018 (his writing partner, Alan, sadly passed away early in 2017) meant, and means, so much. So too do the mountain of compliments from the legions of avid Steptoe And Son fans; we've had 'purists', sometimes tyrannical it has to be said, determined to undermine our efforts, be won over by the shared emotion of appreciation and delight witnessing these rightly revered scripts and characters brought to life again in front of live audiences.

A further tour followed in 2019, this time a festive edition, which boasted the original 'lost' sketch from the 1962 Christmas Night With The Stars programme. The same was set to tour in 2020, but the pandemic threatened the production to such an extent that the idea was reimagined as a live radio recording reminiscent of the series' heyday, with myself as Harold, Jerry as Albert, and Lucy Cooper joining us as Harold's on/off (mainly off!) girlfriend, Delia.

The 'radio play theatre show' has become immensely popular since an acclaimed revival staging of Round The Horne in the early 2000s. The idea quickly spread to include the Kenneth Williams vehicle Stop Messin' About!, Hancock's Half Hour, The Goon Show, Dad's Army's radio series, Much Binding In The Marsh and The Navy Lark. Other sources, such as It's A Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol, have also leant themselves to this new genre. The attraction is that these classic texts, subjects for which we harbour a nostalgic enthusiasm, are being faithfully recreated from a different perspective, with the emphasis now squarely on the script, and the dynamism between the central characters.

The Steptoe And Son Radio Show's 2022 tour cast. Copyright: Andy Evans

There's also the different theatricality... A mock-up of a live studio recording, with its flashing 'applause' lights and direct address from the performers (usually, the ice is broken by a burlesque take on a stuffy announcer) make the audience feel directly involved. So too does the amplification of foley; the audience are being asked to 'listen' to the sounds derived from a mix of perfectly plausible but sometimes incongruous props, but there's the added comic touch of watching a sharp-suited BBC technician dragging a wooden spoon across a washboard and then throwing a head of lettuce into a tin bucket, to create the desired effect of sounding like the fatal blade dropping of Madame Guillotine (for example, as performed in our 2018 production of The Milligan Papers).

These radio plays often act as a distillation of why the original shows maintain their greatness. In all of the aforementioned examples, too, the sitcoms were already proven to work on radio. Fifty-two episodes of Steptoe And Son were adapted for the medium between 1966 and 1976, extending beyond the TV series by two years.

For Hambledon Productions' upcoming tour, The Steptoe And Son Radio Show, we've teamed up with Apollo Theatre Company, who have produced successful tours of The Goon Show, Hancock's Half Hour and Round The Horne. Together, we've an extensive tour of nearly fifty venues. The three chosen episodes - Is That Your Horse Outside?, A Death In The Family, and Upstairs, Downstairs, Upstairs, Downstairs - will easily familiarise and reacquaint audiences with the Steptoe saga, allowing them to explore all the foibles and tropes of this most iconic father and son pairing.

I'll be in my gum boots and grubby flat cap and Jerry will be there in his neckerchief and tatty cardigan with the holes in the elbows. He may even bring his filthy, and now infamous, long-johns...

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