A brutal and unaccommodating slice of social realism is coming to town. A new play at Hammersmith’s Lyric Theatre promises to chill the blood. It is the story of two men, who “wake up every morning to the same old, same old, sickening sight of each other”. Their lives are “knitted together as tight as a thrice-darned sock”. They are poor, ill-educated and related. The father spends most of his limited energy undermining his son. The son is desperate to escape his father’s psychological clutches but his every attempt is stymied. It is a kind of living hell, a forensic examination of human inertia in the style of Beckett or Buñuel.
You are probably not finding any of this funny. And yet Steptoe and Son is among the most lauded British situation comedies of the past half-century. It made its debut in 1962, the year of the first Beatles single and the first Bond movie, as the antithesis of those two epochal cultural phenomena. Steptoe was resolutely unglamorous, and contained not a hint of the upward social mobility that was seemingly sweeping the country. This was a vision of the 1960s that was rooted in the economic depression of the 1930s. History repeating itself. No, no, no, in a world that was about to start singing yeah, yeah, yeah.
There were some laughs along the way. In later series of the television show in the mid-1970s, writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson relied on the by now familiar catchphrases that ignited the rows between the two men: “You dirty old man!” always brought the house down. The situations became sillier, the insults more scabrous.
But the soul of Steptoe and Son resides in the melancholy monochrome of those early, pioneering episodes. In the pilot, “The Offer”, it wasn’t clear that this was a comedy at all. Harold decides to leave his father once and for all. He says his brusque goodbyes, loads the cart. But he can’t budge it. He pushes and pushes, but it doesn’t move an inch. He bursts out crying. The sequence is uncomfortably long, the metaphor as cruel as it is crude. Albert sidles across the yard to put a paternal arm around his son. “I’ll put the kettle on. Get the old sausages going. You like sausages, don’t you?” Harold is inconsolable. He is going nowhere.
Emma Rice is the director of Kneehigh’s production of Steptoe, opening next week in London after highly acclaimed performances in the rest of the country. She says the show is in keeping with the darkness of those early episodes. I tell her I find them almost unwatchable. “It is the story of two people caught in the poverty trap,” she counters. “They are angry, with each other, with their situation.” And the situation may have its comic moments, but only up to a point. “The scripts are exquisite, but not so full of laughter.”
Rice sees a certain synergy between the themes explored in Steptoe, and the ties that bind the members of Kneehigh, the Cornwall-based company founded in 1980 that has given such lustre to the concept of community theatre. “We are such a family, and so used to the tension between always wanting to go away, and then wanting to come back to each other,” she says. “We totally understand the pain of that situation.” The production is certainly more expansive and fantastical than the television series, but faithful to its social significance. “This is the first time that working class people were seen on mainstream television,” she says.
Rice has a record in turning popular culture landmarks into thrilling theatrical adaptations: there was the Powell and Pressburger masterpiece A Matter of Life and Death at the National Theatre, as well as Brief Encounter and The Red Shoes. “To be truthful, I regard myself above all as a storyteller,” she says. “And as I didn’t have a fantastic education, most of my references come from popular culture, films and television.”
Her revisits are a testament to the lasting power of works that were perceived as ephemeral, but have turned into something more resonant. Whisper it softly but it may just be that television sitcoms and cinematic melodrama teach us more about the age in which they were produced, and indeed human nature, than more apparently ambitious works. Their cursory dismissal is our loss.
Steptoe left us another legacy. Its deft mixing of comedy and drama was decades ahead of its time. Today there is a word for it: the “dramedy”, a hybrid and complex form that leaves us hovering between wry laughter and quiet despair. Watch Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in the BBC’s strangely underrated The Trip, or Channel 4’s promising The Mimic, or HBO’s Enlightened. They are funny, but also uncomfortable. Pathos is fast becoming the keynote of our age.
Steptoe did it better than most. In the third episode of that searing first series, “The Economist”, Harold brings back from his round 4,000 sets of false teeth, which he has bought for £40, and intends to sell at a profit. The scene when he explains the scheme to his father is played mainly for laughs. But we are brought sharply back to more solemn affairs. “It’s horrible,” says Albert, looking disgustedly at the cart-load of teeth. “It’s like Birkenau.” Humour never lay so closely to real calamity. Nowhere was it better persuaded that there was no such thing as a free laugh.
‘Steptoe and Son’, Lyric Hammersmith, March 19-April 6, www.lyric.co.uk
More columns at www.ft.com/aspden
Listen to Peter Aspden reading his column at www.ft.com/culturecast