Review for Steptoe and Son - The Lost US Pilot
We do live in extraordinary times – and I love it! Despite the wealth of entertainment, old and new, now available on the box (thanks to streaming services like Netflix and curio cable-style retro TV stations like ‘Talking Pictures’) there will always be stuff that remains unavailable to collectors in any format other than physical media. This fascinating lost pilot is a perfect example; cleaned up and brought back to life by the magnificent folk at Kaleidoscope.
‘Steptoe and Son’ was my introduction to the work of genius comedy writers, Alan Simpson and Ray Galton. It didn’t take me long to back-peddle to Tony Hancock, becoming a lifelong fan of the great man. In fact, I spent a most memorable evening in a pub in Hampton with Alan Simpson once who wasn’t in the least phased by my over-exuberant enthusiasm for his work and was only too happy to share a few behind the scenes experiences over a few pints. Happy days!
‘Steptoe and Son’ is an undisputed British comedy classic, featuring an aged rag and bone man and his hard-working, long-suffering, socially deluded son who believes he was made for better things. This juxtaposition provided more than enough material for Galton and Simpson, who would frequently pen episodes featuring just the two together, set in the confines of their home and yard in Shepherd Bush. It’s frequently laugh aloud funny and, if you haven’t done so already, well worth picking up.
It began life in 1962 on the BBC as a one-off single play for Comedy Playhouse and went on for seven series. It became a national institution of comedy and the BBC made seven series.
I was aware that the success of the show had promoted a US version; ‘Sanford and Son’. Ironically, as I has spent time as a kid in the USA in the early seventies, it was this version I had seen first. Possibly a little edgier than its British counterpart, it featured two black men and frequently explored issues of racism, though primarily the narrative conceit was pretty much the same as ‘Steptoe’.
However, I was blissfully unaware, until this release, that there had been a much earlier attempt to export the idea stateside in 1967, five years into the UK version’s run. Produced and penned by Joseph E. Levine, and starring Lee Tracy, Aldo Ray and Jonathan Harris, a highly polished pilot was produced by NBC, though was, for whatever reason, never transmitted.
However, the producers were good enough to send Galton and Simpson a 35mm copy for their reference, which for the most part, remained untouched in their archives until relatively recently.
‘Rescued’ and re-stored by Kaleidoscope, it looks in incredibly fine fettle today; a satisfyingly detailed and high contrast monochrome image with excellent audio – which is as well as the elderly Albert in this version has a propensity to swallow some of his lines, reducing them to a mumble, which may be, in part, why it was to remain ‘on the shelf’ and never aired.
So what’s it like? Well, it’s definitely worth a watch. It’s wry, witty and fun in the same way that ‘Bewitched’ is for example – plenty of wise-cracks and with some, small points of poignancy, though nowhere near as much as the original series delivered.
Whilst the story is pretty much that of the original; in terms of tone and humour, it’s probably a closer bedfellow of ‘The Odd Couple’ than the original UK series.
Harold, Albert’s middle-aged son, suspects that is old man may well be goofing off during the day, whilst he is out grafting for the pair of them. What he discovers is that, not only is it true, but the crafty old fella is feeding him second class meals, whilst dining on Steak himself.
When he threatens to leave the family business, Albert says that he will give the whole business to his son, hook, line and sinker to his son, whilst he retires. Harold fears there must be a catch but when it seems that none if forthcoming, he goes ahead and signs the deal.
Of course, the crafty older man has noted that it has become law that a younger relative, cohabiting with an older relative, must care for them and that means a decent retirement for the older man.
Of course, things don’t work out quite as planned, with Harold bringing in a business consultant to ‘shake up the business’ who starts to make changes that upset Albert – like changing the name of the business for starters. Realising his mistake, he tracks down the contract signing over the business to his son, and burns it, effectively invalidating it.
It’s all a lot of fun and very like other US sitcoms of the time.
However, releasing just this one single episode (running at under 30 minutes) seems a bit slight to realistically expect a lot of buyers. There may be some ‘Steptoe’ completists, prepared to pay a premium, but I suspect not that many.
There is just one, very short extra feature too, running in at just over 4 minutes, showing some footage from a Kaleidoscope documentary, ‘The Native Hue of Resolution’ featuring Ray Galton and long-time Galton and Simpson assistant, Tessa Le Bars. I for one would have been delighted to have had the whole documentary, which would have made the whole package seem a bit more worthwhile.
That said, the episode is enormous fun and if, by buying this release, it makes some small contribution to Kaleidoscope’s excellent cause, then I for one wouldn’t begrudge the price. Long may stuff like this continue to be discovered and released.