"Steptoe and Son"
20 March 1970, "Any Old Iron?"
Written by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson
Wilfred Brambell: Alfred Steptoe
Harry H. Corbett: Harold Steptoe
Richard Hurndall: Timothy Stanhope
Roger Avon: Edgar
Harold is impressed by a sophisticated visiting antiques dealer, Timothy Stanhope, but Stanhope sees only one thing of interest in the junkyard - Harold. Albert tries to warn Harold in his bigoted way that Stanhope is a “poof”, but Harold won’t listen. When Harold has dinner with Stanhope, he is in for a big surprise.
When this was made, homosexuality had been legal in Britain for barely three years. When it was repeated on B.B.C.-2 back in the '90's, a gay man wrote to 'Points Of View' angrily objecting to the homophobic stance adopted by Albert, and suggested the episode be 'never shown again'. The B.B.C. pointed out that the attitudes were of a different era.
As far I can tell, this is the very first sitcom to feature a fully rounded, explicitly homosexual character. Notably, this isn't some minor sitcom, or something that is just starting out, without the fear of upsetting an established audience. Steptoe and Son is an enormously popular sitcom.
An antique dealer is a bit of a cliché, but it’s a fairly reasonable incursion into the otherwise grotty world of the Steptoes. Alan Bennett did his version of a gay antiques dealer a few years earlier, and “12+1” (1969) had Willie Rushton and Tim Brooke-Taylor as two gay lovers who ran an antiques emporium. While Bennett, Rushton and Brook-Taylor play it as various sorts of camp, Hurndall’s portrayal is upper-class. This is deliberate, so that there is confusion as to where upper class manners end and gay manners start. Admittedly, the audience are lead to the right assumption fairly quickly, so the necessary comedic confusion is mostly Harold’s, resulting in some particularly large laughs. The characterisation does play off English assumptions about upper-class sexual predilections, barely masked by the sophisticated manners to which a certain aspirational type of homosexual also liked to make pretences. A haughty concern for style and a drawling speech – stately home or stately homo? It does also spare us any of the limp-wristed fairy stereotypes which would be so dominant during much of the ‘70s in UK comedy.
It’s fairly even-handed as a written piece and as a performance. Though we largely know Albert is right, since he is such a nasty base little creature, his unremittingly offensive nature actually takes the edge off his offensive remarks. Although it’s noteworthy that the writers resist putting most of the easy and obvious gibes about homosexuality in Albert’s mouth. Instead, he’s more concerned that Harold doesn’t unwittingly surrender himself to Timothy. It is however fairly obvious to the audience what Timothy is, and just where his interests really lie. It is Harold who is made to look a fool, with his naivety, and also his sudden excursion into unisex fashion. Timothy is just the right character to tempt Harold. The main theme of the entire series is Harold’s repeated and failed attempts to escape the scrapyard for a better, more cultured life, so Harold deliberately blinds himself to a possible homosexual approach because of his eagerness at what Timothy represents.
It is however unusual that, unlike most gay characters in sitcoms, the suave Timothy takes an active sexual interest. As a result, this is why at the end of the episode Harold makes a sudden sexual assault on Dolly Miller. As in the cartoons from the Vassall episode, the best way of disavowing homosexuality is a blatant heterosexual display. The capper of the gay policeman is a nice final twist, further winding up but then deflating Harold’s panic. Slightly daring too, in suggesting a senior police officer could be gay.
All in all, this is a much more sophisticated effort than “Up Pompeii”, which can lay claim to featuring the first gay characters in as sitcom. So it’s a bit of a pity, that Galton and Simpson let themselves down by exercising all those same gay clichés when they wrote a camp Robin Hood in their screenplay for “Up the Chastity Belt” (1971)
At the end of 2009, I got in touch with Galton and Simpson through their agent, and they were able to answer a few questions about this episode.
1. Were they conscious that they were writing a “first” of its kind, a sitcom episode about homosexuality, featuring an explicitly gay character? Or were they aware of any sitcom predecessors?
“WE WERE NOT AWARE OF WRITING A FIRST OF ANY PREDECESSORS. WE WANTED TO BE AS FAIR AS POSSIBLE AND STILL BE FUNNY FOR BOTH CAMPS AND HOPE THAT IT WOULD CAUSE NO TROUBLE FOR THE GAY COMMUNITY (AS IT WAS NOT CALLED THEN)”
2. Were there pressures put on them not to write this episode? Was there any censorship?
“NO PRESSURE WAS PUT ON US NOT TO WRITE IT, AND WE DO NOT REMEMBER ANY CENSORSHIP AND IF THERE HAD BEEN ANYTHING TOO DRASTIC WE MIGHT HAVE ABANDONED IT.”
3. Did they feel any responsibility in writing it?
“WE WERE HOPING IT WOULD NOT GET TOO MANY CHEAP LAUGHS. WE JUST LOOKED AT IT FROM OUR POV TRYING TO IMAGINE WHAT THEY WOULD THINK AND SAY, BEARING IN MIND WHEN RECENTLY REPEATED IT GOT A TERRIBLE LETTER PRINTED IN RADIO TIMES, DAMNING THE EPISODE, WHICH SURPRISED US.”
Thanks to Galton and Simpson.
The title “Any Old Iron” is a pun at several levels. The traditional cry of the rag and bone man was “Any old iron”. “Any old iron” is also an old music hall song. “Iron” is also rhyming slang – iron hoof = poof. Certain academics like to argue that the whole song is about secret gay codes; “old green tie”, “you look neat”, etc.
There is a further irony in this episode. The actor, Wilfred Brambell, who played the grotesque Albert was gay and had been arrested for cottaging. Americans will recognise him as “the clean old man” from the Beatles’ “Hard Day’s Night”.
When “Steptoe and Son” was transferred to American TV as “Sanford and Son”, this episode was partly recycled in an early episode, “The Piano”.
(H has been talking about talking about how he wants to open an antique shop. A has accidentally destroyed a valuable painting and a piece of Meissen pottery. A is chased into the yard where, TS, a tall gentleman wearing a cape is looking around the yard.
TS has a suave, resonant, smooth, upper-class voice, rather like George sanders. )
A: Good afternoon, sir. See anything you fancy?. Help yourself. Don’t go in there though.
T: Why not?
A: The ‘orse is in there. She don’t like strangers. Yer liable to get a couple of ‘oofs up yer ‘arris. Was yer looking for anything in particular.
T: No, nothing in particular. But I know you chaps come across the odd piece that is a little out of your line. And I was just passing….
A: Oh, you’re in the trade then?
T: Well, I’m a dealer.
A: I thought you looked too much of a jessy (catches himself. TS raises eyebrow)…sorry, gent for a totter. Antiques? You’d better see me partner, that’s his department. (bellows back into house) ‘Arold! Won’t be a minute. Come out ‘ere!
T: Don’t bother I don’t think here’s anything here that would
(Harold comes out and TS suddenly pauses as he looks on)
T: … interest me. (appreciatively) Good afternoon
A: That’s me son, Harold
T: (looks him up and down) What a Fine looking boy.
(A squints at TS with suspicion)
A:This gentleman is an antique dealer
H: Oh yes, how do you do
T: Ooh! What a strong grip you have! (smiling broadly) Very powerful. I’m sure your biceps are very well developed
H: Oh well, you know how it is, you have to hump a lot of heavy gear about in this game.
(retrieves hand still in TS’s grip) Is there anything I can do for you
T: (looking H full in the face) I’m sure you can
H: What actually did you have in mind
T: Well, that depends what you have to offer, isn’t it. I confine my activities to the 16th and 17th century.
H: Yes, that is a lovely period.
T: I’m so glad you agree. I think that after everything became so nasty, don’t you think
H: Definitely. All that heavy Hanoverian clobber they started making. It’s far too ornate
T: It lost such a lot of its simplicity
H: Exactly. (pointedly appreciating this conversation from which A is excluded) In my opinion. After Chippendale, they turned out a load of old crap.
T: Quite. How rare to find a connoisseur in such UNLIKELY surroundings.
H: Well, I’ve always been interested. It sort of rubs off on you in this business.
A: Not the only thing that rubs off on you
T: Then you do have the occasional thing passing through your hands
(shares his black Russian cigarettes.
TS bends in close to light his cigarette off H’s lit – elicits enormous audience laughter)
T: Well, here’s my card
H: Oh, Timothy Stan-hope
T: Stan’ope. And you are?
H: Harold Steptoe. Wiv an E.
(H offers his hand to shake goodbye)
T: Well, it’s been extremely pleasant meeting you. And if you do come across anything, you will THINK of me, won’t you? Goodbye. Oh, and the number on the right is my home number. . . . (lightly cocks his eyebrow) ANYtime. Good afternoon.
(TS leaves. A trails a little after him. H practices pronouncing Stan’ope. A turns to face H)
A: He fancies you.
A: You ‘eard. He fancies yer.
H: Don’t be so stupid.
A: He’s a poof!
H: He’s not a “poof!”!
A: Course he is, mate. “The number on the right is my home number. Anytime”.
H: Everybody’s a poof to you, eh? aint they? Anyone who dresses well, talks nice, with a bit of refinement. “He’s a poof!”
A: Well, he’s one. I’m tellin’ yer. I can smell ‘em a mile off. Specially ‘im. (nods head in direction TS left and pulls protracted scowl)
H: Looook, look, that’s aftershave lotion, that’s all. Everyone wears aftershave lotion.
A: I don’t.
H: Well, you ought to. You especially.
A: He’s a poof, I’m telling yer. He’s as bent as a boomerang. You arsk ‘im.
H: I’m not about to go around asking people things like that. (mimic TV reporter holding microphone) Excuse me, my dad says you’re a poof. Have you any comment to make?
A: Well, I’m warnin yer that’s all.
H: I don’t understand you. You’ve got it on the brain. You got poof-mania! Everybody on television is a poof! The announcers, the newsreaders, even the weathermen – they’re all poofs. I’ll mention a film star to you, what do you say? “He’s a poof! Heh-Heh!” How do you know? Where do you get your information from?
A: I’m not going to argue with yer. He’s an iron ‘oof and that’s all there is to it. You mark my words, ‘E’ll be back.
H: I don’t know about that. (disconsolately) There’s nothing here, he’s after.
A: That’s what YOU think!
(TS strolls into yard, swinging cane loosely. A enters yard from door. Stares at TS for a long pause)
T: Good afternoon.
(A says nothing, scowls, walks away then scurries into house to H. H is sat down. A knocks him on shoulder)
A: She’s ‘ere again!
H: Who is it?
A: The girlfriend!
H: Ah, leave it out Dad.
A: Getting a bit keen, isn’t she? It’s the third time she’s been here this week.
H: Well, don’t keep calling ‘im ‘er. There’s nothing wrong wiv…them.
A: Best not keep her waiting.
(H walks out to stop A talking in this vein, followed by A. TS smiles to see H)
T: Hello Harold.
H: Hello. I haven’t found anything for you yet.
T: No, no, that’s quite alright. I didn’t expect you to. The reason I popped round is that yesterday I found some rather amusing Italian Renaissance buttons. And I recalled our most amusing conversation the other day about Florentine art, and how keen you weee on the period.
H: Ah well, I dunno all that much about it.
T: You are a very perceptive and cultured young man, Harold
H: Well I’m always willing to learn
T: Oh good. Well I had these buttons made up into cufflinks. And I’d like you to have them
(TS picks box out of his trouser pocket and gives to H, who opens them up)
H: Oh they’re lovely (almost speechless in gratitude) Oh… I don’t what to say
T: Don’t say anything. It’s my pleasure. Well now I really must dash! (very jolly) I’m going to a charity midnight auction of all things! (causally) By the way, what are you doing tomorrow?
H: Out on the ‘orse and cart as usual
T: I mean tomorrow evening
H: Oh nothing. Why?
T: I have two tickets for the Bolshoi ballet. They’re giving Diaghilev’s “Nutcracker” again
H: (pleased for him) Oh really!
T: (pulling himself to look down on H, full in face) And I wondered - if you’re not absolutely STRICKEN, by the thought of ballet, (slightly breathy) whether you’d care to join me?
H: I’d love to. (TS stares in appreciation) I like dancing
T: You’re quite sure there’s nothing in your book?
H: Oh, no, no.
T: (pleased) Good! (jovial) Well, I’ll pick you up at eight. By the way, wear black tie.
H: Why? Is somebody dead?
(TS leaves laughing)
H: What’s he larfing at?
(A sidles up)
A: Oh it’s presents, now is it? Italian renaissance cufflinks. Bit strong isn’t it. Sprat to catch a mackerel that is
H: That’s your DIR-ty little mind again. This a present from one connoisseur to another
A: “One connoisseur to another”. And what are you going to give to ’im? Three and a half yards of lead piping?
H: I don’t want to discuss it with you any further. You just wouldn’t understand. As Lucrezia Borgia said, To the evil all things is evil. Timothy said,
A: (suddenly pricking up again) Oh-ho, it’s Timothy NOW is it?
H: Mr Stanhope is a very cultivated man. I could learn a lot from him.
A: (downbeat) I bet you could
H: He’s an expert. He knows all there is to know about antiques. He’s gonna be very useful for when I open my shop. (enthused and admiring) He knows all about art and music and literature. And I want to know about them too. (proud) We’re going to the ballet tomorrow night
A: (plaintively) But you always go down to the Skinners Arms on Friday and ‘ave a go at Dolly Miller - she’ll be expectin yer.
H: Then you’ll have to tell I’ve got another engagement, wontcher? I can’t build my life around the Skinners Arms and Dolly Miller. (adopting posher tones) There are broader horizons than hers. If you’ll forgive, I’m going to the ballet with Timothy and that’s all there is to it.
A: (growling to himself) Ballet! Poof’s football, that’s all that is!
(H comes down to A eating supper. H enters with composed strut, as is wearing new clothes, long jerkin-waistcoat, long scarf, and a bag slung over one shoulder. A looks on aghast)
A: Gord-blimey! What does ‘e look like? You’re not going out on the street dressed like that, are yer?
H: I’m glad you don’t like it. That shows it must be alright
A: Did ‘e buy that for yer
H: No he didn’t! I bought it. Don’t you worry, I pay my wack.
A: (mocking) Oh, I see you’ve got yer ‘andbag with yer?
H: This is a gent’s shoulderbag, this is. It’s to prevent any unsightly bulges in the trousers.
A: Man’s shoulderbag! (slightly pitying) Oh stop it Harold, before it’s too late, you don’t know what you’re letting yerself in for.
H: Oh for Gawd’s sake, father, get on with your fromage, stop fussing around me. I shall probably be home late tonight
A: Again? You’ve been out every night this week. Where yer going?
H: Mind your own business. I’m going out with Timothy. Alright?
A: ‘Arold. I am here, to tell you, that you’ll get yerself talked about.
(again adopting posher tones over his cockney) Talked about, by whom, pray?
A: The neighbours, for a start
H: The neighbours? You don’t seriously think I’m concerned with the tittle-tattle of the local petiTT-bourgeoisie, do you? I mean, what would they know of the beauty of the Homeric union between two cultured minds?
A: ‘Arold, you’re on the turn!
H: I’m not on the turn! Look, will you try to realise that what Timothy and I have is a straightforward aesthetic and Platonic relationship. Gawd-blimey, just because he talks a little better than you…
A: Yeah, and wears scent.
H: He don’t wear scent. He wears aftershave lotion. He’s a very cultivated, and a cultured man. He might be a bit arty-crafty, but that don’t mean he’s a poof!
A: Does to me!
H: That remark is typical of you! I’ve said all I’ve got to say! Look, try to understand father – he’s opened my mind to a world of beauty and refinement which is unassailable by vile innuendo and coarse jests!
A: You don’t even sound like ‘Arold
(H by door, ready to leave, turns around to point at A)
H: Furthermore, if I get any more, I shall punch you straight in the throat!
A: Ah, that’s better. ‘Arold, Don’t go out tonight, ‘Arold, stay in at ‘ome with me.
H: No I’m sorry father, I’m having dinner with Timmy
A: Dinner? Where?
H: Round his flat, if you must know
A: (worried) Oh no, ‘Arold, don’t go round to his flat. ( hurriedly and tearfully) Ask ‘im round ‘ere. I’ll get some fish and chips. We’ll use your mother’s best fish knives. They’re still in the box. Please, ‘Arold, don’t go round to ‘is flat - it’s a trap!
(H: explaining) Look, it’s a business dinner. It’s a working dinner, a business conference. Look, he’s found some premises that’ll make a nice little shop for me. He’s going to put the money up.
A: The filthy swine!
H: He’s doing me a favour.
A: Yeah! And what’s he getting out of it?!
H: He’s getting a share of the profits. That is all. It’s a straight forward business deal. It’s what we’ve always wanted. You’re included
A: Not me, mate, I wouldn’t touch a penny of his money. He’s not gonna get away with this. I’ll ‘ave you made a ward of court! I’ll ‘ave the police on ‘im for corruptin a minor!
H: Pater, I’m thirty-nine years old. (puts on large-brimmed hat)
A: (in horror) Oh - no! No, ‘Arold, ‘Arold, please stop it before it’s too late. Come back to the straight and narrow. I saw Dolly Miller today.
H: with disdain) How uninterestin.
A: She was arskin for yer (lewd wink) You’ll be alright there. You was always keen on ‘ere, weren’t yer?
H: Well yes, in an h’animalistic sort of a way. But there was never any rapport of the intellect. Nah, she’s as dim as a glowworm’s armpit, she is.
A: But she’s dead keen. Ring ‘ er up. Blow ‘im out and go around and give Dolly a seeing to. You’ll feel much better.
H: I am not interested in Dolly Miller. A whole new life is opening up before me, and I’m not gonna let it go. I’ve lived in ugliness long enough.
A: (softly) ‘Arold. Be careful
H: I’m quite capable of looking after myself. Thank you very much
(A turns and suddenly picks up a truncheon off sidedresser)
A: E’re, put his in yer ‘andbag. And if he tries anything, ‘it ‘im!
(H takes truncheon and slams it on table)
H: For the last time! There’s nothing wrong with Timmy! Now, with your approval, I shall now go to my dinner.
A: ‘Arold! Don’t go on the bus wearin that! The skin’ead’s’ll get yer!
(H at the door turns to speak to A)
H: I’ve no intention on going on the bus ever again. Timmy’s sending his chauffeur round to pick me up. Goodnight, father. Don’t wait up for me.
A: Alright! Go! I don’t care! I knows what’s gonna ‘appen to you mate! You’re gonna finish up in a drag show down at the Skinner’s Arms. (scowl, which creases into look of genuine concern)
TS’s apartment. TS and H sat across from each other at an intimate table, just finishing meal
H: (in his plumy voice) That was absolutely superb! (dabs mouth on napkin, beat) What Was it?
T: That was a jarret de veau menager.
H: (covering) Oh yes, I thought it was. Beautiful
T: I wasn’t too sure about the wine
H: Oh your fears was groundless. No, the Château Lafite Rothschild ’59? was a superb complement to the jarret de, er, to the meat.
T: Oh I’m so glad. Only I’m not a great wine drinker myself
(H: brightly) Oh aren’t you? Oh, That’s something I can educate you on
T: (intrigued) Oh…
H: As Montaigne said, a meal without wine is like a day without sunshine
T: Oh? Was that Montaigne?
H: I believe it was. It was either ‘im or Fanny Craddock
(smiling TS pours more wine for H)
H: ‘Ang on, ‘ang on! You’ll get me Brahms and Liszt in a moment. About our little bit of business
T: No, no, not now dear boy, we’ll talk business later. (rising from table) Let us relax and enjoy ourselves (gestures to seat) Now help yourself to the Armagnac. I’ll just go get into something more comfortable. Make yourself comfortable on the couch. Is it hot in here, or is it me?
(H, oblivious, pats face with scarf)
H: It’s hot, it’s very hot
T: I thought it was. I won’t be a minute.
(waves to TS as he leaves) Yes, right, right.
(H drains glass, stands up, walks around table, slightly drunk, moves into main part of apartment with many attractive furnishings to couch)
H: (taking it all in) Ah it’s beautiful!
(H sits on couch, stretches out and luxuriates, then sees brandy and pours himself a largish glass)
H: Ah look at that! Birmingham cut glass, Stourbridge. Beautiful! That’s Stourbridge, 1893?
(TS re-enters room)
T: Ah that’s better
(H turns around to see TS is now dressed in rich dressing gown/smoking jacket. H suddenly realises what the situation is, look of panic flashes face as he takes a large gulp of brandy. TS comes around, sits next to H on couch and stretches arm along seat behind H who sits bolt upright away from TS)
T: Don’t you find it rather warm in here?
H: (anxiously changing topic) No-no-no. About the site for the shop?
T: These lights are rather harsh don’t you think?
(TS turns off sidelamp. H swivels head nervously about)
T: You were saying?
H: Yes, about, about the site for the shop?
(T: cutting across H) You know I’m still awfully hot. Feel my hands.
(TS extends palm, which H momentarily touches)
H: Oh yes. How very clammy.
T: Why don’t you take off your scarf and relax? (fingers scarf)
H: No, no, (pulls scarf back) I, I’d rather keep it on if you don’t mind. I’m quite cold actually.
T: Are you? (suddenly takes H’s hand)
H: (unexpectedly brusquely) Watch it mate.
T: (lets go of H’s hand) What’s the matter?
H: (goes back to being politely evasive) No, no, nothing, honestly. It’s just nerves. It’s the excitement. With the shop and all that
T: You know, your hands are just as hot as mine.
(H is wringing his hands by now)
T: Exquisitely shaped hands you have for a man!
H: Have I? I hadn’t looked.
T: Oh yes! The first thing I notice about people, their hands. Yours are exceptionally fine, such sensitive fingers. (leans in) Do you play the piano?
H: No, not really. I used to bash out a few tunes down at the old NAFFI. (mimes ”In the Mood”, with every bar bumping in his seat away from TS)
T: Harold! You’re nervous of me, aren’t you?
H: No I’m not.
T: Yes you are. You’re very tense. You don’t have to be frightened of me. I’m not going to hurt you.
H: I know.
(TS moves across seat closer to H again)
T: Harold, I’ve grown very fond of you, you know that don’t you?
H: Have you?
H: Yes. (pause) It’s getting late. I better be going.
O T: h no. It’s early yet.
H: (fakes yawn) Oh dear, oh dear, I’m so tired.
T: Oh Harold, don’t go yet! You’ve only just arrived.
(As H stands up, Ts does too, standing very close to him)
T: You can’t go yet.
H: I think I’d better.
(H steps behind seat away from TS)
T: Oh please, Harold. Don’t go. I’m a very lonely man, Harold.
H: Are you?
H: Why don’t you come down the boozers. A load of us gets in there. We has a knees-up, a game of darts and chat up a few birds.
T: Oh don’t be so silly. Who wants to go out looking for girls?
H: I do! I can’t get enough of them! The more the merrier!
T: This is not like you.
(T steps toward H, and follows him as H gradually makes for the front door)
H: It is! You don’t know me!
T: But Harold! What have I said? What have I done? Whatever it is, I apologise.
H: Nothing, you aint said nothing
T: But you’re upset. I’ve offended you.
(gets man-satchel off coathook by front door)
H: No I’m not. Good night. I’ll see ya.
T: Oh Harold! We haven’t talked about the shop!
H: Well I’ve changed me mind. I don’t want no shop. Er, no offense, good night.
(opens front door. Outside is a police inspector)
P: Hello, hello. What are you doing here?
H: (panicked)Nothing! Nothing. No, I’m absolutely innocent. Nothing’s happened here.
P: Oh yes. What’s your name?
H: It’s Arthur. Arthur Johnson
(TS looks away)
H: (attempting a mumbled Scouse accent) I’m from Liverpool. I’ve just come up for the match. I’ve hot a train to catch. Must get back to the wife and kids.
(runs off. Policeman steps into apartment. Shuts door behind him)
T: (dryly) Hello Edgar. You’re home early.
[shot of Edgar looking on in consideration.
Cut to H outside in the street and who is appalled,. Swings his man-satchel in frustration. Runs down the street, then turns to flick a few “v”s behind him. Cut to another street. Harold runs on. Goes down a flight of steps. Rings doorbell, then bangs on the door. Cries out urgently “Dolly!”. Surprised woman opens the door clad in only a negligee. H suddenly clasps her to him, kissing her repeatedly about the neck. She squeals in approval. She steps back inside, and H follows her, shutting the door behind them.]
(H comes in the next morning confirming that “she” did fancy him after all. A is disgusted with him, and tells him to get out, his bags are packed. Dolly Miller then arrives to return the man-satchel H left behind at her place last night. A realises “she” is a genuine woman. For one brief moment A is proud of H’s heterosexuality, and then reverts to type, disgusted at H’s permissive shennaigans)