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Wilfrid Brambell: The sad, lonely life of Steptoe and Son star revealed in new book

Beloved my millions for his role in Steptoe and Son, the Irish actor's funeral was only attended by six people

Wilfrid Brambell found fame with Steptoe and Son. (Alamy)
Wilfrid Brambell found fame with Steptoe and Son. (Alamy)

On the evening of 6 November 1962 Wilfrid Brambell — one of Britain's most popular TV stars — was sensationally arrested outside a public lavatory in London’s Shepherd's Bush Green, charged under the Sexual Offences Act, of 'persistently importuning for an immoral purpose'.

In 1962, Britain was still five years away from the partial legalisation of homosexuality and a public outing — at the time — had the power to kill careers stone dead.

That it didn’t for Brambell shows how cherished he really was by the British public.

Brambell, then freshly-famous for his role in the BBC’s ratings-conquering sitcom Steptoe and Son, had been apprehended by two undercover policemen, for what the prosecution later claimed was “looking and staring at people and smiling at them”.

Brambell was given a 12 month conditional discharge and ordered to pay 25 guineas in costs (with the judge telling him, “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”), and outside the court told reporters: “Thank god my five weeks of hell are over. Now I just want to get back to work.”

Actor Wilfrid Brambell after being given a conditional discharge for importuning for immoral purposes at court today. 12th December 1962. (Photo by Dixie Dean/Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)
Wilfrid Brambell in 1962 after being given a conditional discharge for importuning for immoral purposes. (Getty Images)

But would there be work waiting for him? While some in the BBC wanted the scandal-hit star gone, the new series of Steptoe & Son was due to start recording hours after the court judgement on 13 December.

And his job was on a knife-edge: “If they cheered him,” producer Bill Cotton later revealed, “he would stay. If they jeered him, he would go. It was really as stark and dramatic as that.”

In the end, Brambell was greeted with full-hearted applause from the studio audience. He was safe. Yet the court case had left a permanent scar on the famously private actor.

“At that time the show was so popular, that I think people gave him the benefit of the doubt,” says the writer David Clayton, whose book You Dirty Old Man! is the first authorised biography of Wilfrid Brambell.

Actors Wilfrid Brambell (right) and Harry H Corbett sitting in front of a globe in a scene from episode 'Homes Fit for Heroes' of the television sitcom 'Steptoe and Son', December 12th 1963. (Photo by Don Smith/Radio Times/Getty Images)
Harry H Corbett and Wilfrid Brambell in a 1963 episode of Steptoe and Son. (Don Smith/Radio Times/Getty Images)

“That even went as far as the newspapers – they could have really gone to town on him. I think he probably did go in there to meet somebody, but he got caught in a police trap.”

Though Brambell was, by this point, comfortable in his sexuality he had once been married: in 1948 to a fellow actor named Molly Josephine. The marriage had collapsed, however, after Molly had an affair with the couple’s lodger, giving birth to a love child that Wilfrid initially thought was his.

One of Brambell’s friends, Anne Pichon, took the actor in for a while after the couple’s split and remembered what effect it had on him: “He was staying in my home and I would hear him wake up in the night, literally screaming, howling with pain,” she recalled.

“He seemed to shut the barriers after that,” says Clayton. “He changed towards other people.”

circa 1935:  Irish-born actor Wilfrid Brambell (1912 - 1985).  (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Irish-born actor Wilfrid Brambell circa 1935. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Brambell was 50 when got his big break. Steptoe and Son hadn’t been planned as a series, having initially been written as a single episode — titled The Offer — of the anthology show Galton & Simpson's Comedy Playhouse.

But the BBC saw potential in this tale of two rag ’n’ bone men beyond that one-off and commissioned a full six-episode series. It was an immediate hit, and would end up running from 1962 to 1965, followed by a second spell from 1970 to 1974.

Read more: The glorious life and tragic death of Terry-Thomas

At its peak, Steptoe and Son was attracting audiences of over 20 million and was such a cultural phenomenon that Labour leader Harold Wilson once attempted to have an episode postponed when it was scheduled on the same evening as the General Election.

Much has been made over the years of the supposed friction between Brambell (who played the dishevelled, potty-mouthed Steptoe Sr) and his co-star Harry H Corbett (his social climbing son Harold).

Stage and screen actors Harry H Corbett (1925 - 1982) and Wilfrid Brambell (1912 - 1985), stars of the British television comedy series 'Steptoe and Son'.   (Photo by Mike Lawn/Getty Images)
Harry H Corbett and Wilfrid Brambell in Steptoe and Son. (Mike Lawn/Getty Images)

There was a documentary in 2002, titled When Steptoe Met Son, and a 2008 drama, The Curse Of Steptoe, which suggested the pair could barely tolerate each other. But despite their multitude of differences — Brambell was an actor of the 'learn it and do it' school and Corbett a method actor who’d learned his craft with Joan Littlewood's left-leaning Theatre Workshop — they developed a cordial working relationship.

“I’d always thought that didn’t ring true,” says David Clayton about rumours of the pair’s antagonism towards each other.

“These two had been working with each other for nearly 20 years and I thought, if you really despise somebody every time you work with them, how can you possibly get the best out of yourself and perform that way?

"There were times when they didn’t get on very well, or got frustrated… mainly Harry with Wilfrid, because of his drinking. All the people I spoke to, including [Steptoe writers] Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, were disgusted with that documentary.”

Wilfrid Brambell outside St Paul's Church, Covent Garden after the memorial service for his television son Harry H Corbett.   (Photo by PA Images via Getty Images)
Wilfrid Brambell outside St Paul's Church, Covent Garden after the memorial service for his television son Harry H Corbett. (PA Images via Getty Images)

The picture Clayton’s book paints of Wilfrid Brambell is of an intensely lonely man, who almost obsessively compartmentalised his life. “He never brought any friends to the show,” Simpson recalled before his death in 2017.

“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.”

That was reflected, sadly, in Brambell’s funeral. He died of cancer, aged 72, on 18 January 1985, three years after the death — of a heart attack — of his co-star Harry H Corbett. Just six people attended Wilfrid’s cremation – his brother and partner, Galton and Simpson, a BBC representative, and Harry’s widow, Maureen Corbett.

“I think what happened to him with his wife and the baby, left him pretty scarred,” Clayton says. “Prior to that, he was a very happy, jovial person, so it left deep wounds.

"I mean, he could be feisty, and he obviously drank way too much and generally told people what he thought, but he was very kind with the fans – he was nothing but a gentleman to them.”

Wilfrid Brambell starred alongside The Beatles in 1964's A Hard Day's Night. (Alamy)

Brambell’s fame in Steptoe and Son and particularly Harold’s catchphrase for his slovenly pa, “You dirty old man”, was so great that even the Beatles riffed on it when Richard Lester cast Brambell as Paul McCartney’s grandad in 1964’s A Hard Day’s Night.

“He's a nice old man, isn't he?” John Lennon says to McCartney, who replies, “Oh yeah, he's very clean, y'know.”

Before 1967, many careers were destroyed by the police’s targeting of gay men, and it’s testament to Wildred Brambell’s popularity that, even when they suspected the truth, the British public didn’t care. And that Brambell could make viewers warm to this festering, sexist, homophobic, grubby-minded rag and bone man, well, that’s some achievement.

“He never did stop working,” says Clayton. “What I loved about him was he would do anything, and it wasn't just for money – he just loved acting.

"He was almost never out of work, which is quite something.”

You Dirty Old Man!: The Authorised Biography of Wilfrid Brambell is out now via The History Press.