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Thursday, 20 March 2008

Waiting for Steptoe

My daughter was over at the weekend which was nice. We talked about her job, her health, kites, what's good on TV and the notion of globalisation amongst other things. She was trying to explain the various definitions of globalisation and I tried playing devil's advocate which wasn't easy because I've got too many opinions. Our main discussion focused on the fact that although one could argue that the world is becoming more and more Americanised day by day, each culture is adapting rather than adopting American ideals and values. There may be a McDonalds in every major city (an educated guess – I've not checked) but you'd have to go to America to get served biscuits with your grub. Biscuits in the UK are cookies. The closest thing to the American biscuit here would be a savoury scone (pronounced skon, not skown or skoon) and you'd have one of those with some jam and a cup of tea.

Globalisation to my mind suggests a blending together and there's a lot that needs to happen before we get there. National identities are a major obstacle. A prime example is how difficult Great Britain is when it comes to being European – we still don't have the euro here and we dug our heels in so much over imperial measures that we've been 'allowed' to keep the good ol' stones, pounds and ounces.

National identity extends to other areas too and one of those is language and a subset of language would be funny language, i.e. humour.

I managed to catch a repeat last week of a Comedy Playhouse production titled 'The Offer' which was originally aired back in January 1962. It featured two characters that went on to become a British institution regularly attracting audiences of around 20 million viewers each week. I am, of course, talking about Steptoe and Son, the most Beckettian situation comedy you could ever conceive, a fact that is especially apparent in that first one-off drama with Harold, the son, threatening to leave his father, Albert, to take up a mysterious "offer" but never quite managing to leave. I was struck by the bleakness of the play. It's often been compared to Waiting for Godot but it is, in reality, far closer to Beckett's much darker play, Endgame.

It's fascinating to see the power play between the two characters. I was struck by how nasty Albert was at the start of the play, not that he ever becomes what you might call a pleasant character but there was a darkness there that the writers toned down over the years; he became devious, conniving, and selfish rather than out-and-out nasty. The climax of the play was when Harold loads up the cart with his worldly possessions, all junk of course, but his father won’t let him use the horse. In defiance Harold tries to shift the cart himself. It is heart-breaking to watch him struggle. It reminded me of the much later film One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest where Jack Nicholson playing McMurphy tries to lift a very heavy marble hydrotherapy fountain intending to throw it through a barred window to make good his escape. "I've got to go. I've got to get away," Harold says through actual tears. Albert encourages him back in the house telling him he can always leave in the morning but we all know he never will. It's really no different to the plight of Clov in the final scene of Endgame. Perhaps the best illustration of Harold's pathetic plight comes in a Season 7 episode on the series proper, one entitled 'The Desperate Hours', when, after the Steptoes are held hostage by two prisoners on the run, Harold ends up begging the lead prisoner (played by Leonard Rossiter): "Take me with you".

Such was the grip that the show had on the nation, that in September 1964, with a general election looming, Harold Wilson, who at that time was leader of the opposition, went as far as to ask the BBC not to show the programme on election day, as he was concerned that people would stay in and watch Steptoe and Son rather than go out to vote. Alan Simpson remembers:

PM: Steptoe and Son was, of course, a massive success, and famously Harold Wilson once asked the BBC to delay the transmission.

AS: Yes. It used to go out at 8.30, and Harold Wilson maintained that 8.30 to 9.00 was when all the Labour voters went out to vote. So all the Tories used to go out and vote in the afternoon, around teatime, and all the Labour voters had to have their tea, then go down the polls. He said putting Steptoe on at 8.30 would cut his majority down.

PM: This was the 1964 General Election?

AS: Yes.

PM: And did they put the programme back?

AS: No; and he got in by three seats, I think.

What is interesting is the fact that devising the original play was something of an act of desperation on the part of the writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson. They had been commissioned to write a series of ten one-off comedy dramas:

Anyway, after three [episodes], we repeated our history from the sanatorium: we dried up and couldn't think of anything. So three or four days had gone by, and we hadn't got anything, and one morning Ray says, I thought out of desperation, Two rag-and-bone men. I says, Don't give me rag-and-bone men. Can't make a show out of that. Ridiculous. So another three hours went by and nothing had happened, so I said, What about those two rag-and-bone men? So we just started writing: First rag-and-bone man; second rag-and-bone man; no names; nothing. – Alan Simpson

The show was such a phenomenal success that other nations started to produce their own national versions, the most successful in its own right being America's Sanford and Son.

An early version, starring Lee Tracy and Aldo Ray, never made it past the pilot stage. Then the producers Bud Yorkin, Norman Lear and writer-producer Aaron Ruben put together a test episode with veteran actor Barnard Hughes and New York-based Paul Sorvino which didn't sell. It wasn't until they thought of making the junk dealer and his son black that the pieces really began to fall into place. (This is strange because when Galton and Simpson first pitched the show three years earlier and suggested that they use black actors the idea had been batted down).

There are significant differences between the two shows:

"In the English version, the father is very caustic, even vicious," says Ruben. "For a lot of reasons, we just didn't feel that attitude was right for Redd, so we made his gentler." (In much the same way, Archie Bunker is a considerably paler shadow of venom and bigotry than his English counterpart, Alf Garnett.) The show's American name came from Foxx, who was born John Sanford and has a brother named Fred. The son's name, Lamont, came from a long-time friend of Redd's.

"I think now our biggest problem is to introduce other people who will embellish Redd and Demond," says Bud Yorkin. "Steptoe and Son was primarily a two-man literary exercise, almost like the plays of Samuel Beckett." - TV Guide : May 13-19, 1972 : Article by Dick Adler

A couple of years back my wife sent away for a boxed set of Sanford and Son. I'd never seen it before. She also introduced me to All in the Family about the same time. I have to say I hated both shows but especially Sanford and Son. What I couldn't stand were the very early scripts were ones written by Galton and Simpson and only slightly tweaked for American TV. I had heard Albert and Harold utter these very words and these actors simply weren't doing it right. Later episodes were better, once I got used to the characters, but they were so tame, Steptoe-lite. And yet Sanford and Son was enormously popular during most of its run, and was one of the top ten highest-rated series on American television from its first season (1971-72) through the 1975-76 season.

Over the years other shows have been adapted for American audiences: Till Death Us Do Part became All in the Family, Man About the House became Three's Company, The Office became The Office (or The Office: An American Workplace as it's called when it's broadcast over here). Thankfully Red Dwarf never made it past the pilot stage (I would love to have seen Terry Farrell play 'Cat' mind). How come Shakespeare still manages to get performed unedited after all these years?

The question is does it work the other way round? Unfortunately. In 1996 the Brits got treated to Married for Life, an abysmal remake of Married with Children where Russ Abbot took on the iconic Al Bundy role and, despite being of similar physical shape and a perfectly capable comic actor, the series died a death. I only saw one episode and, as it happens, it was an exact copy of the American script, word for word, one I'd seen. So why didn't it work? The same happened when The Golden Girls was reimagined as Brighton Belles. Despite featuring the talents of seasoned actresses like Wendy Craig (who had worked it successful and long-running sitcoms like …And Mother Makes Five, Not In Front of the Children and Butterflies) it also failed to survive more than ten episodes. Why? Al Bundy is an archetype. There is nothing especially American about him. There are henpecked husbands and put-upon fathers throughout the world just as there are feisty, independent-minded old women who insist on wearing purple and going down disgracefully.

I've never really got the need to rework already successful shows. They're doing it just now with Life on Mars. Why? I read Catcher in the Rye when I was about fourteen years old and I had no idea what prep school was and I didn't need to. It affected me every bit as much as Billy Liar had (or would – not sure which came first) and can you imagine that being set in The Ozarks instead of Yorkshire. Beckett's plays aren't set anywhere. Perhaps that's why their appeal is so global.

Is there a joke you could tell in Scotland that they'd get in America, in Germany, in Russia and in Iraq? I doubt it. I was once in a room, my living room as it happens, with a load of a friends and an American guest. While we were rolling about on the floor laughing this poor sod just sat there with this bemused look on his face uttering the occasional, "Excuse me?" which only made us laugh all the more. How could he not get the joke? The thing is it wasn't as if we were joking about particularly Scottish or even British things. We were just taking the mickey out of each other.

In 2001, Prof Richard Wiseman teamed up with the British Association for the Advancement of Science to create a mass participation project exploring the psychology of humour as part of Science Year in the UK. LaughLab was an internet-based experiment billed as 'the scientific search for the world's funniest joke' and received widespread media attention. The results were interesting:

People from The Republic of Ireland, the UK, Australia and New Zealand expressed a strong preference for jokes involving word plays; Americans and Canadians much preferred gags where there was a sense of superiority; many European countries, such as France, Denmark and Belgium, liked jokes that were somewhat surreal but also enjoyed jokes that involved making light of topics that often make us feel anxious, such as death, illness, and marriage. Interestingly, Germany was the exception. Germans did not express a strong preference for any type of joke (which does not mean they have no sense of humour as is often argued) rather they tend to find a wide spectrum of jokes funny.

Anyway, to get slightly back onto track, last night on BBC4 we were treated to The Curse of Steptoe, a play looking back on the reportedly difficult relationship between the two actors who brought Harold and Albert to life. If you missed it you'll be able to catch it again on their website via the BBC iPlayer. The show was preceded by an interview with Galton and Simpson which was interesting but revealed nothing I'd not read or heard before.

For those of you who have never seen an episode of Steptoe and Son here are a few YouTube clips to give you an idea what you've missed:

Albert in the sink

Albert in the shower

Playing Scrabble (audio only)

A long interview with Maureen Corbett

Galton and Simpson interview

Harry H Corbett interview (in Australia)

Oh, by the way, the joke that came tops in that LaughLab poll was this one:

Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn't seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps, "My friend is dead! What can I do?" The operator says "Calm down. I can help. First, let's make sure he's dead." There is a silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says "OK, now what?"

I'd heard it before.


Ken Armstrong said...

That's a great comparison between 'The Offer' and 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest'.

I'm rippin' that I missed the Steptoe play - 'hoping for an early repeat. Interesting to read in last week's Radio Times how Brambell and Corbett could hardly bear to be in the same room together.

Jim Murdoch said...

It's repeated on Easter Sunday at 10:45 and again at 12:50 on BBC4. Mark Lawson's interview with Galton and Simpson is only repeated at 11:50, Ken.

What I did find interesting was how Corbett's wife talks about that time. She downplays the difficulties between the two men quite a bit.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. Had know idea that alot of those shows, minus The Office, were adapted to the US market. There was that rumor that there is going to be a US version of Life On Mars, but no clue on how true that is. I think that there are things within our identity as people that will never leave. Interesting post.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the feedback, Roberto. The last I read was that they were having problems casting the 'Gene Hunt' role. In fact Philip Glenister had been asked to reprise the role but Colm Meaney has now been cast. Check out the Wikipedia article.

Gabriel Orgrease said...

National senses of humor are peculiar and specific and I agree that they do not always translate very well.

My intelligent well read Polish friend asked me why Americans tell Polish jokes. Most of the Polish jokes I know were told me by 2nd-3rd generation Poles in America. They are very proud of being the subject of the humor. Regardless my friend says that in Poland they make jokes about Russians and Germans because they were the 'invaders' whereas Poland never invaded America. Go figure.

As to the watering down of UK humor into American sitcoms I think it has a lot to do with the cultural melting pot diversity in the US that the cheese needs to be mellow, bland, and taste the same from house to house. Same goes for the drink.

I think it is also an audio translation problem as unless one has their ear trained to the pronunciation, vocabulary and accents we all can't understand what we are saying to each other across the Atlantic even when it is not a joke.

I will have to remember I wrote this when I have that opportunity to sit in your living room.

Ken Armstrong said...

'Got to see the Steptoe play just now. Very good.

Interesting how the script suggested that the writers were reflecting what must have been the Actors most personal demons in their scripts. Wilfred with his sexuality (actors are poofs...) and Harry destined to be a rag-and-bone man all his life.

Jim Murdoch said...

Yes, I caught that too. I also liked the couple of references to Beckett. I was a bit disappointed that in the interview with Galton and Simpson Mark Lawson never asked about their debt to Beckett, Pinter and even Ibsen. But there you go.

Rachel Fox said...

Maybe translating a comedy series (to another country's version of English, to another way of life) is as difficult as translating poetry. You will get a result but it won't necessarily be anything like the original and it will be missing so much (like the original spark that set it going for a start). And what is comedy without sparks? Not much of a firework display...

Molly Brogan said...

A post with such depth is a rare find, Jim. It will take me weeks to enjoy all that you have pointed out. Thanks so much for the gift.

It is nice, also, to find someone who doesn't succumb to the pressure to jot off a few unfinished sentences and present it as deep thinking, as is the blogging trend.

Your reading affinities (Beckett and Brautigan) initially piqued my interest. Your wit and compassion keep me coming back. Keep the faith!


Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you for your kind words, Molly. I'm afraid I've always had a propensity for loquacity and on occasion I can veer towards the positively verbose. I have to say though my posts keep creeping longer and longer. It's just there are so many interesting things to write about. I've already had to split one post into two and I've another one about metaphors that's had to be split – whoda thunk there would be that much to say about the humble metaphor?

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the comment, Molly. Hey, I've got a following. A few months ago I was jumping for joy just to have readers. I wonder whatever happened to that guy in Vancouver who looked like one of The Simpsons?

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