Friday 27 December 2019

Movie: Harry H Corbett as 'The Bargee'


Review of: 
With Harry H Corbett, Hugh Griffin
Eric Sykes and Ronnie Barker 
(1964, DVD Optimum Classic 2010) 

The core irony of ‘Steptoe And Son’ is that Wilfred Brambell and Harry H Corbett’s real-life relationship mirrored their warring onscreen personas. With both incarnations inescapably entwined in a complex psychological bond. Developed from a one-off episode devised by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson for the BBC’s ‘Comedy Playhouse’ (“The Offer”, 4 January 1962) there were eight ‘Steptoe’ series made up of fifty-seven episodes that ran through to 26 December 1974. Which made Brambell and Corbett mutually interdependent in its ongoing success. And resenting that interdependence, just as the Rag ‘n’ Bone duo themselves resent being trapped by their reliance on each other. Harold Steptoe is always portrayed as having ambitions above his station, which will never be realised, due of Albert’s needy interference. Harry H Corbett also had ambitions beyond TV-comedy, which he saw as being obstructed by the success of the character he’d helped create.

Yet at their best, each TV episode is a perfectly observed insightful sketch that could run Samuel Beckett dialogue a close second for its bleak depiction of junkyard derelicts. The four-handed “The Desperate Hours” (broadcast 26 March 1972), is stripped-down grotesquerie at its finest. As Harold and Albert attempt to keep warm in the freezing squalor of their Oil Drum Lane home, it is invaded by two escaping convicts – played by a young Leonard Rossiter, and stumbling oldster JG Devlin. The two convicts mirror the odd dependence of the two Steptoe’s, who exist at a level of austerity way below the prison conditions they’re attempting to escape. The bond they strike up with their counterparts reveals kitchen-sink pathos and dark underclass truth. This black-comic absurdity is probably closer to Corbett’s vision of serious art-drama than anything else he could ever have aspired to.

Corbett had activist Left Wing sympathies, he campaigned on behalf of the Labour Party, and recorded and performed with the Ewan MacColl folk group. He did Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ (1955), Graham Greene’s ‘The Power And The Glory’ (1956) and stage-work with Jean-Paul Sartre’s heavyweight ‘Nekrassov’ (1957). Then graduated into the usual opportunistic TV bit-parts – ITV’s ‘Play Of The Week’ and ‘Television Playhouse’, Richard Greene’s popular ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’ and ‘The Edgar Wallace Mystery Theatre’. Until his meeting with Galton and Simpson he’d never seriously considered TV sitcoms, which tended to be bland and inoffensive. Lacking what he termed ‘commitment’. But once he became ‘Harold Steptoe’ he could never be anything else.

Predictably, in box-office terms, his biggest hits were the two spin-off movies – ‘Steptoe And Son’ (1972) and ‘Steptoe And Son Ride Again’ (1973). But he had roles in Joan Littlewood’s ‘Sparrows Can’t Sing’ (1963) set in a rundown East End with Barbara Windsor, an appearance in Joe Brown’s likeably amiable Pop-romp ‘What A Crazy World’ (1963), and as Detective Sergeant Sidney Bung in ‘Carry On Screaming’ (1966) with Kenneth Williams at his most maniacal. But while Muriel Box’s ‘Rattle Of A Simple Man’ (1964) – adapted from Charles Dyer’s stage-play, came closest to his Working Class ideal, portraying Corbett as a naïve northern football fan who becomes involved with a London prostitute, in truth, his only other starring role – ‘The Bargee’, does little to expand his acting range.

There is an elegiac quality to its record of the dying days of the canal’s water gypsies, and some nicely languid sequences of the barges navigating lost countryside between the picturesque lock-gates of ‘the leafy waterways of Britain’. With the reassuringly soporific drone of Godfrey Winn narrating ‘Music While You Work’ on the transistor radio to act as an instant time-fix. But the canal network had been constructed as a working transport infrastructure by the Victorian entrepreneurs of the Industrial Revolution, intended to carry goods and raw materials efficiently around the country. By the time of the film, motorways and high-speed rail links were making the leisurely pace of the ‘British Waterways’ lifestyle obsolete. Like some kind of ethnographer, Eric Sykes photographs and tape-records the disappearing way of life of the Canal folk on ‘Britain’s Green and Pleasant Waters’. They are people who see themselves as outsiders, a breed apart. Hemel Pike (Harry H Corbett) refuses to live in a potty little row of houses. ‘I was brought up on the canal. It’s my life. You don’t have to get on. You’re already there.’ He is the Casanova of the Canals, with a girl at every lock, and ‘the only way you’ll get me off the canal is to fill it in.’

Yet it’s as though there’s been a collective loss of nerve following that original sepia-nostalgia intention, because the film is essentially soft-core, operating around mild character-humour. Devised by Galton and Simpson, and with the Steptoe’s TV director Duncan Wood assuming the same role for ‘The Bargee’, it seldom strays far from safely familiar sit-com conventions. Hemel is reliably accompanied by his cousin ‘Ronnie’ (Ronnie Barker) who wears a knitted ‘Benny’ hat. He reads the pin-up magazine ‘Parade’ – or rather ogles at the pictures of ‘June Is Busting Out All Over’, because he’s illiterate. While Hemel is not interested in ‘birds in books.’ He prefers the real thing. ‘Are you expressing an opinion or have your teeth slipped?’ Hemel snipes as Ronnie wolf-whistles at the ‘canal sirens’. And later tells him ‘you are disgusting’ with the same derisively vehement ‘Dirty Old Man’ voice he employs to such great effect on Albert Steptoe.

Their two longboats are tethered together as a ‘butty’, a kind of catamaran to transport their cargo of lemon peel along the cuts from Brentford to Birmingham, via Boxmoor. Although it seldom drifts too far from humour, Eric Sykes provides the most obvious comedy focus, first seen to a music-spoof ‘Rule Britannia’ soundtrack, wearing naval peaked hat and binoculars as his white houseboat drifts on collision course. ‘He won’t be happy until he’s got a wooden leg, that bloke’ grumbles Hemel. Yet he – credited as ‘The Mariner’, represents the future of canals, as they are resuscitated into a leisure industry.

Hemel’s amorous entanglements begin with pure farce as they stop off at the Rickmansworth ‘Boat House’ pub where he evades the predatory overtures of lover Nelly (Miriam Karlin). At the mention of marriage ‘you went paralysed’ the barmaid protests, until Ronnie inadvertently drops the letters Hemel has been writing to other girlfriends, and she jealously chases him along the towpath brandishing a carving-knife, he uses a mop to hold her back as Ronnie hurries to set sail. Next it’s the compliant Cynthia (Jo Rowbottom), who also does his laundry. They bunk-up for a stretch along the canal, after which she contentedly pedals her push-bike all the way back.

He’s a little more serious about Christine (Julia Foster) at their next stop-off point, the ‘Leg O’Mutton’ lock. Unfortunately her fiercely protective father, Joe Turnbull (Hugh Griffith) has other ambitions for his ‘grammar-school girl’. But her eyes light up when she hears the barge. Ronnie provides a diversion. He’s recognisably doing ‘Fletch’ from ‘Porridge’ as he taunts Joe into a drinking competition, an impression compounded by the later appearance of a policeman played by ‘Warden’ Brian Wilde! ‘Where’s Hemel?’ enquires Joe casually. ‘He’s probably in bed by now’ answers Ronnie guilelessly. Indeed he is, with Christine! Joe drinks twenty-nine pints, breaking his own record. He’s the last man standing. Everyone else is laid out around the bar, including Ronnie, who – as loser, must foot the £15.10.3d bill!

‘Do you love me?’ pleads Christine. ‘Yeah, of course I do’ Hemel responds unconvincingly, before narrowly escaping out of the window as a drunken Joe returns. The following morning – once the barges have left, Christine serves Joe a hang-over breakfast of kidneys and Alka-Seltzer, before she faints. Derek Nimmo, in a departure from his usual role as a foppish silly-ass vicar, plays the foppish silly-ass doctor who diagnoses that ‘she’s preggers. She’s very preggers.’ As Joe erupts in fury he squeals ‘I’ve got a strangulated hernia waiting for me’ and drives off at speed in his red mini. Determined to find out who’s responsible for his daughter’s three-month condition Joe sets out with a shotgun. Suspecting the canal-workers he drains the lock and mines the gates with explosives.

After a detour in a Birmingham dancehall with yet another girl, Hemel returns to find the ‘Leg O’Mutton’ in a state of siege, with cowardly Police and British Waterways supervisors avoiding and arguing over who has authority (Richard Briers plays ‘BW’ official Tomkins). When a group of canal-women – including Patricia Hayes and Rita Webb, accuse Hemel of being the father, he’s forced to admit that yes, he is, and does the honourable thing by proposing marriage. Although grudgingly reconciled, Joe blacks his eye anyway. Soon Hemel is living at the ‘Leg O’Mutton’ in brooding silences, in resentful preparation for impending domesticity. He works on a confectionary conveyor-belt, but quits. Then at a bottle recycling plant, while casting longing gazes at passing canal boats. Is Christine trapping him?

But Galton and Simpson provide Hemel with the happy ending they never grant Harold Steptoe, with the tidy bonus closure of a wedding. Ronnie has discovered that all narrow-boats are to be phased out of commission within eighteen-months. So Christine agrees to join Hemel on the barges for that final period. Their wedding cake is shaped like two barges. Their barges are renamed ‘Christine and Hemel’. In a final comedy moment, one of the home-made bombs Joe had used to mine the lock-gates explodes, and sinks Eric Sykes’ white houseboat. Ending an acceptably adequate Elstree film that, with a little more nerve and realism, could have been so much more.

Ray Galton and Alan Simpson scripted one more non-Steptoe big-screen venture – ‘The Spy With A Cold Nose’ (1966), after which there would be no more. While a recurring joke within ‘Steptoe And Son’ is that whatever Harold attempts, Albert had already done it, and done it better. Another core irony here is that no matter what Harry H Corbett tried to do, above and beyond ‘The Bargee’, Wilfred Brambell will always be Paul McCartney’s grandfather in ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ (1964) too!

THE BARGEE’ (1964, ABPC/ Galton-Simpson, UK/ Warner-Pathé Distribution, USA) Producer: WA Whittaker. Director: Duncan Wood. Original story and screenplay: Ray Galton and Alan Simpson. With Harry H Corbett (as Hemel Pike), Hugh Griffith (as Joe Turnbull), Eric Sykes (as the Mariner), Ronnie Barker (as Ronnie), Julia Foster (as Christine Turnbull), Miriam Karlin (as Nellie Marsh), Eric Barker (as Foreman Mr Parkes), Derek Nimmo (as Dr Scott), Norman Bird (as Waterways Supervisor Albert Williams), Richard Briers (as Tomkins), Una Stubbs (as Bridesmaid), Rita Webb (as onlooker), Patricia Hayes (as onlooker), Brian Wilde (as policeman), Godfrey Winn (the radio announcer). Music: Frank Cordell. DVD, Studio Canal, Optimum Releasing 2010 (106-minutes)

Published in:
(UK – June 2015)

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