Thursday, 22 March 2012

Wilfrid Brambell: 'Openly derogatory of New Zealand cathedrals'

Had he been spared, the actor Wilfrid Brambell - best remembered as the repulsive, wheedling 'dirty old man' in Steptoe & Son, a sitcom almost too excruciating to watch - would have been 100 today. He arrived at the Steptoe part by way of various early turns as 'old man in pub', 'drunk', 'tramp', etc, playing way above his actual age. In 1965, declaring he didn't want to do any more Steptoe, he crossed to New York and opened on Broadway in a musical called Kelly, which closed after one performance.
Kelly is one of the most notorious Broadway flops - a musical written and produced by a team with no musical theatre experience at all, and inspired by the story of a man who, in the 1880s, claimed to have jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge and survived (a feat later attributed, by Allen Ginsberg, to Tuli Kupferberg of the Fugs, though the jump he survived was actually from the Manhattan Bridge). In the musical, a daredevil busboy named Hop Kelly falls foul of Bowery gamblers who aim to prevent him surviving the jump so they can win a bet. Even last-minute script doctoring by Mel Brooks and others couldn't save this oven-ready turkey.
To return to Brambell, among his more surprising works was a 1971 single, Time Marches On, in which, speaking over a guitar riff, he laments the demise of The Beatles (with whom he starred in a Hard Day's Night). On the B-side he sings a topical song about Britain's adoption of the decimal currency, The Decimal Song. Still more surprising was Brambell's casting in Frank Zappa's surreal documentary 200 Motels, in which he was due to play the Mothers of Invention bassist Jeff Simmons. However, Wilfrid walked out on Frank in a rage over something or other, and Zappa decided to give the role to the next person to walk into the room - who turned out to be Ringo Starr's chauffeur, Martin Lickert.
A 'closet' gay in the manner of the time - which seemed to involve pouncing on any passing young man, a la Frankie Howerd - Brambell was also an alcoholic, and always liable to end up in a scrape. According to Wikipedia, while on tour Down Under with the Steptoe & Son stage show, he 'used bad language and was openly derogatory of New Zealand cathedrals in an interview'. New Zealand cathedrals, eh? What can he possibly have said?
My landlady in Sheffield (in the early Seventies) recalled having Wilfrid Brambell as a paying guest once when he was on tour. He spent most of his time getting drunk and chasing young men in the town centre. She did not speak well of him.

14 comments:

  1. Steptoe Sr.'s gurning leer with his tongue pressing out his lower lip was, together with Sid James' lecherous laugh, one of the abiding joys of british comedy and a national cultural treasure.

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  2. What a strange old thing he was -- and what an odd sort of career. Probably his oddest move of all was playing Alice B. Toklas(!) in the 1978 film The Adventures of Picasso -- an "iconoclastic Swedish comedy" which (judging from the clips I've seen) is every bit as amusing as that description might suggest. Getrude Stein, by the way, is played by Bernard Cribbins, who is eerily convincing as the imperious old fraud.

    Incidentally, it seems that Brambell's somewhat unheralded contribution to rock and pop culture may not stop with Zappa and the Beatles (or indeed 'The Decimal Song'). According to Captain Sensible, the young John Lydon modelled his unique vocal stylings (as indeed some of his stage mannerisms) on none other than 'Old Man Steptoe'.

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  3. Good grief! This gets weirder and weirder...

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  4. Wilfrid Brambell's life sounds great material for some sort of dramatic work. Perhaps not a musical though.

    He and Harry Corbett make a right pair.

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  5. He's hilarious in A Hard Day's Night. Best thing in it.

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  12. Steptoe and son 'too excruciating to watch'? Get yourself a sense of humour transplant, ya po-faced dick.

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  14. The Steptoe and Son stage show in Christchurch, New Zealand (I think it was 1977) was a spectacular flop. Interviewed next day, Brambell was embittered and abusive, finishing with "... and I hope the cathedral falls down".
    It did in fact fall down in earthquake of 2011, so eventually he got his wish.

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