For many of his millions of fans, Wilfrid Brambell was indistinguishable from the grumpy rag-and-bone man with questionable personal hygiene he played in Steptoe & Son for more than a decade.
The grubby and conniving widower Albert Steptoe made Brambell a household name and, ultimately, the role would come to define him.
Even the show’s catchphrase, ‘You dirty old man!’ – uttered by Harry H. Corbett, who played his restless and more aspirational son Harold – was synonymous with Brambell himself.
But the actor, at least when it came to presentation, could hardly have been more different from the character that made his name. Dapper and fashionable, he was extremely well-spoken.
There were good reasons that Brambell could inhabit the role of the wily and begrudging grump so well. For all his outward bonhomie, he too had endured a life full of heartache, embarrassment and controversy.
The show’s catchphrase, ‘You dirty old man!’ – uttered by Harry H. Corbett (left), who played his restless and more aspirational son Harold – was synonymous with Wilfrid Brambell himself (right)
Brambell, pictured in 1971, could hardly have been more different from the character that made his name. Dapper and fashionable, he was extremely well-spoken
His role, as half of one of the most successful double acts in the history of British television, was launched without fanfare at 8.45pm on Friday, January 5, 1962, in the form of a half-hour comic play on the BBC called The Offer.
That production about a father-and-son rag-and-bone business gave viewers their first glimpse of what would eventually become Steptoe & Son – scriptwriters Ray Galton and Alan Simpson’s greatest achievement, which ran for eight series.
For all of the sitcom’s easy charm, it was also a peerless study in hopelessness, repression and barely concealed despair. It shone a light on a rag-and-bone trade that was dying out in the early 1960s when London was just starting to ‘swing’.
When it came to pathos, the writing and performances were at times worthy of Samuel Beckett.
And, as it would emerge, Brambell did not have to stray too far from his own life to plunder inspiration for the part. Perhaps that’s why he played it so well – indeed, it was a signpost to the on-screen chemistry he shared with his co-star.
Corbett had been born in Rangoon, Burma, where his father was in the Army. But he was just 18 months old when his mother died of dysentery.
He was sent to live with relatives in Manchester and rarely saw his father at all. For Harry, his father had effectively turned his back on him.
Meanwhile, for Wilfrid, as we will learn, a son had been taken away in devastating circumstances.
Watching the pair play Albert and Harold, it’s hard to believe they weren’t father and son
Is it too far-fetched to believe that their roles in Steptoe & Son allowed them to creatively fill the voids in both their lives, at least when the cameras were rolling?
Could that be the secret of their success? Fine actors they both may have been, but watching them play Albert and Harold, it’s hard to believe they weren’t father and son.
Brambell’s tragedy was to play out after he fell in love with, and married, actress Mary ‘Molly’ Josephine Hall, a fellow Dubliner who had cut her teeth at the New Dublin Theatre Group.
The wedding ceremony took place in July 1948 in Kensington. In 1952, their combined incomes allowed them to buy an attractive Victorian semi-detached property in Acton, West London.
And what a sad, unhappy house it would prove to be, changing Wilfrid’s destiny forever and leaving him a heartbroken and lost soul.
With a sizeable mortgage, the couple were reluctantly forced to advertise their spare rooms to lodgers. It wasn’t long before they were taken, one by New Zealander Roderick Fisher, who was, by all accounts, a handsome student.
Wilfrid continued to work and, with finances tight, it often meant he was away from home for several weeks at a time. With lodgers now in situ, Molly could no longer travel to stay with her husband as often as before.
But their separation, coupled with the informal nature of the new living arrangements, meant that things began to unravel. Molly – then likely in her late 20s or early 30s – had an affair with Fisher.
There were good reasons that Brambell could inhabit the role of the wily and begrudging grump so well. For all his outward bonhomie, he too had endured a life full of heartache, embarrassment and controversy
When Molly announced she was pregnant, Wilfrid assumed the child she was carrying was his.
There is no documented record of the baby’s birth – and Wilfrid didn’t disclose this life-changing event in his autobiography – but he did not question that the boy she gave birth to was his son.
Wilfrid was overjoyed at finding out his wife was pregnant, and he was as fully invested as any new father would be in the months leading up to the birth and the arrival of the baby.
In 1955, records show Fisher was still living at the house, two years after the child had been born. But neither he nor Molly would be there for much longer.
Whether Fisher could not stand to see his child being raised by another man right under his nose or whether guilt over her betrayal finally got to Molly will almost certainly never be known. But at some point during 1955, Wilfrid discovered the truth – and his world collapsed around him.
The lies, the deceit and the humiliation would stay with him for ever.
Wilfrid wasted no time leaving the home and filed for divorce immediately, with Molly and Fisher – and the child Wilfrid had raised as his own – all leaving the property not long after. It was soon sold on, as Wilfrid sought to remove all memory that it had ever existed.
In January 1956, Molly Brambell became Molly Fisher, marrying her lover in Ealing, while Wilfrid stayed at his friend Anne Pichon’s home for a short time. And while he was there, his anguish was only too clear to see.
Anne said: ‘He was staying in my home and I would hear him wake up in the night, literally screaming, howling with pain.’
In his autobiography, the only indication of the awful period of his life was when he claimed that, in about 1955, his personal life had ‘come crashing down’ around him.
As a tragic footnote to this painful episode, within a short time, Molly was dead, leaving her child without a mother and her new husband a widower.
As for Wilfrid, everything was now different. His trust in women had been destroyed and his self-confidence shattered. His private life was undoubtedly guarded from that point on, and for good reason – what few knew was that he was gay.
It is entirely possible that Wilfrid had always had bisexual tendencies, but had carefully tucked them away in order to fit in.
At the time, homosexuality was illegal and gay men were forced to take tremendous risks for even the briefest of encounters.
For those in the public eye, the risks were greater still. It means Wilfrid, just like Steptoe, knew all about repression. He also knew how it felt to be exposed in the worst way possible – because of an incident that cast a shadow over the rest of his life.
In November 1962, shortly before filming began on the second series of Steptoe & Son, he was arrested outside a public lavatory on Shepherd’s Bush Green for ‘persistent importuning for an immoral purpose’. It could have ended his acting career.
Wilfrid’s defence was that he had drunk too much at a cocktail party at BBC Television Centre nearby and was not aware that Shepherd’s Bush was ‘an area peculiar people resorted to’.
He reasoned that the allegations were ‘completely foreign to his nature and instincts’.
Nonetheless, he was taken to the police station, where he was formally charged, protesting his innocence as the gravity of the accusation dawned on him.
In court, the magistrate, perhaps sensing that the 50-year-old actor may have been the subject of police entrapment, as well as understanding the seriousness of a guilty verdict for him, concluded that the explanation Wilfrid had offered in his defence was entirely plausible.
The magistrate suggested that drink had brought out in Wilfrid ‘excessive friendliness and some sexual tendencies which are normally controlled or sublimated’.
He added: ‘It is not necessary for a person to be homosexual to do this sort of thing.’
Wilfrid was conditionally discharged for a year and ordered to pay 25 guineas in costs. As he left the court to face dozens of reporters and cameras outside, he said: ‘Thank God my five weeks of hell are over. Now I just want to get back to work.’
Whatever his intentions on that night in November, he was going to have to live with the consequences and the reaction of the British public, who would be his real judge and jury.
As it was, the hunger for more of Albert and Harold was insatiable for the viewing millions. And while rumours about Wilfrid would persist, he never again let his guard down.
During the mid-1960s, Wilfrid became friendly with a younger Malaysian man named Yussof Bin Mat Saman.
It is likely they met on one of Wilfrid’s trips to the Far East, and Yussof did, at one stage, move into the actor’s flat in Pimlico. Little is known of Yussof, and he was always referred to as a ‘valet’.
If he was Wilfrid’s partner, he kept firmly out of the limelight, as Wilfrid would no doubt have insisted. Yussof also seems to have been an intensely private person.
All that we know for certain is that he was someone Wilfrid thought a great deal of and who would remain his live-in companion until his death, two decades later.
Britain by then had become far more liberal, but it would still have been extremely difficult for any relationship to have entered the public domain at that time.
Carolyn Seymour (right), the actress who played stripper Zita in the first Steptoe & Son feature film, bonded with Wilfrid (centre) on the set. She said he was ‘really unhappy and had been ridiculed all his life for being gay’
Carolyn Seymour, the actress who played stripper Zita in the first Steptoe & Son feature film, bonded with Wilfrid on the set, but revealed that the crew – most of whom weren’t regulars from the series – could be cruel and taunted him about the court case.
She recalled: ‘Wilfrid and I were like a couple of cohorts – we understood each other and liked each other immediately because he knew I wasn’t like Zita and I knew he wasn’t like Albert Steptoe.
‘But what we had on that crew was a bunch of awful homophobes who put a sign at the public toilets where we shot a scene that said “Welcome home Wilfrid”, because it was apparently the one that he’d been arrested at.
‘I was furious and tried to stand up for him but was just told to be quiet. It was horrible and mortifying for Wilfrid.
‘Wilfrid wasn’t a happy man, in my opinion. I don’t think it ever got resolved for him, being homosexual. It was accepted within theatrical circles, but on the whole I just think he was really unhappy and had been ridiculed all his life for being gay.’
Sadly, it did not escape him even after his death. In 2012 – 27 years after he died – two men claimed that, at some point in the early 1970s, they had been molested by Wilfrid in a back room at the Jersey Opera House. The truth of that will never be known.
What is clear is that, despite the supposed animosity between Wilfrid and his co-star, Harry H. Corbett, they always worked well together. Their chemistry was superb.
In 1977, after the TV series had ended, the pair took their double act on tour to Australia and New Zealand. Brambell was often inebriated during the tour: he missed one performance completely and was discovered drinking Guinness with an usher in a nearby bar.
While it seems that Wilfrid’s drinking had considerably worsened, Harry had become used to it over the years.
He may have frowned on it professionally and become incredibly frustrated from time to time, but he accepted it was how Wilfrid was. When necessary, Harry covered for him.
When Harry died of a heart attack in 1982, aged just 57, Wilfrid was said to be ‘absolutely devastated’.
When he attended the memorial service for the man he called his son on screen, radio and stage for three decades, he looked like a broken man and wept throughout.
You Dirty Old Man!, by David Clayton, is published by The History Press at £20. To order a copy for £18, go to mailshop. co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937 before August 21. Free UK delivery on orders over £20.