on 15 February 2013
An important point to bear in mind when taking on this book is that it is written by Harry H Corbett's daughter. And, as such, it suffers from the inevitable perspective that a loving daughter can't help but bring to the story of a father she understandably adored. Indeed, in the 'Epilogue' of the book Susannah concedes 'It is a curious thing to tell the story of a person while walking the tightrope between sentiment and impartiality. Knowing that for some you will always be too sentimental, for others not enough.'
Well, whilst I'm dubious about the likelihood of someone being accused of not being sentimental enough, there can be little doubt that this book, far from being written with a neutrality which allows for neither emotional attachment or spiteful bias, is the product of someone for whom no bad word about its subject could ever be entertained. If evidence of this is required then I defy anyone to find within the entire 450 pages of this tome, a negative criticism of either Harry H, the man, or Harry H, the actor. Yes, there's mention of bad reviews of productions he's appeared in. But even in these, invariably the root cause of the failure (at least by the no doubt carefully selected critics quoted) cannot be attributed to Harry. In most instances, the production was dire despite Harry's excellent contribution, or else he was the exception in an otherwise dud of a play - or, at the very worst, Harry was 'miscast'.
This relentless glorification is also to be found in the plethora of tributes paid by countless actors, directors, producers, writers, and Uncle Tom Cobley, all of whom have nothing but good things to say about this undoubtedly fine actor who was also, by all accounts, a very decent and genuine man.
At the other end of the bio spectrum there is the 'unauthorised' biography, the essence of which is essentially to 'dig the dirt', weeding out salacious and nasty little titbits and highly dubious anecdotes to supply the 'juicy bit of goss' without which many readers feel cheated (which is ironic, given that such books full of lies and tat represent the biggest cheat of all). But, with this work, we get the other extreme, courtesy of that familial sentimentality which Susannah, despite self consciously referring to it at the end of the book, can't help but be subservient to. Anyone, especially someone who led such an eventful life as Harry H Corbett, must have stepped out of line and ruffled a few feathers both privately and professionally somewhere along the line. And a dispassionate, unbiased biographer, writing with fairness, balance, and candour would have given us a much clearer and realistic picture of the man, rather than one self consciously written with a pen guided by the heartstrings. Put simply, Susannah cannot bring herself to write anything about her beloved father which grinds even slightly against the love and affection she naturally feels for him. And therein lies this book's major flaw.
I would also add a criticism that another reviewer here has drawn attention to, which is the easy way in which Susannah uses unnecessarily coarse language throughout the text, in some cases surprisingly shocking and insensitive in the context of what is being said. And I can't help but feel that the majority of those of a certain age who I'd think would make up the main readership of this bio, will be as disheartened as I was by this. No doubt, the cry will go up that we live in the 21st Century and we should all get with the programme. Well, I'm sorry, but I hold that there is still a substantial quota of society which believes the old programme, dictated by recognised boundaries of linguistic restraint, was better and would prefer to keep it that way, especially in a book of this 'genre'. As a northerner myself I'm sure Harry was not averse to using the odd crude expletive - not least during his killing machine days in the Far East. But that's not what I'm talking about here. Where gutter language is in context and necessary to make a point, that's fine - otherwise, far from impressing, it saddens and disappoints.
All that being said, credit must be given for the amount of research (no doubt another labour of love) which has clearly been done on this book. Yes, there's a heck of a lot about Theatre Workshop, an emphasis on which has been criticised by others. Personally, I enjoyed reading about the origin, development, and arduous hard graft of those pioneers of radical 'people's theatre'. An admirable collective that struggled on so valiantly, literally cap in hand, in the face of so much hardship, knock backs, and a lack of any kind of fiscal help from an artistic establishment which neither wanted, nor had the vision to see the validity of it. This section is also interesting because of its inclusion of so many actors too numerous to mention who are still around today (Murray Melvin - I remember spotting him strolling along The Headrow in Leeds during his 'Taste of Honey' days, many moons ago) and others who, sadly, are not.
Also, the humour of the man shines through, which is another commendable aspect of the book. A couple of laugh out loud moments for me were, firstly, on page 215 where, after a distinctly poor production of 'Macbeth' (one of those dreadful plays I referred to earlier in which, for the 'extremely talented actor', Harry H Corbett, 'Macbeth' was simply 'not his part'). However, as he's leaving the stage after a less than successful performance, he puts his arm around fellow thespian Milton Johns and says, 'Milt, I was very nice to people on the way up!'
And another funny moment comes whilst Harry is working with Victor Spinetti and Terry Scott. Apparently, Harry and Victor loved to wind Terry up and at one point in the dressing room Harry says to Victor, 'Ah, young Spinetti, how much did you get for that commercial you did for Jaffa Cakes?' 'Oh, £20,000,' Spinetti replies. At which, Terry jumps up, outraged, to splutter, '£20,000, £20,000! I only got £3000 pounds for Curly Wurlys and you're a nobody.'
No doubt, there will be those whose interest in this book is naturally attributable to their affection for 'Steptoe and Son' and who will be hoping it focuses largely on this aspect of Harry's life. Well, the good news is that there's plenty to satisfy that interest, both in terms of in front of the camera and behind the scenes. There are also, as has been pointed out elsewhere, plot outlines for every single Steptoe episode and film Harry and Wlifrid Brambell ever made. However, the bad news is that, if 'Steptoe' is all you're interested in then you'd better be prepared to skip the first half of the book and head straight to Chapter 11 on page 217, because it's not until then that the 'Steptoe' story begins.
I suspect Susannah's satisfaction from the publication of this book is twofold. It enabled her to document the wrongs done after her father's death in terms of the way stories, documentaries and dramatisations of his life and working relationship with Wilfrid Brambell were disgracefully manipulated purely for the sake of sensationalism - and how, mainly with Harry's father-in-law's admirable persistence, what reparations could be made, were eventually made.
But mostly, I suspect Susannah's greatest satisfaction, which is also its downfall, is in producing what essentially amounts to a deeply affectionate homage to a loved, and loving, father and family man who just happened to become a well known actor.
Overall, despite the language and the inescapably rose-tinted approach I enjoyed reading this book. It's just a shame that it's a curate's egg which leaves us with a sense that what we've been given is not a full, warts and all, portrait of Harry H Corbett, but an image too filtered by a daughter's love to get us any closer to knowing the real Harry H Corbett than we were before.