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3.9 out of 5 stars57
3.9 out of 5 stars
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on 18 March 2012
In recent years it has become fashionable to have a pop at Harry H Corbett: both a recent documentary and TV drama suggesting that he hated his Steptoe and Son co-star Wilfrid Brambell and that he was a serious, straight actor frustrated having to play situation comedy. Given that the aforementioned documentary stated that Corbett died in 1985 when it was actually 1982 (unbelievable that this is now 30 years ago), that the TV drama cast an actor wearing brown contact lenses when in fact Corbett's eyes were blue, and that I distinctly recall Brambell being very upset on TV's Nationwide on the day that Corbett died, I have always felt that the true story of Harry H Corbett and Steptoe and Son had not yet been told.
Happily this book, written by Corbett's daughter, herself an established writer and actor, puts the record straight. Whilst it's clear that Corbett and Brambell were never bosom buddies (Corbett was heterosexual, a socialist and a method actor, Brambell was homosexual, a Tory and an actor of the `old school') there was never the sort of blind hatred between the pair that the recent documentary and TV drama would have us believe. Rather, Corbett emerges as a remarkably un-cynical and self-effacing individual: serious about his profession but content to take what life throws at him.
This long-overdue book is a highly readable account of one of Britain's much-loved and now largely-forgotten actors; an actor who, had he lived, would probably have slipped back into serious roles in the 1990s (like David Jason eventually did). Whilst the book is prone to some extraneous detail (the plot synopses of Steptoe episodes drag a little) this should not detract from its overall impact. One senses that the author is attempting to set the record straight: in this she succeeds admirably. Forget what you have been told about Harry H Corbett over the last 10 years or so; you've been misinformed. A highly recommended book.
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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.
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on 12 December 2012
I came across this book by accident, looking for something to read at the airport and during the subsequent journey. I was headed to the magazine rack as usual when the spine of this book jutting out from a nearby shelf caught my eye. Though I'm not old enough to have enjoyed Steptoe & Son the first time around, my dad was a huge fan and over the years we'd sit and watch them together whenever they were on. In later life I was surprised to hear that Harry and Wilfred apparently didn't get along but I missed the ITV show that dramatised the relationship. The subject is covered by this book though I won't spoil it for you. As you can imagine it's not the central point of the book.

Susannah has done a fantastic job guiding you through her father's life and I feel the account is helped because it comes from a family member. There's a reality here that you sometimes don't get with similar biographies - often such volumes are just a fleshed out list of engagements and actors that the subject worked alongside, cobbled together with a couple of already well-known anecdotes to justify the cover price. That's not the case here. I mean, that's all there, but it's weaved in and amongst his family life like a rich tapestry. There's probably a little too much about Joan Littlewood and Theatre Workshop than there needs to be, though given the fact that much of his early life is dominated by both, maybe that's a touch unfair.

I can heartily recommend this title for all fans of Harry and Steptoe and Son. I've read a lot of naff biographies over the years, so many of them drab and 'colourless' (for want of a better word), I'm both surprised and delighted when a work of this quality comes along.
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on 3 February 2013
I can understand why some of the reviews express disappointment about the lack of an in-depth assessment of Harry H Corbett in this book, but I think the reader needs to understand that Harry's daughter needed to put the record straight about the hatchet job done by the telly documentary whilst maintaining loyalty to a father whose primary desire was to remain private. Just because someone is in the public eye through their job does not mean they are owned by the public - unless of course, they court such publicity. Neither do I agree with the reviewer who said it was all about Susannah and her friends. No, it wasn't. This is the story of an actor, known in the profession as an actor's actor, who had a long and successful career in the theatre. He was far from being the one-trick pony that people who only know him from Steptoe & Son assume. The depth and thought he gave to every role he played comes through and I love Susannah's laconic humour. Did I know more about Harry when I'd finished? Yes. I always liked the actor, if not the Steptoe character, but it took me until I'd read the book to realise Harry's consummate skill in making us empathise with Harold Steptoe. The fact that I wanted to put my arms round him when the awful Albert had conned him yet again is testament to just how great an actor he was.
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on 5 December 2014
Moving, touching, honest but most of all an eye opener to a man the public thought they knew.
Thank you Susannah for probably the best biography I will ever read. I have bought the box set of Steptoe and will watch it with a new zeal.
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on 15 August 2012
It wasn't until I finished the book that I understood why it was written. I think Susannah Corbett wrote it just to dispell the malicious rumours and docu-dramas that besmirched Harry's good name. However, I have to say that it wasn't so much a biography of Harry, more of an ensemble piece about that era and Joan Littlewood's reign. There just wasn't enough Harry in it for me. He was a much loved actor, and is still as watchable now as he was at his height, but I'm not sure that I know that much more about him than I did before reading the book.
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on 14 January 2016
I got quite exciting about starting this book, but was dissapointed!!! A good read if you are interested in the history of his up bringing and places he lived etc; but as for a good old biography, "it is not"? I struggled to get in to it and spent a lot of time flicking through to find the meat of it; once you found a good bit, it didn't last long. Overall, it is not a biography and it might be a struggle to read, unless you are prepared to go through the endless information.
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on 18 February 2013
Written by the mans daughter, she paints a loving picture but pulls no punches & perhaps dispells a few myths aloong the way - Mentioned within are many things that the viewing public may well have forgotten about & i'm going to look for some of them on dvd !
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on 7 April 2012
I looked forward to this book for so long and couldn't put it down when my copy was finally delivered. It's fun to read - fast-paced, engaging and packed full of great anecdotes. As a previous review has mentioned, the author goes to paticular pains in attempting to 'set the record straight' regarding the relationship between Harry H. Corbett and Wilfrid Brambell, and in this she certainly succeeds. There is also a wealth of extraneous detail (concerning the Theatre Workshop, for example) which makes for interesting reading.

I was disapponted, however, by what I might term the 'strong' language used by the author throughout the book for no discernible purpose. I am by no means puritanical or prudish (and I do not refer to quotations referenced in the book) but I found the swears unnecessary and distracting. I enjoyed the book, there's no doubt about it - but I don't think I would have bought it had I known how casual the writing style would be. There are also quite a few typographical errors. However, I don't mean to be critical of the author - I'm very grateful that she has written this long-overdue biography, and I would definitely recommend the book.
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on 10 January 2014
Bought for my father in law. He said it was very good. A bit slow at the beginning but he persisted and thoroughly enjoyed it.
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