Looking Back At The STEPTOE AND SON Christmas Special, 1973: The Party - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At The STEPTOE AND SON Christmas Special, 1973: The Party

Tony’s stoppin’ at home this Christmas.
Explaining to non-Brits that Steptoe & Son was one of the most popular comedies of its age, while sitting in the 21st century, is a bit of a weird experience. Mostly because it’s jam-packed with gaslighting, familial loathing and in some episodes, what would now be classed as geriatric abuse.

There are also plenty of casually racist, sexist, fatphobic, homophobic, and slut-shaming elements studded throughout the history of the show. If you watch Steptoe & Son with a 21st century scorecard, the chances are it’ll fail, even if you choose an episode at random.

The point though, possibly, is that if you updated the language, it would still WORK as 21st century comedy, because fundamentally, it’s comedy of the dark, dramatic kind that was usually – at least in the 1970s – the province of the stage, and of long-dead Russian writers. It’s the comedy of two people bound together by love and hate and duty and money and memory, while torn apart by culture and aspiration and ability, and the grinding, bone-deep dislike of everything the other stands for. It has that comedic bleakness of the Russian masters – transposed to a rag and bone yard in Shepherd’s Bush.

Albert Steptoe is a filthy old man with traditional conservative ideas. His son, Harold, desperately craves to be a left-wing revolutionary beatnik, but also to be cultured, to be accepted and lauded in the society of their time. The whole thing is a mass of contradictions from start to finish, but in its fundamental lessons about getting on with – and being TRAPPED with – your family, it’s a masterpiece, looked at either with dramatic or comedic lenses.
The 1973 Steptoe And Son Christmas Special, known as The Party, is particularly poignant, as it is, as Albert describes it, “our first Common Market Christmas,” the Common Market being the entity that would eventually evolve into the EU. There’s also some punchy satire over Britain’s joining of the international endeavour. “We remember the bad old days, don’t we?” muses Albert (not unreasonably) to the angel for their Christmas tree. “Bleedin’ sight better than they are now.”

Just in case you were of the view that Brexit-division was a purely 21st century phenomenon, there’s Albert Steptoe, reminding us that no, no, Britain was as divided about JOINING as it was about leaving.

Meanwhile, Harold, crushed beyond endurance by the day-to-day presence of his father and the utter drudgery of their lives together, has decided to practice a little freedom of movement of his own, and spend Christmas and new year in Majorca at a luxury hotel. Without his dad.

It’s important to notice an early reference though, as Harold (Harry H Corbett – no, not Sooty’s friend, but one of the finest stage actors of his generation) explains to the impeccably middle-class travel agent (played by Frank Thornton, who played the similar role of Captain Peacock in Are You Being Served?), that he had intended the trip to be for two – he was taking a lady for some festive sunshine - only she had decided that morning to give him the elbow. So, there’s a level on which his decision to ditch his father back in chilly London for the festive season isn’t specifically meant as a cruelty, but as an opportunity to forge a romantic connection that might lead to something.

The fact that he still intends to go ahead with it on his own and “pick up something out there” might be seen as a cruelty, but is actually just an expression of the levels of Harold’s desperation. He will do anything, but ANYTHING, to avoid another mind-numbing Christmas alone in the “rathole” of their home, alone with the old man he calls Father. The same shoddy, handmade decorations. The same one-legged angel on the same, by now entirely-needle-free Christmas bush. The same dreary ritual of watching his father watch Christmas TV, slowly disappearing beneath a mountain of nutshells, tangerine skins and cigarette ash. The same godforsaken, cheerless gifts – “Three handkerchiefs and a pair of Y-fronts,” he accurately predicts.

No more for Harold Steptoe! This year, he’s going to be in a luxury hotel, pretending to be richer than he is, mixing with the middle – and even the upper – classes, blissfully unaware (at least on the surface) of their disgust and disdain for him, as shown even when he books his flight.
Harold’s plan that the old man should go down to the local old people’s home for his Christmas dinner (“with a conjurer afterwards!”, as he patronisingly enthuses) is of course a non-starter before he even introduces the idea, but he still intends to fly off and leave the old man in shivering Britain.

Albert plays on his sympathies in a classic, cruel, gaslighting fashion, invoking Harold’s sainted mother, and claiming that he “probably won’t be here for next Christmas” – the perennial threat and promise that he’s on the brink of death being twisted like a knife in Harold’s gut.

While Harold went through all the motions, even to the point of allowing hope into his chained-down soul, he’s always known in the pit of his stomach that this was coming – this emotional blackmail, this crumbling of his callousness. And eventually, when the old man’s lip quivers and his voice goes reedy and thin, Harold caves. He will stay home – like all the other years.

But just when Albert thinks he’s won and the two of them will spend the Christmas season alone together as usual, Harold has a resurgence. Alright – if he has to stay home, he will trade in his ticket for cash and throw the biggest, most lavish, Scrooge-after-the-ghosts party in the history of Shepherd’s Bush. A three-day bacchanal that will light up the town and send people reeling into the night, steaming drunk and full of pudding.

That his party will be full of people from the pub, or people who’ve heard about a free dinner and want to take advantage, is a fact the old man is not slow to point out. But Harold doesn’t care! He’d spend the holiday season down the old folk’s home himself, just so long as it wasn’t just him and his father, going through their endless, carved-into-the-soul repetitions.

And so the rest of the episode goes, showing the preparations for a party and a half, including a Christmas dinner with some actual women at it. Harold’s “friends” will be in abundance, though Albert has very few friends left. There’s a fruit punch, mixed, in true Albert Steptoe style, in a po (for those just joining us in the 21st century, a po was the colloquial name for a chamber pot – a ceramic bowl placed under the bed and used as an overnight toilet in times of outdoor plumbing). There are multiple whole birds to be plucked, prepped, stuffed and cooked. There are piles of gifts and more tinsel than you can shake a Christmas tree at. And for once, even though he didn’t get away from the soul-crushing isolation of just himself and his father, Harol Steptoe looks set to have a happy Christmas.

Until…
Until Chickenpox.

Itchy, scratchy, insanely contagious Chickenpox. Naturally, it’s the old man who gets it first, prompting Harold to the irrational conclusion “You’ve deliberately contracted Chickenpox to ruin Christmas!”

But then, while he desperately scrabbles for solutions that will still let him be among people – “You can go and sit out with the horse, I’ll bring your dinner out” – Harold realises the ghastly truth. His chest too is spotted and dotted with the itchy sores.

At the last moment, and seemingly without Albert’s active intention, the Steptoes are isolated together, unable to admit any of their would-be guests (none of whom are certain if they’ve ever had the condition). And another Christmas of just the father and son being together – this time made worse by their inability to go out into the world – begins.

Steptoe And Son as a set-up was always vibrating back and forth over the lines of tragedy and comedy. The Party is an episode that – like the initial pilot, The Offer – has plenty of comedy and funny lines, brilliantly delivered in it, but ends up on the side of pathos, the prison of each other’s company more underlined even than on any normal Christmas.

The impressive thing about The Party is that while it may have been made in 1973, and while the stars, Wilfred Bramble and Harry H Corbett, were beginning to melt into a similar relationship to that of their characters, disliking their eternal association and sinking into typecasting – a particular nightmare for Corbett, who had worried about the effect of doing a TV comedy even before he took the role - the essential dynamic of the episode is a Christmas reality for lots of people.

While not everyone who goes home to their family for Christmas will have the long-suffering stoop of a Harold Steptoe, ground down by the poisonous presence of his father all year round, everyone will have that sense over a shared Christmas that enough is really quite enough of the family they didn’t choose. You remember the habits your family members have, and they irritate you past reason. You remember that Uncle Fred voted BNP and never misses an opportunity to explain how he’s “not a racist, but-”. Aunt Sarah’s sprout farts kill everyone but the dog – and that’s only because the dog can retaliate.

In essence, while it takes in the Common Market, the rise of package holidays, the commercialism of Christmas – “Oh, well if you’re going to bring religion into Christmas…” – and other salient satirical points, The Party is all about the hell that is other people – particularly people you know and love and can’t get away from when you want to.

In essence, that makes it not only peak Steptoe And Son – but also in a very real sense, peak Christmas.

Hundreds of Christmas TV & Film favourites are available to stream now. Enjoy Britmas with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony  lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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