‘You Dirty Old Man!’: Masculinity and Class in Steptoe and Son (1962-74)

DAVID ROLINSON

BTVD_Steptoe_The Offer 1

Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of Ray Galton and Alan Simpson’s Steptoe and Son (1962-74): on 5 January 1962, the BBC broadcast ‘The Offer’, the Comedy Playhouse one-off that led to the series that started later the same year.1 It’s a landmark series, and it’s a shame that, like Z Cars earlier this week (2 January), its fiftieth anniversary hasn’t seen an official BBC commemoration, especially since repeats continue to do decent business for BBC Two.2 It’s not that the BBC entirely resist anniversary celebrations – it’s just that those usually commemorate, and play a part in branding, currently ongoing programmes – and they have shown awareness that Galton and Simpson are among the greats of British television writing, including a profile by Arena.3 However, the anniversary does provide a welcome prod to revisit the series. In that spirit, this site presents an essay celebrating some of the series’ ideas and themes, trying to do some justice to the quality and depth of the writing.4

Introduction

John Sullivan

DAVID ROLINSON


After passing away in late April, writer John Sullivan (1946-2011) was paid tributes by many people from different walks of life, who reminisced about his great shows and great moments. Inevitably the long-running Only Fools and Horses (1981-2003) was central to those tributes, as so many of us remember visits to the Nag’s Head like reunions with friends, and can trace our lives with memories not just of the show but of the circumstances in which we watched it. Sullivan wrote some of television’s finest and most popular comedy series, but even that isn’t high enough praise. Sullivan’s best work belongs in the lineage of the great writers who inspired him, such as Johnny Speight and Ray Galton and Alan Simpson. Like them, Sullivan reflected everyday life back at his audience with respect for their experience and intelligence, and the audience’s recognition of truth produced not only laughs for his one-liners and set-pieces but also an emotional commitment and sense of social awareness of the kind critics usually associate with genres other than this less critically-respected popular form. He was a television writer in its purest sense, and in the ways by which we define key television playwrights: he mastered a genre whilst refining its capabilities and playing to his audience’s awareness of its functions, and for a while became as visible a “name” – whose credit on a programme produced certain expectations – as any more vaunted auteur. At his peak – surely the 1980s, given that unbroken run of success that included the early years of Only Fools and Horses plus Just Good Friends (1983-86) and Dear John (1986-87) – he changed the way we speak to each other.