colourful characters, black and white world… (where did you go?)

Harold Steptoe (Son): “Who was Uncle George anyway?”

Albert Steptoe (Father): “Me eldest brother.”

(Son):“I don’t remember ’im – ahh, there’s been so many of ’em!”

(Father): “No, you wouldn’t remember ’im, you haven’t seen ’im since you was three months old.”

(Son): “Why?”

(Father): “He was your godfather.”

(Son): “I thought godfathers’s supposed to look after your religious upbringing and buy you presents on your birthday and stuff.”

(Father): “Yeah, that’s right, that’s why you never saw him… Nah, we made a mistake in choosin’ ’im –’tight as a gnat’s chuff, ’e was! You know, he was the only man I knew who brought his hair ’ome from the barber’s.”

(Son): “Get away!”

(Father): “’E used to stuff cushions with it.”

* * * * *

If you’re British or Australian, and old enough to remember, then you may recall the above scene from the 1960s/70s sitcom Steptoe and Son, set in London’s Shepherd’s Bush, about a father and son’s working/living relationship.

They’re Rag and Bone Men.

In the above scene, Albert’s eldest brother has died, much to Harold’s lack of sympathy – “Oh no, another bleedin’ funeral! They’re droppin’ like flies, your lot!”

I wouldn’t like to guess at how such a scene might be viewed today, in a politically correct sense, I mean, were it written today; I’ve completely lost touch – I got rid of the television years ago…

But what I will state is this: scenes like the one above pulled me back from a deep depression many moons ago. I was living in Northern France and had lost my way somewhat – in life, that is; I knew where I was, I was in Lille. Let’s just say that, as always, I was looking for something, except this time I no longer knew what that something was. What I did, then, when at rock bottom, was to return to creature comforts of old: like those care-free Wednesday evenings, plateau attained, only two more days of school to go – and even then, only if I make it, what with all that snow outside; my mum’s sago-pudding, my dad’s Sid James-esque guffaws…

I had the Steptoe and Son DVD collection sent over, as a matter of urgency.

Further still, I now believe that I was in search of something truly lost in modern day life: ‘character’. Not my own, but other people’s. That’s to say, the kind of characters every city street once possessed – at least one! – and every family claimed to own, too, somewhere down the line; like the kind of uncle who brought his hair home from the barber’s; and indeed, characters like Steptoe and Son.

We laughed, because we knew someone just like that.

* * * * *

About the funeral:

“I suppose Potty Ada will be there,” Harold gripes, “liftin’ up her skirt to the vicar.”

“She’s ’armless, Harold,” Albert replies. “Besides, she is your auntie.”

“I dunno. There’s some dodgy strains in this family. Well, I’m not lookin’ after her again, I got lumbered with ’er last time, in the same car… Oh, Gawd, she was effin’ an’ blindin’ all the way up the Goldhawk Road! I mean, she must be knockin’ on 60 and still dresses like Carmen Miranda!”

“It’s not her fault, Harold. She went a bit funny in 1940. Her world came to an end when our Sid never came back from Dunkirk.”

“’E come back alright, ’e just never went home. ’E’s up in Newcastle, everybody knows that…”

* * * * *

Poor Harold.

Phillip, of Wood, Talc and Mr. J, not only claims to be a fan of Steptoe and Son – as when in the old market with his beloved grandmother:

* * * * *

   ‘You could write a bleedin’ book about it,’ I said, in my best Harold Steptoe imitation. She loved those.

* * * * *

– but, when taking the bus home with said lady – or ‘grom’ – he depicts a setting worthy of the classic 60s/70s sitcom:

* * * * *

In the summer holidays, mum and dad at work, my sister and me would stay at our maternal grandparents’, but in those days it was real Coronation Street terrain, with as many un-inventible characters. A cousin and me would often be targeted by an elderly, very fit one: Batty, who’d either dye her hair a different colour every day, or all the colours in one day. We’d find her Picasso-like tints too much and yell ‘Parrot face’ each time she stepped out of her door, provided we’d not strayed too far from ours. Occasionally, she’d catch us out and the only other safe haven would be our toilet, stationed at the far end of the large communal yard. ‘Come out, you sods!’ she’d shriek, punching the door, leaving us with no option but to shed a tear. It would all finish up in a brawl between Batty and the other neighbours, allowing our naughty-if-desperate selves to sneak out and off.

   Funny, how my memories of those days recur in black and white, barring Batty’s hairdos…

* * * *

What I’ll confess here is that this scene is more fact than fiction – do we call it faction these days? Have we always called it faction? Whatever the name, characters are what this blog post is about. Where did they go, I’d like to know? For I miss them.

The irony in the above scene, for me, is that Phillip claims to recall such days only in black and white – “barring Batty’s hairdos”. But then, well, this is how he eventually describes the advent – ten years late in Phillip’s household – of colour television:

* * * * *

   Although I’d not yet come to the conclusion my dad’s eating practice was an unhealthy one, I was concerned by another destructive force: Calendar. That depressing regional news programme with the depressing musical intro. Depressing presenters presenting death and job loss in depressing locations. Depressing meteorologists predicting the depressing weather, who’d slap fragments of magnetic cardboard onto the northern bit of those depressing British Isles. We’d only recently upgraded to a colour television, which somehow managed to enhance the programme’s greyness. I had a similar aversion to The Magic Roundabout. To tear onto that set and tear out Zebedee’s spring: ‘Jump now, little shit!’  

   Thank goodness, then, my grom provided real colour with her nippin’ bys.

* * * * *

What Phillip may be claiming, then, however indirectly, is that the concept of colour television alone may, however symbolically, have signalled the beginning of the end – however small an advancement we now consider colour television to be, with regard to information technology.

A time of transition, then, into a New World Order. A bright and colourful world of… mundanity.

But Phillip’s lucky, for he doesn’t even have to step out of the door in search of true colour; true colour regularly visits him by way of his favourite of all characters; his grom, the raw tripe gobbling, black pudding munching, tombola wizard, who stole potatoes and coal from freight-trains to help feed and warm her offspring when the going got tough. And once again, like Phillip, why would I go hunting down such a character when I, too, had one right at home?

Another clue as to the possible disappearance of regular characters – those we’d consider a little too eccentric to be realistic today, for any realist writer, that is – is in the above “going got tough”. Yes, my grandmother did all those things, and more, and that tough bit was World War Two.

And what of the Steptoe’s “Potty – aunt – Ada”? Sid never returning from Dunkirk? Were such characters, then, partly, the fruits of wartime deprivation and loss? As I got older, I’d tend to unearth them on talent nights, down the old local, which, alas, is no more. Phillip remembers them, too:

* * * * *

   … the stage, one upon which a sago-coloured pair of pvc boots were about to bear a would-be Nancy Sinatra – who looked more like the dad and sounded like neither – if Frank’s un-plugging of the jukebox and the animated glances the resident drummer was hurling about meant anything. Everyone would howl hell for leather once she got up there, as would that short husband once they got home, as per her neighbours, where, they said, she went through the routine again, howling being the desired effect. I couldn’t work out what the drummer or organ player saw or heard that the rest of us didn’t.

* * * * *

Alas indeed.

The greedy breweries put an end to all that. Fewer pubs, fewer characters with which to make acquaintance… Characters. They were poets and they didn’t know it…

There may be many more reasons why the character is of a very rare breed today, but I’ll now submit my own theory, a theory running parallel with the idea that the classic sitcom – Steptoe and Son, Only Fools and Horses, Till death Us Do Part et al – is no more, for one idea feeds the other. As, in fact, do the ideas of the modern day man owning every technological gadget he could once have only dreamed of… while lacking in any worthy, new situation comedies. It’s economic, pure and simple.

Ray Galton – a co-writer of Steptoe and Son – once suggested that tension breeds comedy; it creates amusing situations.

And he is right.

Furthermore, if we, as viewers, are able to stand apart from those circumstances, while still being able to relate to them… well.

Classic comedy, hence the ubiquitous, eccentric character of old – hence nostalgia – are products of hard times, and there’s no getting away from it. And I can’t help but feel there’s something very existential about that whole idea… and just maybe I lost my way in Northern France for having acquired that for which I’d once striven to escape… and so suddenly lamented a world I loved more than I’d realised.

Some say – as do I – that classic comedy is born of potential tragedy. And if you believe that, too, then I hope you’ll read Wood, Talc and Mr. J.

Prepare to laugh, with and occasionally at, the characters… and perhaps hold back the odd tear for them too…


Chris Rose

Your literary, soulful friend

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