When "Steptoe and Son" first hit British television screens in 1962, it was an immediate success. It quickly established itself as compulsive family viewing for many millions. At the height of its popularity, in households up and down the land, 28 million people would watch every episode.
The sitcom was a radical departure from the slap stick and musical hall traditions that had previously dominated television comedy. The episodes were short on plot and gags. The humour came exclusively from the relationship between the two main characters, Albert Steptoe and his son Harold, a pair of rag and bone men.
From the outset, as in the very first episode
, the humour of the show comes from the fact that Alfred and Harold are locked in a dysfunctional relationship. The conflict, which lies at the heart of the drama, stems from Harold's desire for a better life and Alfred's ability to manipulate any and every situation to his advantage. In every conflict between the two men, no matter how trivial, Alfred always gains the upper hand. It is this pathos that lies at the heart of the comedy, and this approach was entirely novel at the time.
The series was also radical in its purported representation of working class characters as the main characters. Previously, working class characters had been minor characters, fulfilling stereotypical roles. The granting of central roles to working class characters, in a comedy that was dialogue driven, inevitably resulted in the use of bad language. This too was a sign of the changing cultural mores of British society in the 1960s. Of course, some of the more reactionary and nostalgic of conservatives criticised such use of earthy language, but the vast majority of the public appreciated the attempted social realism.
The sitcom was also completely radical in that it employed actors rather than comedians, playing extensions of themselves. The use of actors worked perfectly. Rather that seeking laughs, Alfred and Harold allow the pathos of the situation to reveal the humour that underlies the tragedy of the human situation, turning an apparently implausible scenario into something universal.
This representation, on BBC television, suggested the working class were fully accepted members of society. Whilst Alfred and Harold were not strictly speaking working class, having their own business, they were poor and uneducated, and this was sufficient to suggest an inclusive society, where the privileges of rank and status were remnants of a past bound for the dustbin of history. The fuzzy, but warm feeling of one nation, was very much in keeping with the times. And, predictably enough, when the national mood changed and class conflict became in the 1970s once more open and bitter, the series ceased to strike the same chord and came, as all things do, to a natural end.