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Wilfrid Brambell
Born Henry Wilfrid Brambell
22 March 1912(1912-03-22)
Dublin, Ireland
Died 18 January 1985 (aged 72)
London, England
Occupation Actor
Years active 1930–85
Spouse(s) Molly Josephine (m. 1948–1955) «start: (1948)–end+1: (1956)»"Marriage: Molly Josephine to Wilfrid Brambell" Location: (linkback:

Wilfrid Brambell (22 March 1912 – 18 January 1985) was an Irish film and television actor, born in Dublin, best known for his role in the British television series Steptoe and Son. He also starred alongside The Beatles in their film A Hard Day's Night, playing fictional Paul McCartney's grandfather.


Early life

On leaving school he worked part-time as a reporter for The Irish Times and part-time as an actor at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, before becoming a professional actor for the Gate Theatre. In World War II he joined the British military forces entertainment organisation ENSA.

Acting career

His television career began during the 1950s, when he was cast in small roles in three Nigel Kneale/Rudolph Cartier productions for BBC Television: as a drunk in The Quatermass Experiment (1953), as both an old man in a pub and later a prisoner in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954) and as a tramp in Quatermass II (1955). All of these roles earned him a reputation for playing old men, though he was only in his forties at the time. Brambell hardly ever stopped working in his 36 year career.

Brambell also starred in the original soundtrack of The Canterbury Tales, which was one of the quickest selling West End soundtrack albums of all time. He also released two 45-rpm singles, Second Hand b/w Rag Time Ragabone Man which played on his Steptoe and Son character, followed in 1971 by Time Marches On, his tribute to The Beatles with whom he had worked in 1964 (and met many times). It featured a Beatles-esque guitar riff with Brambell reciting words about The Beatles splitting up, b/w The Decimal Song which, at the time of Britain adopting decimal currency, was politically charged.

He featured in many prominent theatre roles. In 1966 he played Ebenezer Scrooge in a musical version of A Christmas Carol. This was adapted for radio the same year and appeared on Radio 2 on Christmas Eve. Brambell's booming baritone voice surprised many listeners. Surprisingly, he played the role straight, true to the Dickens original, and not in the stereotype Albert Steptoe character.

In 1971 he starred in the Premiere of Eric Chappell's play The Banana Box in which he played Rooksby. This part was later renamed Rigsby for the TV adaptation called Rising Damp which starred Leonard Rossiter

Steptoe and Son

It was this ability to play old men that led to his casting in his most famous role, as Albert Steptoe, the irascible father in Steptoe and Son. Initially this was a pilot on the BBC's Comedy Playhouse anthology strand: but its success led to a full series being commissioned, which lasted throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s. A constant thread throughout the series was Albert being referred to by Harold as a "dirty old man", particularly, for example, when he was eating pickled onions whilst taking a bath, and retrieving dropped ones from the bathwater. There were also two feature film spin-offs, a stage show and an American re-make entitled Sanford and Son, based on the original British scripts.

The success of Steptoe and Son made Brambell a high profile figure on British television, and earned him the major role of Paul McCartney's grandfather in The Beatles' first film, A Hard Day's Night in 1964. A running joke is made throughout the film of his character being "a very clean old man", in contrast to his being referred to as a "dirty old man" in Steptoe and Son. In real life however, he was nothing like his Steptoe persona, being dapper and well-spoken. In 1965 Brambell told the BBC that he did not want to do another Steptoe and Son series, and in September of that year he went to New York to appear in the Broadway musical Kelly at the Broadhurst Theatre; however, it closed after just one performance.

In 1971 he was due to play the role of Jeff Simmons, bass guitarist with The Mothers of Invention, in Frank Zappa's film 200 Motels (a bizarre piece of casting, since the real Simmons was young, long-haired and American) but left the production after an argument with Zappa.

Although best known for Steptoe and Son, he achieved international recognition in many films. His performance in The Terence Davies Trilogy won him critical acclaim, far greater than any achieved for Steptoe and Son,[1] yet although appearing throughout the full 24-minute piece, Brambell did not speak a single word.

Personal and later life

After the final series of Steptoe and Son was made in 1974, Brambell had some guest roles in films and on television, but both he and Corbett found themselves heavily typecast as their famous characters. In an attempt to take advantage of this situation, they undertook a tour of Australia in 1977 with a Steptoe and Son stage show. On one occasion, Brambell used bad language and was openly derogatory about New Zealand cathedrals in an interview. Despite this, Brambell did appear on the BBC's television news paying tribute to Corbett after the latter's death from a heart attack in 1982. The following year Brambell appeared in Terence Davies's film Death and Transfiguration, playing a dying elderly man who finally comes to terms with his homosexuality.

In 2002, Channel 4 broadcast a documentary film on the off-screen life of Brambell and his relationship with Harry H. Corbett, who played Harold Steptoe in Steptoe and Son. The film, titled: When Steptoe Met Son, revealed that the two men detested each other and were barely on speaking terms outside of takes by the end of the programme's run. In a series almost entirely based around the pair of them with no other regular characters, this made production of the series difficult and stressful. This tension partly related to Brambell's difficult private life. As he battled with alcoholism, he frequently forgot his lines and caused other problems both on and off the set. This was later disputed and proven to be inaccurately reported. (See The Curse of Steptoe below.

Brambell was also a closet homosexual[2][3] at a time when it was almost impossible for public figures to be openly gay, not least because homosexual acts were illegal in the UK until 1967. In 1962 he was arrested in a toilet in Shepherd's Bush for persistently importuning and given a conditional discharge.[4][5] Earlier in his life he had been married, from 1948 to 1955, to Molly Josephine but the relationship ended after she gave birth to the child of their lodger, Roderick Fisher, in 1953.

Brambell died of cancer in Westminster,[6] London, aged 72. He was cremated on 25 January 1985 at Streatham Park Cemetery, where his ashes were scattered.


The Curse of Steptoe, a BBC TV play about Brambell and his co-star Harry H. Corbett, was broadcast on 19 March 2008 on digital BBC channel BBC Four, featuring Phil Davis as Brambell. The first broadcast gained the channel its highest audience figures to date, based on overnight returns. However, shortly after, Harry H. Corbett's daughter successfully made a complaint against the BBC citing that the majority of the 'story' was fictionalised (especially the strained relationship for which the BBC could offer no proof and it was discovered they had added it in because the true story of their friendship was boring, they in fact got on very well). The BBC now show a warning at the beginning of the programme to alert the audience to the fact that an official ruling decided the evidence proved that Brambell and Corbett got on very well and that the episode was made up to attract viewers.[7]


  1. ^ Terence Davies interview on the Extras of the DVD release. Davies claims Brambell's performance won festival awards and achieved high critical acclaim
  2. ^ "Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender History Month UK". Lgbthistorymonth. Retrieved 2009-11-29. 
  3. ^ Barrie, David (19 August 2002). "The dirty truth: When film-maker David Barrie decided to make a documentary about the sitcom Steptoe and Son, he had no idea it would uncover the story of one of the strangest and most tortured double acts in TV history". The Observer. 
  4. ^ "News in Brief: Conditional discharge for television actor". The Times. December 13, 1962. p. 17. "Wilfred Brambell ... was conditionally discharged for a year and ordered to pay 25 guineas costs at West London Magistrates' Court yesterday for persistently importuning for an immoral purpose at Shepherds Bush Green on November 6" 
  5. ^ Teeman, Tim (March 20, 2008). "The Curse of Steptoe". The Times. "Brambell was arrested for importuning. “I'm not a homosexual,” he declared. “The very thought disgusts me.”" 
  6. ^ Deaths England and Wales 1984-2006
  7. ^ Tryhorn, Chris (20 March 2008). "Multichannel ratings - March 19: BBC4 breaks ratings record". The Observer. 

Further reading

  • Harry H Corbett, Bristol Evening Post (England), June 7, 2005.
  • Home is where the hurt is; Steptoe and Son was a huge sit-com hit, but behind the scenes the laughter died, Thomas Quinn, The Herald / Sunday Herald (Glasgow, Scotland), August 17, 2002
  • '‘Brambell, (Henry) Wilfrid (1912–1985)’', David Parkinson, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004


External links



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