Henry Wilfrid Brambell (22 March 1912 – 18 January 1985) was an Irish film and television actor best known for his role in the British television series Steptoe and Son. He also performed alongside the Beatles in their film A Hard Day's Night, playing Paul McCartney's fictional grandfather.
Brambell was born in Dublin, the youngest of three sons born to Henry Lytton Brambell (1870-1937), a cashier at the Guinness Brewery, and his wife, Edith Marks (1879-1965), a former opera singer. The family surname was changed from Bramble by Wilfrid's grandfather Frederick William Brambell. His two older brothers were Frederick Edward Brambell (1905-1980) and James Christopher Marks 'Jim' Brambell (1907-1992).
His first appearance was as a child, entertaining the wounded troops during the First World War. On leaving school he worked part-time as a reporter for The Irish Times and part-time as an actor at the Abbey Theatre before becoming a professional actor for the Gate Theatre. He also did repertory at Swansea, Bristol and Chesterfield. In the Second World War he joined the British military forces entertainment organisation ENSA.
Brambell had roles in film and television films from 1947, first appearing in Odd Man Out as a tram passenger (uncredited) in 1947. 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. He appeared as Bill Gaye in the 1962 Maurice Chevalier/Hayley Mills picture, In Search of the Castaways. He was heard 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"/"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. The B-side was "The Decimal Song" which, at the time of Britain adopting decimal currency, was politically charged. He played Paul McCartney's fictitious grandfather in the Beatles' 1964 film, A Hard Day's Night.
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: 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, with Leonard Rossiter replacing Brambell in the role.
Steptoe and Son
It was this ability to play old men that led to his casting in his best remembered role, as Albert Steptoe, the irascible father in Steptoe and Son (his son Harold being played by Harry H. Corbett), a man who when the series began was said to be in his sixties even though Brambell was only thirteen years older than Corbett, making him 49 in 1962. This began as a pilot on the BBC's Comedy Playhouse, and its success led to a full series being commissioned, running from 1962 to 1974 (including a five-year break). A constant thread throughout the series was Albert being referred to by Harold as a "dirty old man", for example when he was eating pickled onions while taking a bath, and retrieving dropped ones from the bathwater. There were also two feature film spin-offs, a stage show and an American incarnation entitled Sanford and Son, some episodes of which were almost exact remakes of the original British scripts.
The success of Steptoe and Son made Brambell a high-profile figure on British television, and earned him the supporting role of Paul McCartney's grandfather in the Beatles' first film, A Hard Day's Night (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, he was indeed nothing like his Steptoe persona, being dapper and well-spoken. In 1965 Brambell told the BBC that he did not want to do another series of Steptoe and Son, and in September 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.
Apart from his role as the older Steptoe, Brambell achieved recognition in many films. His performance in The Terence Davies Trilogy won him critical acclaim, far greater than any achieved for Steptoe and Son. Although he appears throughout the full 24-minute piece, Brambell does 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. He and Harry H. Corbett also undertook a tour of Australia in 1977 in a Steptoe and Son stage show. In 1982 Brambell appeared on the BBC's television news paying tribute to Corbett after the latter's death from a heart attack. In 1983 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, When Steptoe Met Son, about the off-screen life of Brambell and his relationship with Harry H. Corbett. The film claimed that the two men detested each other and were barely on speaking terms after the Australia tour. The rift was apparently caused in part by Brambell's alcoholism, and led to the two men leaving the country on separate aircraft. This claim is disputed by the writers of Steptoe and Son, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, who were unaware of any hatred or conflict. Corbett's nephew released a statement in which he claimed that the actors did not hate each other: "We can categorically say they did not fall out. They were together for nearly a year in Australia, went on several sightseeing trips together, and left the tour at the end on different planes because Harry was going on holiday with his family, not because he refused to get on the same plane. They continued to work together after the Australian tour on radio and adverts."
Brambell was homosexual at a time when it was impossible for public figures to be openly gay, not least because male 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.
He was married from 1948 to 1955, to Mary "Molly" Josephine, but the relationship ended in divorce after she gave birth to the child of their lodger in 1953.
Brambell died of cancer at his home in Westminster, London, aged 72 on the 18th of January 1985. Only a handful of people attended his funeral. 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.
- Odd Man Out (1947) as tram passenger (uncredited)
- The Cherry Orchard (1947; BBC telemovie) as station master
- Eyes that Kill (1947) as newspaper editor (uncredited)
- Happy as Larry (1948) as First Tailor
- Another Shore (1948) as Arthur Moore
- Dry Rot (1956) as Tar Man
- The Story of Esther Costello (1957) as man in pub (uncredited)
- Serious Charge (1959) as Verger
- Urge to Kill (1960) as Mr. Forsythe
- The Sinister Man (1961) as Lock keeper
- Flame in the Streets (1961) as Mr. Palmer senior
- What a Whopper (1961) as Postman
- The Boys (1962) as Robert Brewer Lavatory Attendant
- In Search of the Castaways (1962) as Bill Gaye
- The Small World of Sammy Lee (1963) as Harry
- Crooks in Cloisters (1964) as Phineas
- A Hard Day's Night (1964) as John McCartney (Paul McCartney's grandfather)
- The Three Lives of Thomasina (1964) as Willie Bannock
- Go Kart Go (1964) as Fred, Junkman
- San Ferry Ann (1965) as Grandad
- Where the Bullets Fly (1966) as Train Guard
- Alice in Wonderland (1966) as White Rabbit
- Witchfinder General (1968) (as Wilfred Brambell) as Master Loach
- Lionheart (1968) as Dignett
- Cry Wolf (1968) as Delivery man
- Carry On Again Doctor (1969) as Mr. Pullen, a patient
- Giacomo Casanova: Childhood and Adolescence (1969) as Malipiero
- Some Will, Some Won't (1970) as Henry Russell
- Steptoe and Son (1972) as Albert Steptoe
- Steptoe and Son Ride Again (1973) as Albert Steptoe
- Holiday on the Buses (1973) as Bert Thompson
- The Adventures of Picasso (1979) as Alice B. Toklas
- High Rise Donkey (1980) as Ben Foxcroft
- The Island of Adventure (1982) as Uncle Jocelyn
- The Terence Davies Trilogy (1983) as Robert Tucker (old age)
- Sword of the Valiant (1984) as Porter