Wilfrid Brambell’s 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 which starred Leonard Rossiter.
It was this ability to play old men that led to Wilfrid Brambell being cast in his best remembered role, as Albert Steptoe, the irascible father in Steptoe and Son (his son Harold being played by Harry H. Corbett). 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, Wilfrid 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. Wilfrid Brambell died of cancer in Westminster, London, aged 72. He was cremated on 25 January 1985 at Streatham Park Cemetery, where his ashes were scattered.
- March, 22, 1912
- Dublin, Ireland
- January, 18, 1985
- United Kingdom
- Westminster, London, England
Cause of Death
- cremated on 25 January 1985 at Streatham Park Cemetery, where his ashes were scattered