Tuesday, February 9, 2010
The lost tribesman, a fugitive from abstract expressionism, the senior Steptoe and the Hitler-loving cop
I was a little severe on Minch's account of W.H. Bartlett: this entry, excellent, is of a different order.) He was an exotic figure to me: gaunt, redfaced, always smoking long American cigarettes. He was very kind, and gave my father three wonderful paintings which hang in the house in Greystones. I was told that he refused to price his work high, even when, late in life, there was serious collector interest in it, including from the politician Charles Haughey, whose utter corruption did not efface quite good taste in art. Charlie - Brady, not Haughey - preferred that people could afford his paintings and insisted that his dealer price them accordingly.
They were a sublime double act, a delirious cross between Samuel Beckett, kitchen sink drama and the Ealing comedies. Living on the east coast of Ireland in the 1960s, we were able to pick up BBC transmissions from the UK and would rarely miss an episode; we kept it up once we moved to England. Families still gathered to watch television then, and Steptoe was a pleasure we always tried to take together. Albert Steptoe was played by Wilfrid Brambell, a Dublin actor who became successful in England in old man roles, even when he was quite young - he was only 50 when he began to play Albert, in 1962. (He was a memorable old man in Richard Lester's Beatles film, A Hard Day's Night.) Apparently, he was really impossible. He drank too much and hated his co-star, Harry H Corbett, who hated him back. He was so difficult, that serious thought was given to sacking him in 1965, despite the huge success of the series. A gay man at the time when homosexual practices were illegal, his Ortonesque lifestyle also carried risks of arrest and exposure that he did not often skirt well, although he found love later in life. (A 2008 BBC film, The Curse of Steptoe, dramatized the story.) We viewers, fortunately, knew none of this: we just laughed like drains at one of the funniest things we'd ever seen. Harold's absurd hipster pretensions, driving his horse and cart through Swinging London, constantly brought down by the malign machinations of his father, brilliantly captured the contradictions and pain of the age, and life.