Wilfrid Brambell renowned for portraying Steptoe – scruffy rag-and-bone man was in reality elegant, well-spoken, and openly gay during a time when revealing one’s sexuality could lead to the ruin of their career and even political prosecution. The show was one of the most beloved and critically acclaimed British television sitcoms of all time, regularly drawing audiences of over 28 million viewers, comprising more than half of the UK population.
On the screen, Wilfrid Brambell portrayed Albert Steptoe, the dishevelled, uncouth, and often vulgar rag-and-bone man from Shepherd’s Bush, whose relationship with his son Harold (Harry H Corbett), constantly striving (and failing) to better himself, was the heart of the comedy. Old Man Steptoe, mockingly called “You Dirty Old Man!” by his son, sported an unshaven appearance, discoloured false teeth, and wore a tatty old cardigan with cut-off mittens.
He held many prejudices, especially against what he derisively referred to as “iron hoofs,” meaning artistic and crafty individuals. However, the irony lay in Brambell’s own homosexuality.
In stark contrast to the homophobic character he portrayed memorably on television and in feature films for fifteen years, the Dublin-born actor was a debonair, erudite, and articulate individual who carried a cane and collected fine silver. He was an openly flamboyant gay man who shared his flat with a younger Malaysian, at a time when “coming out” was taboo and publicly disclosing one’s homosexuality could have catastrophic consequences.
The story of Brambell’s double life and the challenges he faced is recounted in the book “You Dirty Old Man” by David Clayton, who emphasises that the title does not mock the actor’s private life beyond the cameras.
Brambell’s early mischievous nature as a child in Ireland foreshadowed his adult reputation. At the age of ten, he was demoted from the Wolf Cubs (similar to The Scouts) due to “impertinent subordination.” As a schoolboy, he recited risqué limericks. His journey into the world of theatre began at the tender age of two and a half when his mother took him to entertain wounded soldiers dressed in a sailor’s blouse and pleated skirt.
After attending the Abbey School of Acting in Dublin, Brambell made his debut as a lead actor in a George Bernard Shaw play in 1938. During World War II, he entertained the troops as part of The Entertainments National Service Association after moving to Britain. Despite facing some initial struggles in London, Brambell’s career soared in 1948 when he landed a role in the successful play “Happy As Larry” after a cast member’s passing. He remained consistently employed for the next forty years, earning the nickname “Old Neverstop.”
In the same year, he fell in love with and married the Irish actress Molly Hall. However, their marriage ended disastrously when Molly had an affair with a young lodger from New Zealand while Brambell was on tour. When Molly announced she was pregnant, Brambell assumed the child was his, only to discover later that it belonged to the lodger, leading to a divorce. The emotional trauma deeply affected Brambell, making him even more determined to guard his private life from public scrutiny.
After starring in the successful “Steptoe and Son” series, Brambell’s fame brought both admiration and challenges. In 1963, he faced legal trouble when he was arrested by an undercover policeman for “persistent importuning for an immoral purpose” after attending a BBC party. Homosexual acts were still illegal at that time, and Brambell was concerned about the potential impact on his career if found guilty. He denied being gay during the trial and was ultimately acquitted.
To maintain his privacy, Brambell adopted a clever disguise. After the show, he would shed his scruffy persona and emerge immaculately dressed with a hat and cane, so unrecognisable that even a BBC doorman once denied him entry, doubting he was the actor who played Steptoe.
Despite the success of “Steptoe and Son,” Brambell missed out on several other notable roles, including Rooksby in “The Banana Box” (later adapted into “Rising Damp”), Grandad in “Only Fools And Horses,” and the Duke of Chesterton in the first series of “Blackadder.”
In his later years, Brambell met Yussof Bin Mat Saman, a younger Malay man, during one of his trips to the Far East, and Yussof became his live-in companion until his death. Although there were claims of a strained relationship between Brambell and his on-screen son, Harry H. Corbett, these reports were not entirely accurate. While they were not socially close off-screen, they enjoyed working together and held each other in high regard.
Brambell’s life came to an end when he passed away from cancer in January 1985 at the age of 72. His partner Yussof kept his death largely private, resulting in a modest attendance of only ten people at his funeral. Brambell’s personal life was marked by struggles, and he faced ridicule throughout his life due to his sexuality. Nevertheless, he left behind a legacy as one of the biggest stars of the 1960s and 1970s and as an actor who captivated audiences with his portrayal of Albert Steptoe.
The authorised biography of Wilfrid Brambell You Dirty Old Man! by David Clayton is on sale now.