Comedy fans will have been cheered last night to see Steptoe and Son back atop their rickety cart on ITV3 in a rare showing of the TV series’ second film spin-off, Steptoe and Son Ride Again.
Steptoe was one of many British sitcoms adapted for the cinema in the 1970s, and something of a rarity in having spawned more than one movie spin-off. The first film, called simply Steptoe and Son, was released in 1972 to mixed audience reaction owing to its unremittingly bleak storyline and laugh-free final 45 minutes, which came across like one of Samuel Beckett’s first drafts.
But it made enough money at the box office to justify a sequel, so screenwriters Ray Galton and Alan Simpson went back to the drawing board for its follow-up, penning a screenplay that ditches the kitchen sink drama of the first movie in favour of knockabout slapstick.
While it’s a better film than the first, Steptoe and Son Ride Again still misses the tone of the TV show, eschewing the series’ dialogue-based humour for visual gags, presumably in an attempt to take advantage of a bigger budget and to give the audience some bang for their bucks.
And like all 70s sitcom movies, Ride Again suffers as a result of needing to fill 90 minutes of screen time. TV sitcoms have very specific structures, which are best served by the half hour usually afforded them on the box. Any longer and they start to sag, such as the Perry and Croft series You Rang, M’Lord, which had episodes that ran to 50 minutes and felt flabby.
But despite the film’s script being “stretched to fraying point”, as our in-house reviewer described it, that’s not to say there isn’t some fun to be had along the way.
Harold and Albert take a laughably roundabout route to funding the purchase of a new carthorse, straying into the path of a gangster and a short-sighted greyhound, eventually resorting to a life insurance scam that ends in tears only when it turns out that Steptoe Sr still has just one foot in the grave (illustrated in a jaw-dropping funeral scene).
Like the old man, the plot lurches around uncontrollably, especially in the last half hour. But, Wilfrid Brambell is at the top of his game here as Albert, and Milo O’Shea puts in an inspired cameo as the sozzled Dr Popplewell. Diana Dors shows off her lusty housewife schtick at the beginning of the movie, an act that never gets old, and the period detail (especially the enormous sideburns on every male over the age of 14) is a joy to behold.
Still, Steptoe and Son would only last one more series on TV. It was broadcast the following year, 1974, and the cracks were already showing in Ride Again.
Alas, Harry H Corbett is downright irritating in this, acting like a petulant ten-year-old and mugging relentlessly – a trait that would blight the last series of the sitcom. And the film’s energy levels are all over the place. After the first half-hour we run into trouble, with a scene of the Steptoes training their greyhound dragged out for far, far too long. And, as I say, the film’s final scenes involving the appallingly dull rag-and-bone community are drawn out and devoid of any pizzazz whatsoever.
It’s a shame that the Steptoes didn’t get the film treatment they deserved, even after two attempts. The first is bleak and depressing; the second silly and OTT. But maybe it’s a bit rich to complain too bitterly – after all, Galton and Simpson had written seven series for the characters before they penned Ride Again, and there weren’t many more situations left to exploit.
In the end Steptoe and Son Ride Again came along at the wrong time for the writers and stars. But, hey, even imperfect Steptoe is better than none at all…
(By the way, you can watch the whole film for free on YouTube)