The book, You Dirty Old Man by David Clayton, also reveals how Brambell was almost cast in Blackadder – but declared it was “the biggest load of nonsense I’ve read in my life.” Dublin-born Brambell was one of Britain’s most loved and complex screen and stage actors but was most famous as grimy, grasping Steptoe in the BBC comedy which began in 1962 and ended in 1974.
Says Clayton: “When Wilfrid went to perform Kelly on Broadway which, up until about five years ago, was the biggest flop on Broadway, the writers decided, ‘Wilfrid’s gone, let’s kill him off!'”
“There’s actually a chapter in the book called Let’s Kill The Old Man Off. They were going to kill Steptoe, and while Harold was back in the house after the funeral, a young lad would knock on the door and say, ‘You don’t know me but my mum said if I ever needed anything, I should call on you’.”
“It turns out it’s Harold’s son. It’s a complete switch-around. Harold is now the old man.”
“They were quite excited about writing that,” Clayton says.
“They even had someone in mind to play the young lad as well! It didn’t happen obviously but you could even still have called it Steptoe And Son.”
But as one stage door closed, another could have opened. Brambell was almost cast in Blackadder but it was never filmed.
Clayton reveals: “I spoke to creator John Lloyd about it. They wanted three highbrow actors in, of whichWilfrid was one, to play elder statesmen. Rowan Atkinson, John, and Richard Curtis and the three actors were at a read-through.
“But Wilfrid said, ‘It’s the biggest load of nonsense I’ve read in my life’. He left the room, John Lloyd tried to talk him round, but Wilfrid said, ‘It’s not something for me’.”
“Brambell, who died in 1985, aged 72, missed out on Only Fools And Horses, too,” says Clayton.
“He had a lot of nearly moments.”
“He was under consideration for the grandad in Only Fools and Horses as well,” says Clayton.
“Writer John Sullivan wanted him but the producer said, ‘No, people would still think of him as Steptoe’.”
“It was the same case with Rising Damp,” he says.
“Wilfrid did Rigsby on stage and it got good reviews, but the financial backer said something ‘wasn’t right’ and the role passed to Leonard Rossiter who made a great success of it.”
Clayton says contrary to claims, Brambell and Harry H Corbett, who played Harold Steptoe and who died aged 57 in 1982, did like each other.
“Actually a lot of that was just rubbish. They didn’t hate each other, it’s a myth.”
Along with Galton and Simpson, the book features interviews with Joan Reddin, Brambell’s agent, and fellow actors who worked alongside him, such as Phil Davis.
Through Brambell’s nephew, the book contains a number of rarely seen photographs, both professional and personal.
Alongside fame and fortune, the author also reveals how Brambell suffered personal heartache, battling an inner turmoil that eventually drove him to drink as his marriage collapsed.
“It was a sad ending. Only eight people attended the funeral,” Clayton adds. “As the coffin was carried down the aisle, the organist played the first few bars of Steptoe and Son. It was a nice touch.”
- You Dirty Old Man! – The Authorised Biography of Wilfrid Brambell, by David Clayton (The History Press)