Harry H Corbett – A broken glass half full
As the TV series Steptoe And Son drew to a close, Harry H Corbett sought to release his debut solo album, a collection of traditional British folk songs and music hall tunes.
Harry H Corbett,
Only Authorised Employees To Break Bottles,
Ra Records RALP 6022,
First broadcast as a pilot episode in January 1962 as part of the BBC’s Comedy Playhouse, the TV series Steptoe And Son was an unlikely but immensely popular hit. Should anyone need reminding, it was set in a dilapidated and decrepit junkyard and featured a father and son who loathed and mistrusted each other. The series ran for twelve years, with a five year break between the black and white and colour episodes, finally ending on Boxing Day 1974 with a Christmas special. Spawning a number of vinyl albums, radio episodes, foreign adaptations, live shows, tours, and two big screen spin-off films, by rights the two stars of the show Wilfrid Brambell and Harry H Corbett could have (and should have) cashed in on their enormous fame and mass appeal when the series came to an end. If Harry H Corbett for example, had wanted to release a novelty single or two, or maybe a full album of daft comedy songs, then I’m sure that no-one would have blamed him. I’m equally sure that there would have been a record buying public eagerly waiting to receive such comedic recordings. Harry though was a man with strong convictions, and he clearly wanted to take his career in a different direction.
Harry H Corbett was no stranger to comedy records. At the beginning of Steptoe-mania in 1962, he had released the suitably rag and bone themed up tempo single Junk Shop. Wilfrid Brambell’s own much more maudlin but similarly themed effort Secondhand followed in 1963. Wilfrid Brambell seemed content with his sole foray into a recording studio, but Harry H Corbett certainly wasn’t daunted and released a number of other novelty singles during the ‘60s. While none of those records would trouble the charts (something of a running theme around here) the two stars of the hit sitcom would have better luck as part of a double act. The single Steptoe & Son At Buckingham Palace was a live recording of their 1963 Royal Variety Performance, released as a fund raiser for the Variety Artistes’ Benevolent Fund. Reaching number 25 in the charts over Christmas 1963, it was also released in Australia and New Zealand, helping to build the sitcom’s popularity outside of the UK. Over this period two Steptoe And Son soundtrack albums also made the charts, with 1963’s Steptoe And Son LP reaching an impressive number 4.
Way before all of this mass adulation and chart success, Harry H Corbett was but a jobbing suburban repertory company actor. Born in 1925 in Burma where his father was a sergeant in the Colonial defence forces, the young Harry was sent back to England aged only 18 months after his mother died of dysentery. Initially he lived with his aunt in Ardwick, Manchester, and then later in Wythenshawe on what was then the largest council housing estate in Europe. After serving with (and later deserting from) the Royal Navy during the Second World War, Harry returned to Manchester where in 1948 after a series of menial jobs he gave into his childhood dreams and joined the Chorlton Repertory Company.
In 1951 a production of Ewan MacColl’s play Uranium 235 saw the much more radical Theatre Workshop share the same theatre as Harry’s Chorlton Rep. It was one of the workshop’s members, David Scase, who persuaded Harry to turn away from the safe world of rep and take a chance with the various militant communists and left wing actors that made up The Theatre Workshop. Formed in post-war Manchester by Joan Littlewood and Ewan MacColl, both veterans of previous radical left wing theatrical ventures, the company saw drama as a means of communicating their fanatic revolutionary fervour to the masses. Soon after Harry joined the resolutely northern troubadours though, the chance came for the Workshop to secure a lease on the Theatre Royal Stratford East in London. Joan Littlewood seized the opportunity and took the company south to fight her insurrectionary battles with the West End elite, while Ewan MacColl left to concentrate on his career as a folk singer. Harry went to London and The Theatre Royal, a place where he and many others would make their names with Joan Littlewood and the plays staged in her legendary personal East End fiefdom. Absent though he was, departed Workshop member Ewan MacColl would also have a lasting influence on the career of Harry H Corbett.
Collaborating with folk song collector and performer AL Lloyd, Ewan MacColl released a 1955 album The Singing Sailor on the Topic label. Although Lloyd and MacColl (and even the concertina player Alf Edwards) were credited on the sleeve, Harry H Corbett’s then not particularly famous name was omitted. But there he was, lurking away on side two of the album, holding his own with the two giants of the contemporary folk scene. Even though most shanty songs are largely a series of gruff salty bellows followed by an even gruffer saltier shout by way of a response, Harry’s lone track Blow the Man Down was a competent enough example of the genre to earn a place on the record, as well as on several reissues and compilations of the MacColl and Lloyd sessions over the years. So, to return to the narrative began much earlier, it would seem that some twenty years after this record, Harry H Corbett reflected on his brief but satisfying career as a folk singer and felt the need to revisit his early triumphs. Rather than release yet another novelty record on the pop charts at the very height of his fame, he would instead return to the world of sea songs and folk, with a bit of vintage music hall thrown in for good measure.
The only problem with a much-loved popular comedian wanting to record an album of traditional folk songs and obscure music hall numbers, is of course that no major record company would ever see anything remotely commercial in such a venture and want to be responsible for releasing it. Had Harry returned to singing silly songs about second hand furniture or battered bric-a-brac, then I’m sure he could have found some outlet for his muse, but folk songs were a different prospect. Hence why Harry instead found a home on the obscure Torquay based label Ra Records. Owned and run by Tony Waldron, with a roster of artists including local football clubs, brass bands, holiday camp entertainers, and most importantly many Devon based folk acts, it was a perfect fit. There were no marketing departments to please, no publicity budgets, no targets to meet, just an enthusiastic record label owner hobnobbing with a TV star, producing a great album and having a whale of a time in the process.
Backed by Ra Records regulars Faraway Folk, everyone does seem to have a jolly time. The album kicks off with the title track Only Authorised Employees To Break Bottles which is the only original track on the disc, written by Harry H Corbett and Tony Waldron. This is the nearest the record ever gets to downright comedy nonsense, narrating an unlikely tale of an unemployed Corbett being told by the labour exchange to grab his tennis racquet and head down to Hackney. Naturally assuming he is to be employed as a pro tennis player, which I’m sure must happen all the time, his overhead lobbing skills are instead needed to smash glass down at the bottle works. Again, I’m sure that must have happened all the time back in the 1970s. It’s a jaunty novelty number and Harry is at his most Steptoe-like as he tells the story. The only downside is the rather annoying chorus which is repeated over and over again. It goes something along the lines of, “cringle ingle bingle bong, ingle bingle bangle bong”. I hope I spelled that correctly. After you’ve heard it shouted once over the jarring sound effects of breaking glass you’ve probably heard more than enough.
From the world of traditional folk there are tracks such as The Fillin’ Knife, a song adapted by Dominic and Brendan Behan from the Irish street ballad Hand Me Down Me Petticoat. Where the original deals with a woman in a Magdalene Laundry bewailing her lost soldier love, the newer version is more concerned with the more mundane travails of a jobbing painter. Side one is also home to the Jacobite anthem Johnny Cope, which celebrates a rare victory for the Stuart supporters at the 1745 Battle of Prestonpans. Side two sees more traditional folk in the form of the Liverpudlian maritime favourite Maggie May, and the Cornish miners’ ballad The Sweet Nightingale. On the shanty Captain Kydd Harry eschews all maritime heaving and toiling and instead delivers the song as an extended Robert Newton style piratical audition piece, snorting, snarling and growling away over nautical sound effects of waves and seagulls. One can almost see his wooden leg pacing the poop deck and catch a faint whiff of stale herring and tar in the air.
The music hall is well represented too with tracks such as the cockney anthem Your Baby Has Gone Down The Plughole. Most memorably recorded by Cream on their album Disraeli Gears, the song has long been a warning not to wash skinny babies in sinks, and also to the dangers of mind altering drugs and how their misuse can lead to drummers taking lead vocals on rock albums. Household Remedies is another music hall tune written by Harry Randall and Edgar Bateman, which became a popular hit in Dorset for no readily apparent reason. Originally entitled It’s A Wonder I’m Alive To Tell The Tale, the song’s message of unlikely cures for toothache, bile and boils is brought alive by Harry in his lively jaunty version.
Cushy Butterfield, the Geordie music hall classic is also there, written by George Riley who is most famous for his Blaydon Races. The album finishes with the comic masterpiece The Night I First Played My Macbeth, originally written by William Hargreaves in 1922 and made famous on the music hall stages by Billy Merson. Harry acquits himself well on this old favourite with his stentorian Shakespearean monologue, puffed full of starchy pretensions, delivered in spite of various heckles and asides from other characters, all of course played by Harry.
All well and good, but the truly unique appeal of this album is that Harry H Corbett chose to deliver all of these songs, traditional and music hall alike, in the regional accent from whichever part of the British Isles they originated. So Johnny Cope is blessed with a Scottish accent, Household Remedies with a West Country burr, and Fillin’ Knife with an authentic Irish brogue. Most work quite well but the Geordie accent on Cushy Butterfield seems to wander around the far north east of Burma as opposed to Tyneside, while the cover of Irish broadside Jack Of All Trades is inexplicably covered in a Caribbean accent over a calypso rhythm. Which is just wrong on so very many levels.
Where the accents work, they work very well but not all hit their mark. Only Authorised Employees To Break Bottles was a brave attempt by an established star to experiment musically and to try something different to what was expected of him. Harry and the Faraway Folk toured the album around the UK with some success and I can only wonder what audiences must have made of Harry’s various accents. On the off chance that the tour took him to Birmingham, here is Harry H Corbett singing I Can’t Find Brumagem, a lament for a lost West Midlands buried under various Bullrings and Spaghetti Junctions: