Wilfrid Brambell, 1912 – 1985

Irish film and TV actor Wilfrid Brambell will always be best known for his roles in the hit BBC comedy Steptoe and Son and as Paul Mc Cartney’s fictional Grandfather in The Beatles’ film A Hard Day’s Night.

In contrast to his most famous role Wilfrid Brambell was very dapper and well-spoken.

Quick Bio

Born Dublin, 22nd March 1912 Henry Wilfrid Brambell.  His father worked at a Guinness Brewery and his Mother was an opera singer.

On leaving school he worked part-time as a reporter for The Irish Times, whilst also wprking as a part time actor at the Abbey Theatre before becoming a professional actor for the Gate Theatre.  Repertory at Swansea, Bristol and Chesterfield followed, before joining the British military forces entertainment organisation ENSA during World War Two.

In 1948 he married Mary “Molly” Josephine the marriage came to an end in 1955 after she gave birth to the child of their lodger in 1953.

Brambell was also a closet homosexual at a time when it was almost impossible for public figures to be openly gay, not least because homosexual acts were illegal in the UK until 1967. In 1962 he was arrested in a toilet in Shepherd’s Bush for persistently importuning and given a conditional discharge.

Wilfrid Brambell had a long battle with alcoholism, this was believed to be partly related to his difficult private life. Brambell died of cancer in Westminster, London, aged 72.

Career

His television career began during the 1950s, when he was cast in small roles in three Nigel Kneale/Rudolph Cartier productions for BBC Television: As a drunk in The Quatermass Experiment (1953). As both an old man in a pub and later a prisoner in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954).  The third role was and as a tramp in Quatermass II (1955).

All of these roles earned him a reputation for playing old men, though he was only in his forties at the time. Brambell hardly ever stopped working in his 36-year career.

Brambell also had sint with a musical career.  This included starring roles in the original soundtrack of The Canterbury Tales, which was one of the quickest selling West End soundtrack albums of all time. There two 45-rpm singles, “Second Hand”/ “Rag Time Ragabone Man” which played on his Steptoe and Son character, followed in 1971 by Time Marches On, his tribute to The Beatles with whom he had worked in 1964 (and met many times).  It featured a Beatles-esque guitar riff with Brambell reciting words about The Beatles splitting up, on the b side was The Decimal Song which, at the time of Britain adopting decimal currency, was politically charged.

Back to television and in 1965, Brambell told the BBC that he did not want to do another Steptoe and Son series, and in September of that year he went to New York to appear in the Broadway musical Kelly at the Broadhurst Theatre; however, it closed after just one performance.

He would go on to feature in many prominent theatre roles. In 1966 he played Ebenezer Scrooge in a musical version of A Christmas Carol. This was adapted for radio the same year and appeared on Radio 2 on Christmas Eve. Brambell’s booming baritone voice surprised many listeners: he played the role straight, true to the Dickens original, and not in the stereotype Albert Steptoe character.

Brambell and his co star Harry H. Corbett returned to Steptoe in 1970.  Between 1970 and 1974 they made four series and two christmas specials.  During this time they also appeared in two Steptoe feature films.

In 1971, he starred in the Premiere of Eric Chappell’s play The Banana Box in which he played Rooksby.  This part was later renamed Rigsby for the TV adaptation called Rising Damp which starred Leonard Rossiter.

It was the success of Steptoe and Son that made Brambell a high profile figure on British television, and earned him the major role of Paul McCartney’s grandfather in the Beatles’ first film, A Hard Day’s Night in 1964.  A running joke is made throughout the film of his character being “a very clean old man”, in contrast to his being referred to as a “dirty old man” in Steptoe and Son.

In 1971 he was due to play the role of Jeff Simmons, bass guitarist with The Mothers of Invention, in Frank Zappa’s film 200 Motels (a bizarre piece of casting, since the real Simmons was young, long-haired and American) but left the production after an argument with Zappa.

The third film spin off from On The Buses: Holiday On The Buses in 1973,  saw Wilfrid Brambell star as an Irish widower.

Although best known for Steptoe and Son, he achieved international recognition in many films. His performance in The Terence Davies Trilogy won him critical acclaim, far greater than any achieved for Steptoe and Son, yet although appearing throughout the full 24-minute piece, Brambell did not speak a single word.

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