People often used to ask Harry H. Corbett what the ‘H’ in his name actually stood for.
‘Hennyfink you like’ was the Ardwick actor’s reply, while heavily stressing the Cockney pronunciation of ‘anything’.
The explanation was entirely true. The ‘H’ didn’t mean anything at all.
Corbett only invented it to avoid confusion with established TV entertainer Harry Corbett and his glove-puppet Sooty.
Armed with his extra initial, Corbett became a household name playing rag-and-bone man Harold Steptoe in the Galton and Simpson TV comedy Steptoe and Son.
Wilfrid Brambell portrayed Harold’s irascible father Albert in the hugely successful series which ran from 1962 to 1965, and again from 1970 to 1974.
Two films were also made – Steptoe and Son in 1972 and Steptoe and Son Ride Again a year later.
Corbett also played Detective Sergeant Sydney Bung in the 1966 horror spoof Carry On Screaming alongside Sid James and Fenella Fielding. It was regarded by many as one of the best of the Carry On series.
In 1967, Corbett even starred in his own TV series Mr Aitch, written by Ian La Frenais and Dick Clement. They went on to create the Likely Lads, Porridge, Lovejoy and Auf Wiedersehen Pet.
Born in Rangoon, Burma, in February 1925, Corbett was taken to Manchester when he was 18 months old after his mother Caroline had died of dysentery. His father George was a quartermaster sergeant in the Colonial Defence Force.
The young Corbett was brought up by his aunt, Annie Williams in Earl Street, Ardwick, and later in Wythenshawe.
After attending Ross Place and Benchill Primary Schools, Corbett was educated at Sharston Secondary School before enlisting in the Royal Marines.
He served on the heavy cruiser HMS Devonshire during World War II and was then posted to New Guinea. It is reported that he killed two Japanese soldiers in hand-to-hand combat.
Corbett deserted after being posted to Tonga, but later surrendered to military police in Australia.
After the Royal Marines, Corbett became a radiographer before taking his first steps on the stage. In 1956, he appeared in T.S. Eliot’s blank verse play The Family Reunion at London’s Phoenix Theatre.
Corbett made his movie debut in the 1952 legal drama Never Look Back, made by Hammer Films at the Mancunian Studios in Manchester. It starred Rosamund John as a barrister whose career was threatened by a former lover.
In 1958, Corbett played prison guard Sharkey in the thriller Floods of Fear, directed by Charles Crichton. The plot involved a convict (Howard Keel) trying to escape to prove his innocence after being marooned in a lonely house.
As well as his film work, Corbett made appearances on the TV programmes Police Surgeon and the Adventures of Robin Hood. On stage, he played Macbeth at the Bristol Old Vic in 1962 as well as Shakespeare’s Richard II.
Almost all of Corbett’s stage and screen work up to the early 1960s had involved heavier, dramatic roles. This changed irreversibly in 1962 thanks to the writers of Hancock’s Half Hour – Ray Galton and Alan Simpson.
They cast Corbett in the role of rag-and-bone man Harold Steptoe in The Offer, an instalment of the BBC Comedy Playhouse series. It was essentially the pilot episode of the sitcom Steptoe and Son.
The Offer established Corbett as the son whose ideas and ambitions were continuously frustrated by his father (Wilfred Brambell). The two bounced off each other in their run-down junkyard and adjoining stable for their cart horse Hercules.
Steptoe and Son became an instant hit making Corbett and Brambell household names. The downside was that offers of serious drama dried up as the public increasingly associated Corbett with his comic character.
There were often tensions on the Steptoe and Son set as Brambell’s heavy drinking made him forget his lines and turn up late for rehearsals. A tour of Australia in 1977 ended in chaos.
After Steptoe, Corbett went back to his Ardwick roots with his 1974 album Only Authorised Employees To Break Bottles. It included a number of songs recorded in a Mancunian accent.
A staunch Labour supporter, Corbett met Prime Minister Harold Wilson and took part in a party political broadcast.
Corbett died of a heart attack in March 1982 at the age of 57. He had been a heavy smoker all his life.
In 2008, actor Jason Isaacs played Corbett in the BBC Four TV play The Curse of Steptoe, based on the volatile relationship with Brambell.
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