Poverty and Partitions
Inspired by the Fantastic Journal's posts on the space of the British suburban sitcom (and a nod to Sand/orB on comedy and conjuncture), a post on the space of an urban sitcom, Steptoe and Son. Galton and Simpson's relentlessly grim show is a practically Pinteresque study of an Agonistic father and son in inner West London (sometimes it seems to be Shepherd's Bush, sometimes Earl's Court - but regardless, this is not suburbia), and the tensions of their relationship and permanently beleaguered rag&bone business. Left-wing Modern architects were both despisers of rag&bone clutter, and conversely enormously keen on moveable partitions as a way of ensuring both changeability and privacy - some, like Leonid Sabsovich, even believing that 'divorces' between couples could be achieved through partitioning his communal blocks. Meanwhile the French Modernist architect and PCF fellow-traveller Andre Lurçat once designed a house for a mother and daughter, with the strict instructions that the house had to be divided between them, so that they would never have to encounter each other unless they absolutely wanted to. Divided we Stand, an episode from the especially grim 1970s run of Steptoe and Son is the story of what happens when you try to do the same thing in a far more impoverished context, and a reminder of the pitfalls of clean living under difficult circumstances.
As ever, the episode hinges on disagreements between the Steptoes, with the younger Harold wanting to improve himself and his father Albert sneering at his every attempt to rise above his decidedly lowly station. A lesser sitcom (Citizen Smith for instance) would sneer with him at any hint of artistic or political pretensions, but while Albert is often sympathetic in his loneliness and poverty, Harold's constantly thwarted desires for escape are not patronised. Here, Harold is fed up of the clutter, chaos, waste and dirt of a house like a permanent junk market. He tries to convince Albert that the house needs to be redecorated and some of the crap thrown out, but his books of colours ('Etruscan red? How about Wedgwood Blue?) and his wallpaper suggestions are ridiculed. In frustration he goes round the house, throwing around old newspapers ('Mr Chamberlain meets Mr Hitler in Munich??') and finding particularly gross examples of squalor to throw at his father - who, of course, has affection for everything from the half-century old newspapers to a set of false teeth lost in 1941. Not for the first time, Harold is driven to desperate measures.
Using some of the clutter left around the flat ready for sale, including a turnstile taken from a defunct toilet, Harold manages to completely partition the house, creating what he calls an 'apartheid' between them. The differences in aspiration between the two are exemplified here in spatial terms, in that Albert leaves untouched the familiar piles of god knows what, and a Smoking-Jacketed Harold attempts to create a minimalist, Georgian influenced half-house for himself, with carefully selected pictures on the walls, finally using his 'Wedgewood blue'. The problem of course is that he simply doesn't have the space, the light or high ceilings that come with real Georgian privilege, and so it seems poky and ludicrous. In order to get a bit of light from the window, he has to have the partitions stopping at a point where Albert's hat is constantly visible. It all comes to a head over the partitioned TV, where Harold wants to watch Nureyev at the Festival Hall on BBC2, and Albert 'Blood of the Ripper' on ITV. During the fight over it they ignore a fire which has broken out in the kitchen, and both end up in hospital - where, finally, in the uncluttered and sterilised hospital environment Harold gets his revenge, and is able to close the curtains as a decisive partition.