The child-sex scandal that has permanently sullied the name of deceased British TV host and disc jockey Jimmy Saville has now spread to an even bigger BBC entertainment icon, actor Wilfrid Brambell.
According to reports in British media, the police investigation looking into allegations of child sex abuse against Saville – which Scotland Yard described as “unprecedented” in their scale and duration – has led to accusations by two adult men that Brambell sexually abused them when they were children in the early 1970s in a theater on the isle of Jersey.
Brambell, who passed away in 1985 (and, like Saville, cannot ever answer these shocking charges) was not just any other celebrity. Indeed, the Dublin-born actor was arguably the most famous and popular British television figure in history, owing to his starring role in the classic, long-running sitcom "Steptoe and Son."
"Steptoe" (created by Alan Simpson and Ray Galton) chronicled the hopeless, melancholy, but wildly funny lives of a father-and-son team of West London rag-and-bone men, i.e., junk dealers.
Brambell played the rubbery-faced Albert Steptoe, the curmudgeonly and hygiene-challenged widowed father who would stop at nothing to prevent his long-suffering son, Harold (played by Harry H. Corbett), from leaving him.
The mixture of tragedy, pathos and humor struck a raw chord in the British public, making "Steptoe" not only a masterpiece but also hugely successful.
Debuting in 1962, the show lasted in one form or another until 1974 and never really lost its popularity. "Steptoe" would routinely draw in 20- to 25-million devoted viewers -- almost half the entire British population at the time, an astounding figure.
Brambell became as iconic figure in the UK as Jackie Gleason or Lucille Ball were in the U.S.
During a visit to the UK in the late 1960s, the American television producer Norman Lear was so impressed by "Steptoe," he eventually imported it to the States and turned it into "Sanford and Son" (about a poor black father-and-son junk businessmen in Los Angeles), which also became extraordinarily popular in its own right.
"Steptoe" was never syndicated in the U.S., however American audiences would likely know Brambell from his hilarious performance as Paul McCartney's unscrupulous grandfather in The Beatles' first film "A Hard Day’s Night" ("Steptoe" was arguably as big a cultural phenomenon – at least within Britain -- as The Beatles themselves).
However, despite his immense fame and adulation, Brambell was a deeply troubled man. A highly-educated, cultured and sophisticated gentleman (the polar opposite of Albert Steptoe), Brambell was also an alcoholic and homosexual.
There were also rumors that Brambell and Corbett detested one another – although Galton and Simpson have refuted this claim.
In any case, at one point during the early years of "Steptoe," Brambell was arrested by the police for "importuning" (which meant that he was caught soliciting sex from men at a public lavatory).
The arrest occurred in Shepherd's Bush in West London – ironically, not far from where his fictitious dopple-ganger, Albert Steptoe, toiled away.
Homosexuality was a crime in Britain at the time and public exposure of the arrest would have destroyed Brambell's career and likely ended "Steptoe." The case was quietly disposed of, resulting in the thespian paying a small fine.
However, up until now, Brambell had never been linked with pedophilia.
The latest accusations involve two men, one of whom during his Jersey childhood lived in the notorious Haut de la Garenne children’s home, which Channel Islands police had investigated for child abuse in recent years.
The unidentified man said that as a boy he was taken to the Opera House, where he was introduced to Brambell – allegedly the TV superstar subsequently molested the child, as well as another boy.
Former Jersey Health Minister Stuart Syvret told the Daily Mail newspaper: “The two boys came to me about Brambell because they did not trust the police. They came to me and told me they were sexually abused by him.”
Syvret added: “They were both around the ages of 11, 12 or 13 and didn’t know each other, so I am sure they were telling the truth. They said the abuse happened in the back rooms of the Jersey Opera House -- behind the stage.”
Corbett died in 1982, but Galton and Simpson are still alive. In response to the latest allegations about Brambell, a spokesman for the creators of "Steptoe and Son" seemed to disavow any connection with their former star.
“There were only about two people at his funeral," the spokesman said.
"He didn’t have much of an entourage and he didn’t really have people who mixed with him socially.”
Now, having been dead for almost three decades, Wilfrid Brambell will never be prosecuted for his alleged horrific crimes, while his brilliant performance as the 'dirty old man' Albert Steptoe will be admired and enjoyed forever.
Indeed, many great artists (whose works enrich our lives) have led grotesque personal lives. Perhaps we (the public) need to make a sharp distinction between an artist's talent and their personal demons.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.