Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: Starstruck by Steptoe & Son star Harry H. Corbett

Harry H Corbett

Harry H Corbett - Credit: Archant

I found a couple of old photos the other day. I took them with my old Kodak Instamatic at a summer fete on Harpenden Common in 1966.

Harry H Corbett

Harry H Corbett - Credit: Archant

They’re snapshots of the late Steptoe & Son star, Harry H Corbett. For me, at the age of 13, newly returned to England after two years in Singapore, he was the most famous person I’d seen in real life, close-up.

I’m writing this because lately I’ve become interested in the changing nature of fame and its evil-twin celebrity. Fame, which of recent years has become another currency, like money and time, isn’t quite the same thing as celebrity. Fame is the public’s recognition of an individual or group of people who have become successful at a particular activity. As likely to come to a sportsman or scientist as to a politician or artiste, fame can at times be useful for promoting existing products and helping the creator obtain work.

Celebrity, which is fame with its flies undone and a drink in each hand, seems fairly useless. Since cancelling my TV licence two years ago, I hardly have a clue who the current celebrities are. In a supermarket, I now gaze baffled at the magazine racks, at least half of which are filled with celebrity magazines.

It’s confusing, because the cover pictures often depict stressed-looking people, usually women, who, are mostly, pop stars, models or TV soap actors. Trying to guess whether a front-page headline such as “Should she go back to him?” refers to a fictional story-line or a real situation becomes increasingly difficult as these lines blur. Then there’s the question of why the faces on the magazines covers are famous in the first place. Is that pouting, pan-sticked beauty a bona fide talent, or simply someone famous for being famous?


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The stories in such mags often concern themselves with people, real or fictional, who are undergoing a crisis of some kind. The moral of the story, if one exists, is that attaining celebrity status won’t necessarily bring you happiness.

The language of celebrity constantly struggles under the weight of its own leaden superlatives. All female singers are now divas. Anyone who’s lasted longer than two years is an icon. People no longer have a story, but a journey. You only need score one goal or chalk up a minor chart hit in order to be living the dream. The celebrities in upmarket soaps such as Downton Abbey – an Upstairs Downstairs for people with short attention spans – probably manage to separate their on-screen and off-screen personas more successfully than, say, the stars of Geordie Shore.

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Geordie Shore, which I caught a soul-corroding ten minutes of recently, was shocking. Not because of the cast’s earthy language, or their strange aspirations but because the descendants of a breed of once-proud northerners will now accept a TV company’s shilling just to prove to the world they can rival their US or Essex counterparts for sheer gonzoid stupidity.

In the past I have been around fame quite a bit and to a lesser extent, celebrity.

Fame, should you happen to work in arts or popular entertainment, can be quite beneficial in small doses. Taken occasionally, it helps immunise you, against the larger more toxic dollops of it. Celebrity, on the other hand, which is what happens when fame overflows, is a mask; a big grinning, winking mask with a flashing bow tie underneath it. It will serve you well at a party or a promotional launch. But when a loved one dies, your marriage unravels or your child becomes seriously ill, that’s when you’ll find that the mask won’t come off, no matter how hard you tug at it.

Then, as you lie on your hotel bed in some foreign city, unable to sleep at 4 am, knowing that someone will wake you in three hours for a press-call, fame may not feel quite as zippy. When you finally give up trying to sleep, you’ll switch the TV on and stagger to the bathroom.

Here you may catch yourself unclothed by that weirdly unflattering light above the shaving mirror. Then you’ll hope that those little electric pains which you’ve been feeling in your chest are nothing more exotic than a bit of tour-anxiety. Soon you’ll brace up, pack your bag, adjust the mask and take the lift downstairs in time for the pick-up. Days later, you’ll arrive home tetchy, just in time to meet the journo and snapper who are doing a three-pager on your perfect home for Wotcha! magazine.

Now, back to Harry H Corbett, cherished actor, former marine, and all round good bloke. One of my teenage snapshots shows him smiling as he signs autographs. The other is darker, more defensive, a thing which probably bypassed your 13-year-old cub reporter at that time.

Corbett, who died of a heart attack at 57, already shows signs of suffering the dull ache of celebrity. At the peak of his fame, on a golden Saturday in 1966, he’s working: opening the summer fete on Harpenden Common and signing autographs. Later he’ll fire the starter pistol for the Donkey Derby.

Fame isn’t everyone’s flute of Tattinger. But there are others, it’s said, who will attend the opening of a tin of tuna. They never tell you this when you go into showbiz but it’s not actually compulsory to attend the parties or meet the piranhas.

I never do. But then I’m not very famous. Mwah!

For more from Martin Newell, see our Essex page

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