Brambell, Wilfrid (1912–85), actor, was born Henry Wilfrid Brambell 22 March 1912 at 6 Edenvale Road, Rathgar, Dublin, youngest of three sons of Henry Brambell, clerk in Guinness's brewery, and Edith Brambell (née Marks), an opera singer. He made his first stage appearance at the age of two, entertaining wounded soldiers. In 1919 his parents separated and he went to live with his father in Kingstown (Dún Laoghaire), where he was raised by his aunt Louisa. He was educated at Kingstown Grammar School. In the 1930s he attended the Abbey School of Acting, and regularly appeared at the Abbey and the Gate. He believed the Abbey's strength was its fusion of Anglo-Irish and Celtic elements, and that the theatre made a great mistake in jettisoning its Anglo-Irish heritage in the 1940s. He was a semi-professional actor for thirteen years, combining acting with working on the commercial staff of the Irish Field (published weekly by the Irish Times). Colleagues remembered him as a quiet man, with a dry sense of humour, who was ‘always slipping out to do a bit of acting’ (Ir. Times, 19 Jan. 1985). During the second world war he toured with the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA), but was released from his contract in December 1944 to replace an indisposed Jimmy O'Dea (qv) as Buttons in ‘Cinderella’ at the Gaiety in Dublin. He was a great success in the role and O'Dea later praised his ability as a comic. Brambell was also adept at serious parts, with a particular affinity for the plays of G. B. Shaw (qv), and was recognised as one of the most promising young actors on the Dublin stage. After the war he went to England, and went through many lean years working in a variety of odd jobs until he secured regular work with the Swansea repertory company. In 1948 he married Molly Hall (d. 1956), of the New Dublin Theatre Group; they had no children and divorced in 1955 after Molly had become pregnant by their lodger. During the 1950s he appeared regularly on television, featuring in such notable BBC productions as ‘The playboy of the western world’, ‘The Quatermass experiment’ (1953), ‘1984’ (1954), ‘The government inspector’ (1958), ‘Bleak house’ (1959), and ‘Our mutual friend’ (1959).
With his gaunt face and thin build, he specialised in playing old men from his late 40s, and his performances as a homeless pensioner in the BBC television dramas ‘Too many mansions’ and ‘No fixed abode’ attracted the attention of writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson. In 1962 they cast him as Albert Steptoe in a television play called ‘The offer’ which proved a great success and spawned the BBC comedy series ‘Steptoe and Son’ (1962–5, 1970–74). Set in a ramshackle house in Shepherd's Bush, it skilfully mingled comic and tragic elements in its depiction of the relations between a father and son in the rag-and-bone trade. Brambell played to perfection the part of the scruffy, vulgar, devious old man who cunningly manipulated his ingenuous son Harold (played by Harry H. Corbett), forever puncturing his yearnings for a better life. However, he managed to imbue the role with great pathos, poignantly capturing the old man's vulnerability and fear of loneliness, and the character stands as one of the most memorable in the history of British television. ‘Steptoe and Son’ was the most popular situation comedy of the early 1960s, drawing audiences of more than 22 million viewers; it has had regular repeat showings in Britain and internationally, and has inspired several foreign-language versions. Brambell also read the part for BBC radio (1965–7) and appeared in two Steptoe films (1972, 1973). He was the first actor in the BBC to get £1,000 for a half hour show and this, added to royalty payments from repeat showings, made him quite a wealthy man. In real life he was well-spoken, theatrical, and very dapper – the antithesis of his Steptoe character. Although extrovert in company, he had few friends and was generally reclusive. In the 1960s he made regular visits to Hong Kong, where he befriended a young Malaysian man, Yussof Bin Mat Saman, who lived with him until his death; in public he referred to him as his valet. Brambell drank heavily – sometimes before coming on set – which aggravated his tendency to fluff his lines. He could be a temperamental and difficult colleague and in 1965 Galton and Simpson seriously considered killing off his character.
Brambell appeared in over thirty films including Odd man out (1946) and Another shore (1948)), mostly in character roles, although he played substantial parts in Disney's In search of the castaways (1962) and in the Terence Davies trilogy (1984). One of his most enjoyable roles was as Paul McCartney's grandfather in The Beatles’ A hard day's night (1964) (Brambell was a great admirer of their music and the band were all fans of ‘Steptoe’). In March 1965 he made his Broadway debut in the musical ‘Kelly’, but it closed after one night. He did however have theatrical successes in England in ‘The Canterbury tales’ (1967), and as Scrooge in ‘A Christmas carol’ – a role he believed he was born to play. He wrote a rather guarded autobiography, All above board (1976), mainly interesting for his observations on acting: he regarded it as ‘the least of the arts in that it is uncreative and merely interpretative’ and dismissed method acting as too solemn and analytical, noting that he found it difficult to follow lines ‘delivered through a mouthful of grapes’ (Brambell, 24, 23). The actors he admired most were F. J. McCormick (qv) and Cyril Cusack (qv).
He lived most of his latter life in a small flat in Pimlico, London, surrounded by antiques. To the end he retained great vitality, working regularly and enjoying foreign travel. After contracting cancer he died 18 January 1985 at Westminster Hospital, London, and was cremated at Streatham Park. He left an estate valued at £166,563.