A number of themes run through both programmes, contributing to the pathos as well as to the comedy in them.
1. Class: all the best British TV comedies are about class, whether inverted as in Dad's Army, with the lower middle-class bank manager Captain Mainwaring in supposed charge of his aristocratic clerk Sergeant Wilson, both of whom rely on the black marketeer Private Walker for essential supplies, or aspiritional in Only Fools and Horses where Peckham tower block dwellers and wheeler dealers Del Boy and Rodney strive unsuccessfully to become yuppies in the Thatcherite 80's.
In Galton and Simpson's sitcoms, there's a lack of connection between how characters see their class position and the reality of it: Albert Steptoe is a working-class Tory who sees himself as a small businessman, and therefore a cut above the neighbours, while his left-wing son Harold, a partner in the firm, nevertheless sees himself as an oppressed worker; Hancock similarly has social aspirations beyond his working or lower middle-class background, in contrast to the spivvy Sid James and their charwoman Patricia Hayes.
2. The frustrated artist/intellectual: Hancock and Harold Steptoe both see themselves as frustrated men of letters, philosphers, artists and actors, unlike those around them who invariably mock their artistic pretensions.
3. Claustrophobia: Hancock's Half Hour takes place first in a small house in Railway Cuttings, East Cheam, and later a bedsit in Earl's Court. Steptoe and Son live in a gloomy house amid a ramshackle, rickety-gated scrapyard in Oil Drum Lane, Shepherd's Bush, which in the episode where Harold takes up amateur dramatics, only to be upstaged, inevitably, by his father, the director of the play mistakes for a theatrical set. The episode of Steptoe and Son where escaped convicts led by Leonard Rossiter turn up there late at night could easily be a short piece by Harold Pinter or Samuel Beckett.
4. Post-war imperial decline/the nuclear age: there's a feeling in both series that Britain and the characters' best days are behind them: Hancock and Harold Steptoe probably dreamt of, and might even once have achieved, a place of some sort in a now rapidly disintegrating British Empire. The latter did his National Service in Malaya during the so-called Emergency, an end of empire conflict which eventually led to the colony's independence, while the former's finest hours, as recounted in no doubt exaggerated tales of battlefield exploits, lie further back, in World War II. And hanging over both is the sense that their frustrated, claustrophobic lives might end all too soon in thermonuclear destruction.