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Till Death Us Do Part

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Pan, London, 1967
(price: 3/6)

The blurb on the back:

'The cockneys fire their big guns in all directions ... and the shrapnel keeps falling on all kinds of public figures' - News of the World
'The rampaging, howling embodiment of all the most vulgar and odious prejudices that slop about in the bilges of the national mind'-
Financial Times
'Enormously, gloriously outrageously and continuously funny' -
'One of the best comic talents of our day ... Johnny Speight has raised the domestic wrangle to white hot heat' -
Financial Times

There's no way to approach this without addressing racism. I know that Johnny Speight saw himself as a decent liberal-minded old Labour type, and always insisted that Alf Garnett was supposed to be a figure of ridicule, but it won't wash: too many black kids used to get Garnett's rants thrown at them in school playgrounds in the 1960s, too many racists saw him as a light entertainment Enoch Powell for this to be an acceptable argument.

It simply wasn't good enough to say that this was satire and therefore some people were bound to miss the point. In its original form Till Death Us Do Part ran for a decade - 1965-75 - which was surely a long enough period for Speight and Warren Mitchell (who played Garnett) to recognize that it simply wasn't working on any kind of anti-racist terms. It didn't take that long for Harry Enfield to spot that Stavros and Loadsamoney were having an effect diametrically opposed to his intentions, and to kill the characters off. By contrast, Garnett was brought back in the '80s and the last series went out in 1992.

If the previous couple of paragraphs don't mean anything to you, then you should probably count yourself lucky, but I'll explain nonetheless. The premise of the sitcom was that Alf Garnett was a racist bigot of an Eastender who treated his wife like shit and had regular run-ins with his supposedly left-wing alter ego of a son-in-law (played by Tony Blair's father-in-law, Tony Booth). It was a huge success, and for a while was the biggest TV show in Britain (as late as 1986, a repeat episode drew an audience of 12.5 million). Consequently it requires being taken seriously.

This is particularly so because it was not only a huge popular success, but also a celebrated critical triumph and deeply revered with the existing comedy establishment. Here, for example, is veteran comedy writer Frank Muir in his autobiography A Kentish Lad: 'one of the greatest sitcoms ever produced by the BBC ... starring Warren Mitchell as the ranting, right-wing, sexist, male chauvinist pig Alf Garnett.' Note that Garnett's sexism gets two mentions, while his racism is unspoken - presumably it's subsumed into the politically acceptable position of being 'right-wing'. Muir goes on to spend a page discussing the use of swearing in the show, but still fails at any stage to mention the racism.

Now I don't think Muir was consciously racist; he just accepted the prevailing orthodoxy of the time, so he can happily describe a 'nigger minstrel' show from his youth as being 'an innocent display of what is now looked upon as being offensively racist'. He was the kind of person who thought 'political correctness' was an infringement of his right to be funny. And when it came to Till Death, Muir's main concern was not to offend the sensibilities of a white audience with too much swearing - what a black audience thought of it was none of his business.

Warren Mitchell & Tony Booth

So, the case for the defence is that Speight was a great writer who created one of the most powerful fictional characters in British fiction, comparable to the creations of Dickens, and that Mitchell was a superb actor who imbued this potentially hateful figure with humanity. About the latter, I have no doubt - Mitchell is one of Britain's finest actors, Alf Garnett notwithstanding - but on the former ... I don't know. Here's a sample, Garnett riffing on the monarchy:

An look at old King George, round about the first World War. Look what he did for us. Did all he could himself, to avert that war. God rest his soul. One of the best kings we ever had, that man. He went to the trouble of inviting the Kaiser, who was his cousin, over to Buck House for dinner with him. An when he'd finished dinner he took off his white gloves - he always wore white gloves at dinner because he was a bloody gentleman - an he said to the Kaiser, Bill, he said, look Bill, we don't want a war between our countries an get a lot of our people killed, do we? If we got any differences, he said, let's go out in the back garden and fight it out bare fist. An he sparred up to him. But the Kaiser didn't do nothing. Wouldn't fight him. Cos he was a coward like all your bloody Germans. Well, I mean, all right, they're good soldiers, but they got one weakness - they got no taste for cold steel. Show em a British bayonet an they'll run like rabbits. (p.100)

I've quoted at length, cos this is the kind of stuff that Till Death apologists will cite as evidence of its brilliant characterization and writing. And I've deliberately avoided the offensive racist stuff. But - it can't just be me, surely? - it simply ain't funny. Didn't make me laugh.

Speight and Mitchell used to claim that somehow everything was okay because (a) it was comedy, and (b) both sides of an argument were shown. In answer: (a) as demonstrated above, it wasn't that funny, and (b) no one ever quoted Tony Booth's stuff, only Garnett's. Whichever way you look at it, 'I don't mind em on the buses, but it's a waste of money making doctors out of em' (p.146) is both unfunny and offensive. My suspicion is that the only people left who'd defend it are xenophobic twats like Little Richardjohn and Garry Gonad.

Alf Garnett? Fuck off.

Johnny Speight


from the maker of...

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King & Castle
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Dr Terror's House of Horrors
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Hammer Horror Film Omnibus
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see also...
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It Stands To Reason

t.v. spin-offs