Scottish Daily Mail
Genius those silly moos at the Beeb want us to forget
And the biggest joke of all? The man who brought to life Alf Garnett HATED bigotry
Warren Mitchell was never ashamed of alf Garnett. The loud-mouthed, bigoted bully in the BBC sitcom Till Death Us Do Part was a loathsome character, but he also gave Mitchell fame and financial security.
To disown alf would have been hypocritical — and Mitchell, who died on Saturday aged 89, was never that.
To the end of his life, the actor, who was acclaimed in the theatre for his performances in plays by Shakespeare, Harold Pinter and arthur Miller, was happy to sign photos for alf’s fans.
‘Gor blimey,’ he would groan cheerfully, ‘it’s always that old s*d!’
Those fans included the Queen Mother, who found his coarse comedy hilarious. There were limits, though: when he was summoned to a royal Command Performance in 1972, Mitchell decided there must be no swearing — alf wouldn’t want the Queen Mum to hear the kind of language he used.
But the BBC has never been comfortable with the character, whose racist rants and woman-hating grumbles were too near the knuckle for many at Broadcasting House.
Mitchell, though, claimed that every controversy was cynically welcomed by the producers, because it pushed viewing figures higher. The show, which ran for 54 episodes between 1965 and 1975, regularly drew audiences of 16 million.
an internal BBC report in the Seventies was suppressed after it showed that around a quarter of Till Death’s viewers backed alf ’s tirades against immigration and sexual equality.
Millions of people seemed happy to ignore the protestations of both the actor and the writer, Johnny Speight, that this was satire, intended to mock the bigots and blow a loud raspberry at the racists.
Viewers were asked whether they agreed with typical Garnett statements such as ‘Women’s lib is a load of rubbish’ and, ‘Bloody foreigners come over here and sponge off us’. When many said they did, a backroom committee decided the research was ‘unscientific’ and buried it.
Despite extravagant praise for the show, which saw Mitchell win a Bafta as Best TV actor in 1967, Till Death still embarrasses the politically correct commissars at the Beeb.
When the Corporation’s archive was opened to online purchasers this month, the sitcom was conspicuously missing from the shelves of the BBC Store, and there are no plans to make it available.
Mitchell was 39 when cast as the endlessly angry east end docker.
ALf was supposed to be much older, with a wife elsie (Dandy nichols, who died aged 78 in 1986) who couldn’t stand him (‘I wish you were a mouse,’ she once said — ‘I’d put a trap down for you’) and a grown-up daughter, rita (Una Stubbs) and a Scouse son-in-law Mike (Tony Booth, who became Tony Blair’s father-in-law) who frequently mocked his views.
Mitchell’s bald head and walrus moustache helped him win the part, but Peter Sellers and Leo McKern (later the star of rumpole Of The Bailey) were among the actors who had turned it down first.
He was born Warren Misell, in January 1926, into an Orthodox Jewish home in Stoke newington, north London, though he never felt his parents, Monty and annie, took religion too seriously. When they had their annual holiday in Clactonon-Sea, essex, they happily ate bacon and eggs for breakfast.
Monty was a travelling salesman, dealing in ceramics and glass, and his son would sometimes accompany him.
Warren Mitchell’s russian-born mother encouraged his talent for impressions, sending him to drama classes, but he inherited his father’s passion for Tottenham Hotspur, (Garnett was a West Ham fan) and football blighted his early career as an actor.
as a teenager, he walked out of Gladys Gordon’s academy of dramatic arts in Walthamstow when Saturday rehearsals stopped him going to matches.
In 1938, when he was 12, his family took in a Jewish refugee from nazi Germany, a girl called Ilsa who was too scared even to speak for two weeks. That fired Warren up to fight for his country and, as soon as he was 18, he joined the raf.
By then, after excelling at his grammar school, he was a chemistry student at Oxford University. among his fellow university conscripts was richard Burton, and it was an impromptu performance by the young Welshman that rekindled Warren’s interest in acting.
The recruits were setting up a lecture hall at an raf school in Manitoba, Canada, when Burton leapt on the stage and started declaiming Shakespeare. ‘People were staring open-mouthed and I thought: “I’d like them to stare at me like that,”’ Mitchell recalled.
Though he didn’t see wartime action, he found the fight against the nazis intensely stressful. During one leave, he visited Stratfordupon-avon and woke up in a boarding house with most of his black, curly hair strewn over the pillow: his nerves had brought on alopecia.
after the war, he joined the Unity theatre, a hard-Left collective led by the firebrand Bill Owen, who later became famous as lecherous Compo in Last Of The Summer Wine.
HOWeVer, roles were rare and Mitchell took any job he could: as a euston station porter; at a Wall’s ice cream factory; and as a window cleaner. His mother had died when he was 15 and, to his disappointment, his father refused to acknowledge his marriage to Constance Wake, an actress at the Unity, because she was not Jewish.
It was not until the first of their three children was born that Monty relented — even then, he talked about her as if she wasn’t in the same room. Mitchell renounced Judaism, and used to joke: ‘I’m an atheist, thank God!’
In the mid-fifties, his actor friend Sid James urged him to audition for Tony Hancock’s new TV series, Hancock’s Half Hour. Mitchell got a part as an art dealer, and rescued one live broadcast when a nerve-stricken Hancock forgot his lines.
‘a word in your ear,’ ad-libbed Mitchell, and whispered a prompt. It won him the friendship of the comic, then the BBC’s biggest star.
for the next ten years, Mitchell had minor roles in dozens of TV shows. The irregular hours made him a better parent, he felt, ‘but an out-of-work actor is around a lot more than most fathers’.
alf Garnett changed his life. ‘I knew people like alf,’ Mitchell said. ‘I’d worked with them, talked to them over a cup of tea.’ His wife hated the character, perhaps because her husband made alf so believable that many people assumed he wasn’t really acting.
Like alf, Mitchell was abrasive and explosive. ‘My family do call me bully-bottom,’ he admitted. ‘I do shout a bit, I’m opinionated.’
He claimed that Constance had begun divorce proceedings three times — once because he was too tight-fisted to replace their battered dustbin with a new wheelie-bin.
But his personal politics could not be further removed from his character’s sour racism.
In a letter to the Mail in 1968, he declared that Tory enoch Powell’s anti-immigration stance ‘propagates the notion that it is the race or colour of a man’s skin which marks a man as alien and inferior. It is Powell’s doctrine which is alien to our country. We don’t want it here.’
He also delighted in teasing clean up TV campaigner Mary Whitehouse. after one episode in which he used the word ‘bloody’ 121 times, he made it plain that alf was a fan: ‘She’s concerned for the bleedin’ moral fibre of the nation!’
Mitchell went on to play King Lear at the Hackney empire, and Willy Loman in Death Of a Salesman at the national, basing his performance on memories of his father.
But he was always linked to his Cockney alter ego. There were two sequels: In Sickness and In Health and The Thoughts Of Chairman alf.
although so very unlike his own character, Mitchell once said: ‘Whatever you say about alf, I loved the old bastard. I really did.’