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

- by Christophe­r Stevens MAIL TV CRITIC

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.’

 ?? Pic­ture: REX ?? Mixed emo­tions: War­ren Mitchell en­joyed play­ing Alf Gar­nett, but wife Con­stance (with War­ren, right) loathed the char­ac­ter
Pic­ture: REX Mixed emo­tions: War­ren Mitchell en­joyed play­ing Alf Gar­nett, but wife Con­stance (with War­ren, right) loathed the char­ac­ter

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK