… and one I’d missed

I missed this one in my previous post. Not because I had forgotten about it, but because that last post was long enough. And this one didn’t really fit in with the rest of the content. But if we are talking about quality dramatic writing and top-notch comic performances in sitcoms, it’s hard to ignore Till Death Us Do Part.

However, the BBC has been doing just that. DVDs were briefly available many years ago now of a couple of series, but they soon disappeared, and not a single episode has been available on DVD since. (Edit: this is wrong. See correction at foot of post.) Neither are there any repeats, either on any BBC channel, or on any satellite channel; and when the writer, the brilliant Johnny Speight, passed away, his passing was barely noticed.

The reason for this isn’t hard to discern: the series was regarded, and still is by many, as “racist”. This is because at its centre there’s the now legendary monster Alf Garnett, a bigoted and deeply racist blowhard, who didn’t hold back in expounding his views. These views, peppered throughout with grossly insulting racist language, are pretty vile. There have been some half-hearted attempts to defend this by claiming that his son-in-law, Mike, provides a counterbalance by articulating a more liberal perspective, but this is to miss the point quite spectacularly: for all his liberalism, Mike is as ignorant, as unintelligent, and as badly informed, as his father-in-law.

Like Steptoe and Son and Dad’s Army, this series was first aired in the 1960s, and continued into the 1970s, and it was easily the most controversial. Rather quaintly, the initial controversy was due to the frequent use of the word “bloody”, which, in those days, some fifty and more years after Shaw’s Pygmalion, was considered “bad language”. The racism on display was approved of by great sections of the audience. Warren Mitchell, the actor who played Alf Garnett, told a story where some people approached him in the street and congratulated him for poking fun at dark-skinned people (although, obviously, “dark-skinned people” was not the term they used). Warren Mitchell had replied that, actually, he had been poking fun at “idiots like you”.

This mistaking of the actor for the character he plays is surprisingly common. Even more common is to mistake what is being spoken by the character as the author’s voice. It somehow seems to escape notice that depiction of racism is not the same as endorsing it. But to claim, as some do, that the series is essentially a satire on racism, and, hence, a liberal plea for tolerance, seems to me also to be wide of the mark. For, like the best satires, this programme hits out savagely at everyone, in all directions. No-one is spared: nothing is sacred. We are presented with characters who are stupid, bigoted, ignorant, and yet utterly unaware of their stupidity, their bigotry, their ignorance; they are quite clearly unequal to the task of understanding the complex world in which they live, but are nonetheless aggressive and bullish in affirming their own beliefs, and contemptuously dismissive of those who believe otherwise. Allowing for the exaggeration without which satire cannot exist, we are invited to identify ourselves in all this: can we really claim that, at some level, we have no part in such folly? Watching this is not a comfortable experience, but then, neither is it meant to be. Satire that is comfortable is satire that has failed.

The characterisations aren’t perhaps as profound as those in Steptoe and Son, but Steptoe and Son was essentially drama, whereas this is satire. Alf Garnett is certainly a monster, but the sad fact is that even monsters are human – much like ourselves. Despite being a monster, he is also a rather pathetic human being, clinging on loyally to a conservatism that has let him down. His “liberal” son-in-law, played by Anthony Booth, is an unemployed layabout, who, despite his fraught arguments with his father-in-law, understands as little of what he is talking about as his father-in-law does. Alf’s wife, Elsie (brilliantly played by Dandy Nichols), has learnt over the years generally to ignore her husband, and to get on quietly with her own business while her husband is blowing his top again over something or other. The daughter, Rita, is played by Una Stubbs, who, I guess, will mainly be remembered in future as Mrs Hudson in the hit series Sherlock. Despite being attached to her father, she can see the absurd figure her father cuts, and is generally more sympathetic to her mother. Warren Mitchell’s Alf Garnett is certainly the “star of the show”, as it were, but it’s an ensemble piece: these four characters, living together in a small house in a deprived working class area of London’s East End, cannot avoid each other, either physically or emotionally: in the context of the drama, they are all important, and they balance each other to perfection.

til-death-us-do-part

Warren Mitchell, Dandy Nichols, Una Stubbs, and Anthony Booth in “Till Death Us Do Part”, courtesy BBC

In the spectrum of comedy, I suppose this is far closer to the darker end than to the lighter, but I can’t really discern any element of the tragic here: occasionally, we see through Alf Garnett’s hateful bluster and observe the human being underneath, but on the whole, the element of pathos is kept well hidden. In one episode, for instance, Alf Garnett is genuinely perturbed by the possibility that he may be partly Jewish: even as we observe the insecurity of this pitiable figure, we find ourselves repelled by his blind bigotry. We laugh, but the laughter is far from comfortable.

The rather uncomfortable question does arise: is the BBC correct in keeping hidden this series, one of the jewels of its comic crown? It could certainly be argued that a series that is so easily and so widely misunderstood, and which provides so much ammunition to racists (and I can personally testify it does), really is best kept under wraps. But I can’t help feeling very uncomfortable about this state of affairs. There’s absolutely no chance of the BBC releasing a boxed set of these episodes, but many are available on YouTube now if you’d like to sample them. The scripts and the performances are, on the whole, top quality (though it wasn’t, to be fair, as consistently assured as was, say, Steptoe and Son), but do be prepared for a deeply uncomfortable viewing experience. We like to think of ourselves as being more sophisticated than audiences of the past, and more capable of taking in material that is “edgy”, but I remain sceptical.

Till Death Us Do Part was remade as All in the Family for American television, but once again, I won’t comment on this since I haven’t seen it: I am told (although I cannot personally vouch for it) that the sheer unmitigated savagery of Johnny Speight’s scripts was considerably toned down: if this is true, it’s entirely understandable.

I have seen Warren Mitchell live on stage, playing Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. In the absence of boxed sets of Till Death Us Do Part, for anyone wanting to see this great actor at his finest, I’d warmly recommend his performance as Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice – another controversial work in which racial differences play a major part, and which is also often regarded (wrongly, in my view) as racist.
CORRECTION: Since I posted this about an hour ago, it has been pointed out to me that a boxed set of this  is indeed now available: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Till-Death-Us-Part-DVD/dp/B01MSQSOP2.

It certainly wasn’t the last time I looked, but I really should have checked before writing this. My apologies.

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9 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Linda on September 2, 2017 at 12:38 pm

    Really interesting, well-balanced post. Thank you. My view? Alf Garnett is alive and well and channelled by Brexiters.

    Reply

    • Yes, I’m afraid there still are many Alf Garnetts around. And while I agree that those of an Alf Garnett tendency have generally voted for Brexit (as one would expect); and while I’d agree further that many of the leading figures of the Brexit campaign have quite deliberately encouraged and promoted bigotry; I don’t think that everyone who voted for Brexit did so for xenophobic or racist reasons. But nonetheless, I do feel that there is more racism in the air these days. It is all very concerning.

      Reply

  2. Posted by Mike A on September 2, 2017 at 12:56 pm

    “In one episode, for instance, Alf Garnett is genuinely perturbed by the possibility that he may be partly Jewish” – the additionally irony, of course, being that he’s being played by a Jewish actor!

    I didn’t see many of these as they were slightly before my time, but from what I’ve seen of them they were pretty funny and well-acted, and it was quite obvious that Garnett was supposed to be an ignorant fool. However, I also remember schoolkids quoting him without getting the irony, and thinking he was just saying “what everyone was thinking anyway” and being (what today might be termed) “refreshingly un-PC”.

    Reply

    • Indeed. And it was written by a Jewish writer as well.

      And yes, what you say is perfectly right. I was at school when these were shown, and any racial slur or abuse I may have missed would be gleefully recited to me the next day in the playground.

      Nonetheless, in the unlikely event if the BBC ever issuing a box set of this, I would most certainly get myself a copy. I really don’t think satirical co Ely comes any better than this.

      Reply

  3. Posted by Janet on September 2, 2017 at 5:12 pm

    All in the Family was very plainly satire, but a humane one. This is one of those old shows that continues to hold up–for the writing and the performances. If you are ever feeling lazy (I’m afraid you’ve made that claim unimaginable), watch the first season or two. It evolved quite a bit over the too many years it was aired, but most resembled Till Death Do Us Part in its earliest episodes.

    Interestingly, one episode has two black burglars (DeMond Willson, who would go on to play Lamont Sanford in S&S, and Cleavon Little, who would shortly play Sheriff Bart in Blazing Saddles) break into the Bunker household. Something clearly went wrong with the direction, as these two fine actors give a stilted blackface performance, jiving it up in a manner a contemporary white audience would have taken as more or less authentic, but in hindsight is excruciating to watch, a private and coded satire in itself. While Archie (Alf’s US counterpart) can’t seem to help spouting his usual, openly racist commentary as the family is held hostage, liberal son-in-law Mike tries to ingratiate himself with the burglars, claiming to have learned all about them in sociology class, explaining their criminal tendencies to them, and unctuously sympathizing with their plight. Irony upon irony.

    Reply

    • That’s really interesting. I haven’t seen thus, of course, but from what you say, the “stilted blackface” performances were deliberate, and added an extra level of irony. Satire can have so many levels of irony at its best, that it’s often difficult to find one’s bearings.

      I came across this very interesting essay on the nature of satire: https://areomagazine.com/2017/09/01/what-charlie-hebdo-can-teach-us-about-the-nature-of-satire/ It cites, naturally, the most savage satire of them all – Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”. It seems that the more sophisticated a satire is, the less one may take anything at face value. There is an interesting quote there from Christopher Ricks, to the effect that satire is often teetering on the brink of “what it would have been if it hadn’t been satire”.

      I accept, of course, that not everyone will accept this: it may seem like having one’s cake and eating it – of indulging in the very thing one is claiming to attack. And yes, there may well be elements of that. Although I am aware of the different levels of irony, there are certainly times when I, too, can feel distinctly uneasy. But then again, it’s the whole point of satire to make us all feel uneasy. I don’t know … I can’t help feeling that the waters are sometimes deeper than I can negotiate.

      Reply

  4. Posted by Jonathan on September 2, 2017 at 9:37 pm

    I’ve enjoyed this post and the one before on Dad’s Army and Steptoe and Son. I’ve always enjoyed a good sit-com and Galton & Simpson are true masters of their craft. Even if they’d finished with Hancock’s Half Hour they’d deserve to be remembered as great writers.

    I also didn’t realise that episodes of Til Death Us Do Part were now available so I may have to get them. A few years ago I watched the whole run of In Sickness and in Health which I watched when it was first aired when I was a teenager. As you mentioned, it was shocking in its time because of the language used, and it’s shocking today because of its racism (or its portrayal of a racist) but if Alf was ‘just’ a racist then the series wouldn’t have been that interesting. I mean he’s a bigot and a loudmouth on so many other issues which makes it compelling/infuriating to watch. I also think that Speight will soon be completely forgotten.

    Reply

    • “Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?”

      This line alone should guarantee immortality for Galton & Simpson.

      I obviously hadn’t realised either that “Till Death Us Do Part” is now available as a box set. I’m so glad it is. It wasn’t consistent in quality (the various attempts to continue it in the 80s – “Till Death” and “In Sickness & in Health” – the standard had certainly dropped since its heyday. Also, a discussion amongst my Facebook friends prompted by this post reminded me of a spin-off Johnny Speight had written called “Curry and Chips”. I had forgotten about it. And I wish it had stayed forgotten – it was dire.

      But of course, as you say, it’s about far more than just race. It was, at its best at least, a stunning piece of writing (and the performances were never less than perfect), but I fear you’re right: Johnny Speight is indeed likely to be forgotten.

      Reply

      • Posted by Jonathan on September 2, 2017 at 11:16 pm

        I’ve just checked and I also watched the colour series of ‘Till Death Us Do Part’ recently so they were available a few years ago.

        I recently watched Galton & Simpson’s adaption of Gabriel Chevallier’s book, ‘Clochemerle’, which is fun and recommended.

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