Classic British sitcoms were a formative part of my late-1990s childhood. My father’s compilation of British comedy highlights – one of four CDs he kept in his car, played on repeat – had Only Fools and Horses, Absolutely Fabulous, Harry & Paul, and Fawlty Towers. The stack of VHS tapes at my grandparents’ house included Blackadder and Monty Python. On grey Sunday afternoons we’d watch reruns of Dad’s Army and ’Allo ’Allo on the BBC.
I can recite jokes written long before my parents even knew each other. Perhaps this poetic function of great comedy – its tendency to echo deep in the recesses of memory – is why nothing said by Alf Garnett, the working class anti-hero of Till Death Us Do Part, exists in my head. Almost since its first broadcast, the sitcom divided opinions of good taste. Moral crusader Mary Whitehouse launched a campaign to get it off the air, although her outrage centred on its liberal use of the word “bloody”. Despite enormous popularity, this classic British sitcom remained stuck in the 20th century.
Are Alf Garnett’s words worth repeating? That’s the question asked, and answered, by the Freeview television channel That’s TV, who are breaking the unspoken amnesty of major broadcasters by putting on an Alf Garnett season, featuring 80 episodes of Till Death Us Do Part and its successor In Sickness and in Health. More intriguingly, they’re broadcasting four “lost” episodes from the sitcom’s early days, missing from the archives since the late 1960s.
“Who better to review these forgotten episodes than a young, unbiased lover of British comedy?” I hear you ask. “How will his delicate millennial sensibilities fare?” Fascinating question. “An inspired commission.” Stop it!
Ominously titled “Intolerance”, the earliest episode (which will air on Tuesday 6 September at 9pm) sums up the dilemma at the heart of writer Johnny Speight’s sitcom. Warren Mitchell is hilarious as Garnett. He’s the sort of comic talent who could make knitting funny, all taut physicality and haphazard facial expressions. In the opening sequence, he invades a football match at Anfield and attempts to fight a player for kicking his hat – which he threw there. Great craic.
This magnetic talent makes what happens next harder to swallow. Garnett pays a visit to the doctor and is horrified to be treated by a black man. References to “the jungle” and “primitives” escalate into words less amenable to print, and the laugh track roars on. Speight called this social commentary, but Garnett’s the one telling the jokes. Thomas Baptiste playing the doctor doesn’t get the opportunity to challenge or mock the old racist; his skin is a prop in someone else’s comedy show.
There’s a sense that Mitchell plays Alf Garnett a little too well. He reels off grotesque racial slurs with such vim that I felt embarrassed just watching alone at home. I’ve heard people reference Alf Garnett uncritically, affectionately even – my second-hand impression was of a loveable British eccentric akin to Peggy Mitchell. Is this the same bloke? It says something about the effectiveness of Speight’s satire if the intended target can be mistaken for its hero.
There are moments when the satire functions well. Socialist Scouser Mike (Anthony Booth), Garnett’s son-in-law, is the main voice of dissent. He points out that Garnett himself is Jewish and his grandfather was called Solly Diamond. Garnett’s vociferous denials are funny not simply because of Mitchell’s brilliant clownish performance, but because they demonstrate the absurdity behind his bigotry. But Garnett is rarely so unequivocally the butt of the joke, and Mike’s protests often come across as whiney and humourless.
In “State Visit”, from the second series, Garnett is up in arms about the arrival of a Russian dignitary (Thursday 8 September, 9pm); he’s enraged by an article in the Daily Mirror referring to Britain as “a tiny offshore island”, and apoplectic at Harold Wilson for rolling out the red carpet. These political rants are where Till Death Us Do Part hits its stride, emphasising Garnett’s silly prejudices and opening up space for smarter gags. It’s here we see the comic legacy of Alf Garnett more clearly – as a template for iconic sitcom characters such as Ricky Tomlinson’s armchair critic Jim Royle, and even David Mitchell’s neurotic Mark Corrigan from Peep Show.
The great satirist Chris Morris, behind Brass Eye and The Day Today, once said of comedy: “Are you doing an exotic display for the court, or are you trying to change something?” The problem with Till Death Us Do Part is that, more often than not, it’s doing the former. Racism gets a cheap laugh and the wrong people nod along.