KALEIDOSCOPE Till Death Us Do Part

This article first appeared in Kaleidoscope's The Main Event convention brochure, published in 1996.


Till Death Us Do Part
1965 - 1975


Mark Ward

Thirty years ago, a BBC sitcom first appeared which was to change and destroy the boundaries of comedy forever. It offended many people and frightened not a few, whilst for millions it was the most electrifying show on television. The lead character became a British institution, whilst his profane language became a national treasure. The characters were unlovable yet loved by many; as their dramatised debates ended, the domestic wrangle spilled out from the TV set into the living rooms of millions of people. The show was about...well, it was about a family arguing with each other. It was called Till Death Us Do Part, and it was certainly the most popular, probably the most important, and arguably the best British sitcom ever made. To understand its extraordinary style, structure and success, any history of the show must begin with its creator, Johnny Speight

Johnny Speight began his comedy career writing for Frankie Howerd's radio shows in 1955; which in turn led to a long association with Eric Sykes and Spike Milligan. By the early sixties he had moved into television scripts, most notably the popular Arthur Haynes Show, for which he wrote no less than 500 episodes. Speight's most notable creation for Haynes was the character of an insolent tramp, leading a ramshackle coterie comprising Patricia Hayes and Dermot Kelly and showing a breathtaking disrespect for authority. Speight was searching for a character who could similarly be deployed as a satirical weapon without reflecting badly on the comic concerned. In 1965 he submitted a six page treatment to producer Dennis Main Wilson, which was expanded into a 25-minute teleplay for the BBC's Comedy Playhouse series.

The show was called Till Death Us Do Part and it centred on the Ramsey family, working class East-Enders trapped together by circumstance in a seemingly endless series of arguments. Alf was a vociferous die-hard believer in The Establishment, a Tory who despised his own class, a right-wing reactionary with apparently no redeeming qualities. Else, his wife, had long since had any spark of life eroded from her by the hidebound tradition of a loveless marriage, whilst her recently married daughter, Rita, together with her layabout, fervently Socialist husband Mike, were forced to share the same house with their parents. The show was intended to be performed by dramatic actors, rather than established comedy stars, in the same fashion that had proved so successful for Wilfrid Brambell and Harry H. Corbett in Steptoe and Son. Else was played by stage actress Gretchen Franklin, later to achieve fame in EastEnders, whilst Leicester-born dancer-turned-actress Una Stubbs portrayed Rita. The part of Mike, originally conceived as a Cockney, was initially offered to Michael Caine, a close friend of Speight's and star of his first "serious" teleplay, The Compartment, three years before, but Caine's career was now taking off rapidly in the cinema and he proved unavailable. Another friend, Anthony Booth, accepted the part when asked by Speight on condition he played Mike as a Liverpudlian. Leo McKern accepted the role of Alf, but was forced to decline at the very last moment. The producer remembered Warren Mitchell from a theatrical production of The Walrus And The Carpenter and offered the role to him. Mitchell, a 39-year old Jewish actor from London, was well regarded as a character actor in such series as The Avengers and Danger Man (indeed, he had just completed filming The Beatles' Help! which had also featured McKern, Franklin and Dandy Nichols). The Comedy Playhouse show was, as usual, recorded in front of a live audience; Booth recalls that not a titter was heard for the first fifteen minutes but as soon as the audience warmed to such an aggressive, alien theme, they went bananas; the show overran and Alf's musings on the nature of marriage, the very substance of the show, had to be cut.

Appreciation ratings for the show, which was screened on 22nd July 1965, were second only to that of the original pilot for Steptoe and Son, "The Offer", and a series was commissioned, with a further seven episodes beginning transmission on 6th June 1966. In the interval, two changes had been made; the family name had been transformed from Ramsey to Garnett to avoid any problems with the England World Cup team manager, and Gretchen Franklin was tied to a long spell of stage work and had thus dropped out. She recommended her close friend Dandy Nichols for the part of Else. The show itself was given a 7:30 p.m. slot on Mondays as a deliberate attempt to use comedy to draw in the early evening viewing audience as an alternative to Coronation Street; the series also became part of the entertainment package in the BBC's coverage of the World Cup. In certain circumstances, this might have resulted in the series being buried and forgotten; instead, despite two breaks in scheduling on July 11th and 25th, the show attracted huge critical and commercial success, so much so that it was granted the unprecedented honour of being repeated in its entirety on Saturday nights a mere three weeks after it had ended its run on August 1st.

Nobody had seen any show quite like it; critics loved its realism, the constant flow of ideas, challenges to authority and impeccable performances and the audience loved the electric atmosphere of the programme as it trod the very edge of what was permissible on TV. It had a deceptively simple premise, with its biting parody relying on the exact inverse of what its protagonist Alf was saying in order to aim its barbs at attitudes to royalty, religion, race and politics. The more Alf blindly defended his beloved "standards", the more the audience realised that this was the measure by which those very standards were intended to be lampooned. It was a very dangerous game, in which Speight and Wilson were well aware that Alf's tirades could be taken at face value. They were to careful to show that Alf was always the loser, yet even this was to backfire on them as the very success of the series enabled Alf to dominate it. In the heady free-spirited sixties, the huge audiences seemed to know they were laughing at Alf rather than with him, but the lack of apparent moral guidelines was to tar the show with the belief in some circles that it was too dangerous a device to unleash upon the public.

Whatever the controversy, which was homing in on the show with alarming speed, the Garnetts' open warfare proved magnetic, an appeal that was the only thing to ultimately save the programme. The second series was shown at the later time of 8:20 p.m. when it returned on Boxing Day 1966 with "Peace And Goodwill" (quite what the Swiss made of the Garnetts in all their Christmas glory when this episode was submitted as the BBC entry in the Golden Rose of Montreux competition is hard to imagine). Controversy over the series went into overdrive with the January 2nd episode, "Sex Before Marriage". Mary Whitehouse sent a telegram of complaint to the Prime Minister; a Hampshire vicar advocated to his congregation that the show was an offence to God and all decent people, whilst Malcolm Muggeridge declared that if Till Death Us Do Part was real life, then we should all commit suicide. A radio interview with Speight resulted in a court action when he implied that Mrs Whitehouse and her National Viewers and Listeners Association were fascists; the NVLA won a full apology and substantial settlement in July 1967. In return, Speight portrayed Alf reading Mary Whitehouse's first book, Cleaning Up TV, agreeing to every word of it and then seeing the book burned by Mike and Rita to chants of "Unclean, Unclean" on the 27th February 1967 episode "Alf's Dilemma" (recently recovered by the BBC in an edited form). The show's enormous popularity saved it; the second series achieved ratings of sixteen million in Britain, and more unexpectedly, it topped the ratings in Australia. A special Easter Monday "Bank Holiday Knees Up With the Garnetts" episode featuring a host of potential Alf targets in Kenny Lynch, Ray Barratt, Joan Sims and Jimmy Tarbuck, ended the season.

Speight's work continued in the public eye through the summer of 1967; another Comedy Playhouse, "To Lucifer - A Son", featuring Jimmy Tarbuck as a demon, aroused more controversy, whilst a second batch of six repeats of Till Death Us Do Part climaxed with Alf appearing as special guest on The Dusty Springfield Show in August. The series returned to the screen on 5th January 1968, having been preceded by a slot on the 1967 Christmas Night With The Stars. Events by now had changed the background and added to the general air of insecurity facing the series, despite its popularity. In-fighting at the BBC had convinced Speight he no longer had the backing of the Corporation to weather out the inevitable storms of protest that greeted the show, whilst Anthony Booth, tired of the fame and continual arguments with Mitchell, announced he was leaving the series to concentrate on other roles. More warfare between the show and Mrs Whitehouse erupted when the second episode (and indeed the only one of the season to survive in the BBC Archives) debated the ethics of heart transplants when the recipient, Washansky, was Jewish. Two weeks later, it transpired that one script had been heavily cut because of objections to a line that compared God to Hitler. Finally, a friend of Mrs Whitehouse complained to the Chairman of the BBC that one show had featured no less than 44 "bloodies" before she stopped counting. Speight and Wilson decided to suspend future series; indeed, Speight's next TV series, the wildly controversial reaction to Enoch Powell's "Rivers of Blood" speech, Curry and Chips, was transmitted by LWT, not the BBC.

The show's success was, unstoppable, however. The final season had ended on 16th February 1968 with Else bedridden and nursed by her sister Maude, whom Alf despises for her liberal values. The termination of the series was covered in an edition of Variety magazine which was brought to the attention of American writer/producer Norman Lear. Having bought the option on the show, Lear touted it to various networks for the next two years until CBS agreed to make it as All In The Family. When transmitted in 1971, the US version of the Garnetts was to transform the permissiveness of US television for ever.

Back in Britain, a film version of the show, tracing Alf's life from the thirties to the present day, premiered in December 1968. The first of the TV sitcom movie spinoffs, it was a huge success. On the small screen, a short season of Till Death Us Do Part repeats in the winter of 1968 was extended when the largest ever audiences were recorded for a repeat series. Meanwhile, Warren Mitchell toured Australia performing his one man Alf show, which would later be transformed into the award-winning The Thoughts of Chairman Alf.

1970 brought Alf momentarily back to the Beeb when he appeared with Spike Milligan and Eric Sykes in a specially conceived sketch, to launch the BBC's election coverage; Eighteen months later Alf and Else appeared in another Christmas Night With the Stars cameo, whilst at the same time a second film, The Alf Garnett Saga went into production, this time with Adrienne Posta as Rita and Michael Angelis as Mike.

Finally, the original cast were reassembled for a whole new series beginning in September 1972. The programme's popularity was undiminished - as was its ability to upset Mrs Whitehouse. The first episode saw Alf become a grandfather as Michael Junior is born; it was the highest rated programme on TV that week with over sixteen million viewers. In the second show, Mike made a suggestion that the reason for the paucity of Messiahs in human history was that the Virgin Mary was on the pill. Mary Whitehouse demanded apologies; Speight and Mitchell refused, so she asked the Director of Public Prosecutions to endorse a charge of blasphemy against the BBC. The attempt failed, but ratings went up to eighteen million, and the controversy caused nervous fibrillation over the 1972 Royal Variety Performance in which the Garnetts were due to appear in October. Thankfully for Sir Bernard Delafonte, it proved a brilliantly conceived sketch in which Alf was threatened with a swearbox every time he wanted to blaspheme.

A fifth series returned to BBC1 in January 1974 when Britain was firmly in the grip of industrial strife, thanks to OPEC price rises, inflation, and power cuts due to the Miners' go-slow and consequent strike. Speight reflected the scenario brilliantly; although there were the usual debates on royalty, the BBC, religion, pornography, race and Alf's alleged Judaism, the struggle going on in the world outside was reflected in the Garnetts living room, as it was in millions of other living rooms, more powerfully and more hilariously than ever before. Most memorable of all is the episode in which Else holds her own Three Day Week and withholds essential services to blackmail her husband into buying her a new coat. Alf, rendered totally helpless in the face of this threat, tries to enlist the sympathy of his daughter with a pathetic monologue in which he mournfully states that he's always done his best even if he's been mistaken at times. Else's silent, bland yet baleful stare as response to this is testament to Dandy Nichols almost supernaturally brilliant comic timing and Speight's wonderful script; it proved an auspicious selection as a tribute to the actress when it was transmitted following her death in 1986.

Behind the scenes, Nichols was tired of the continuous bickering at rehearsals, and in 1974 she announced that she would not appear in the programme in future. Speight rose to the challenge by incorporating Else's real life departure into the script of her mythical family. Dandy Nichols appeared in filmed inserts for the first two shows of the sixth series, in which she is shown leaving for Australia to look after her sick sister Maude. The series was now to concentrate less on the politics and more on Alf's new found predicament - still in a marriage, yet separated from his wife a whole world away. To balance things, the Garnetts' neighbours Min, played by veteran Arthur Haynes collaborator Patricia Hayes, and Bert, now played by Alfie Bass (replacing Bill Maynard from the 1972 film and series) were introduced on a regular basis. Min has designs on Alf's body, his three-piece and his colour TV set; Alf is only interested in her meat puddings, but likes to drink with Bert who acts as his confidante in his musings on the nature of women.

The show was just as clever, and equally as funny, but the emphasis was more internal, concentrating on the relationships rather than the explosive ideas propagated by Alf and his son-in-law's interminable warfare. The acting was perfect, as always, but if one episode could be singled out as the show at it's best, it has to be the one where nosey Min lets it be known that Else has written to Rita suggesting that she and Mike emigrate and put Alf in a home. Alf's reaction - an attempt to destroy the living room, followed by a rhetorical plea that his marriage was, in God's eyes, "till death us do part", is simultaneously shocking, heart-rending and nervously amusing. It is one of the many magical moments in this bizarre series in which virtuoso performances coupled with a superb script elevates it above almost any other sitcom, fusing drama to comedy and creating something at once powerful and poignant.

A low-key, unpublicised return to the screen on 5th November 1975 brought the final season of the show which had dominated the ratings and the tabloids for nine years. Alf's encounters, swamped in an apparent sea of alcohol, climax on December 17th when Speight cruelly removes every crumbling support for his character; firstly, his job, when Alf is made redundant, secondly a disastrous surprise birthday party in his honour later that day, and finally the unkindest cut of all - he receives a birthday telegram from Else stating that she wants a divorce. Death didn't part them, after all.

Because Alf was too good a character to be eliminated completely, this was not the end for the Garnetts. Spurred on by the success of The Thoughts Of Chairman Alf, ATV produced a series of six episodes based on Alf and Else in retirement in Eastbourne in 1981, called Till Death... Forced by economic circumstances to share a bungalow with newly-widowed Min, and visited occasionally by Rita and her punk son, the show was a good one, hampered by the fact that it was not recorded before a live audience, a fact which affected its ratings and ensured the franchise was not renewed. Then in 1985, the BBC bought the same idea, without Min or Eastbourne, for In Sickness And In Health, which ran successfully until 1992.

In the cold light of the 1990's, with the apparent collapse of the standards that Alf was blindly devoted to upholding, with different, more controlled attitudes to what is acceptable in the name of race relations and with a comic emphasis either on the absurd, the homely, the alternative or the highly structured, the simplicity of the Garnett scenario, its overriding themes and passions and concentration on characterisation has reduced the apparent importance of the show in television history. It is now viewed as a curiosity, a relic of the days of blackouts and three day weeks, consigned to a hidden corner where it can safely be ignored. This is certainly the attitude of the BBC, embarrassed to accept more scripts off Speight or issue video or audio recordings of the old series. Even a proper historical assessment of its sixties impact is difficult, thanks to the BBC erasing all but a handful of episodes. It comes as a surprise to realise that it is indisputably the most influential and successful British sitcom, with consistently huge audiences and its adaptations on US television.

Less definitive is its influence on breaking barriers and forcing through new permissiveness on TV. It was too popular to be a cult (like Monty Python's Flying Circus), it was never safe (such as Dad's Army), it was never highly structured in plot (such as Only Fools and Horses....) and it was never sympathetic such as Steptoe and Son. Its failure to fit categories, coupled with its success in irritating people and its refusal to overtly moralise means that it will always be with us, unbroken unbowed, unapologetic and unloved. A bit like Alf himself, really.

Copyright © Mark Ward 1996. All Rights Reserved.

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