|Till Death Us Do Part character|
|First appearance||"Pilot" (Comedy Playhouse, 1965)|
|Last appearance||The Thoughts of Chairman Alf (1998)|
|Created by||Johnny Speight|
|Portrayed by||Warren Mitchell|
Alf Garnett is a fictional character from the 1960s & 1970s British sitcom Till Death Us Do Part and its follow-on and spin-off series in the 1980s and early 1990s Till Death... and In Sickness and in Health. Alf also starred in the chat show The Thoughts of Chairman Alf. The character was created by Johnny Speight and played by Warren Mitchell.
Alf was born in Wapping around 1919. He was always unpopular as a lad and it was said he only began going out with his wife Else, whom he had known since they were children, as a result of his mother's intervention. A two-year courtship followed during the first part of World War Two and the pair married in 1941 (the film Till Death Us Do Part (1968) showed the couple marrying in 1939, but the actual series always stated them to have been married in 1941). Alf was called up for military service in 1940 but got out of it by claiming he was in a Reserved Occupation. Alf and Else had a daughter Rita by 1942 and raised her in the slums of Wapping at 25 Jamaica Street, E1, where Alf worked on the docks and Else stayed home and tended to the house.
Rita married her "long-haired layabout" socialist boyfriend Mike in 1966 shortly after the general election of 31 March and they moved into the Wapping house. Alf was horrified by this and he and Mike rarely got along, the only time they did was when they both went to the 1966 World Cup Final, England vs. West Germany. Around 1968, according to the film The Alf Garnett Saga, despite resistance from Alf, the Garnetts were rehoused in a tower block in a new town on the edge of London, probably in Essex. Alf continued to work on the docks in London despite the long commute. Alf was still proud when the couple had a son together in September 1972. There was some speculation by Else that Mike was not the child's father but instead, the singer Kenny Lynch with whom Rita had had a brief relationship. Else eventually left Alf in 1974 and moved to Australia to live with her sister Maud whom Alf hated. She later wired Alf in 1975 on his birthday asking him for a divorce and the same day Alf lost his job.
Sometime between 1975 and 1981, Mike and Rita moved back to Liverpool and Alf and Else reconciled and sold their Wapping house and moved to Eastbourne with their widowed neighbour Min. Rita visited and Alf was horrified to see his grandson, now a teenager (albeit being born in 1972, his age is inconsistent between series), was a punk rocker. Between 1981 and 1985, the Garnetts moved back to the East End to a small house and Min stayed behind with her sister Gwenyth. Else became ill and needed to use a wheelchair.
Else died in September 1986 and Alf, after years of poor treatment of his wife, was devastated at her death. He later got involved with and nearly married his upstairs neighbour Mrs Hollingberry. They later broke it off but remained good friends.
As of 1999, Alf was still living in East End and Miss Hollingberry was still his neighbour.
In the episode 'State Visit' (20 February 1967) Alf gives his full name as Alfred Edward Garnett. Alf was reactionary, mean-spirited, selfish, bigoted, anti-Irish, anti-Catholic, racist, misogynistic and anti-Semitic. Warren Mitchell himself is in fact Jewish. In In Sickness and in Health he also displays homophobia, largely because he gets a gay black man whom he calls "Marigold" as his home help. The home help calls him "bwana".
Alf was a working class man, forever complaining that he worked and worked and yet lived somewhere near the poverty line, and was a staunch supporter of the Conservative Party, although he didn't support one-time leader Margaret Thatcher, because he believed that a woman's place was at home "chained to the bloody kitchen sink!" and blamed Thatcher's husband Denis for not telling her "to keep her place". He did not admire "grammar school boy" Edward Heath, her predecessor, either.
His biggest reason for being a Conservative was not that he loved and admired the party, but that he fully rejected the policy of the Labour Party, believing them to pretend to represent the working classes, whilst all they would do when in power is feather their own nests. He was also an admirer of the Queen and the Royal Family. This however, did not stop him from criticising them when he thought they deserved it. His biggest passion in life though, was his local football team West Ham United.
Generally Alf blamed his problems on everybody but himself. His family was the usual target of his anger and frustration. In the shows, Garnett was regularly ridiculed for his illogical views and hypocrisy by his family, but he stubbornly refused to admit he was wrong.
Alf was mean and selfish towards his emotionally detached wife, Else played by Dandy Nichols, referring to her as a "silly old moo". Else usually turned a deaf-ear to most of Alf's rantings, but if he got too personal she would come up with a sharp retort to put him firmly in his place. In the sequel series In Sickness and In Health Else needed to use a wheelchair, and Alf grumbled about having to care for her. When Dandy Nichols died in 1986, the character of Else was killed off. Alf always treated his wife appallingly but after she died the viewers could see that he genuinely missed her.
Alf was outraged when his daughter, Rita played by Una Stubbs, decided to marry Michael, her long-haired, unemployed boyfriend played by Antony Booth. Michael is from Liverpool and a Catholic of Irish descent; precisely the type of person Alf most hated. He often called him the "Randy Scouse Git". This terminology was later picked up by the American pop group The Monkees for their song, "Randy Scouse Git", included on their 1967 album Headquarters. Alf and Michael had different political views and much of the programme was centred around their heated debates about politics.
The British public loved Alf Garnett - since everyone knew such a reactionary figure within their own locality - although the television show was heavily criticised for the character's prejudices. Writer Johnny Speight often commented that the character was supposed to be a figure of ridicule, but admitted that not all viewers saw the satiric elements of the character. Speight defended the Alf Garnett character, saying: "If you do the character correctly, he just typifies what you hear - not only in pubs but in golf clubs around the country. To make him truthful he's got to say those things, and they are nasty things. But I feel as a writer that they should be out in the open so we can see how daft these comparisons are."
It has been suggested that the selection of Warren Mitchell as Alf Garnett was due to him looking very similar to Rudyard Kipling, who has also been perceived as a paternalistic racist; however this theory falls flat on two counts. Firstly, Mitchell was not the first choice of producer Dennis Main Wilson for the part. It was initially offered to Peter Sellers, Leo McKern and Lionel Jeffries, but they all turned it down or were unavailable. Secondly, few members of public would have realised what Kipling looked like.
Mitchell left the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art with a trained actor's voice. A lifelong, committed socialist, he sold socialist newspapers on street corners, shouting his wares in his beautifully trained voice. It was only when he realised why people weren't buying his newspapers that he developed Alf's voice, to appear more "working class".
Johnny Speight had initially avoided antisemitism in Alf Garnett's rants for fear of offending Warren Mitchell, who was Jewish. However, Mitchell pointed out that such a bigoted character would almost certainly be anti-Semitic, and so Garnett became as vocal about Jews as any other minority group, e.g. making derogatory remarks about "the Jews up at Spurs", referring to Tottenham Hotspur, a north London football team with a large number of Jewish supporters, including Warren Mitchell himself. With Mitchell's approval, Speight began to work references into the show suggesting that Alf himself was from a Jewish family or had Jewish heritage. In one episode a Jewish taxi driver makes the assumption that he is Jewish and refuses to believe Alf's protestations to the contrary, while in another Alf's wife Else suggests in no uncertain terms that he is circumcised.
Mitchell has stated that he has got tired of always being associated with Alf Garnett, but enjoyed playing the part and appreciates the debt he owes to the character.
In the late 1980s, the Museum of the Moving Image in London staged an Alf Garnett exhibition where visitors pressed buttons representing particular social problems and were presented with Alf giving his opinions on the subject.
The American version of Till Death Do Us Part, All in the Family, featured Archie Bunker as Garnett's analog. Like Garnett, Bunker became an icon in American popular culture for his very conservative views, although the Bunker character was portrayed as somewhat more likable than Garnett ever was. Bunker, in turn, served as an inspiration for Eric Cartman of South Park.
In the movie Till Death Us Do Part (1969), Alf receives a letter advising him that he has been called up to go to war. However, the letter which is shown on screen is addressed to ALFRED GARNET with only one T. Later in the film, Alf says that the call-up papers were a mistake because he was in a Reserved Occupation and thus ineligible for service, so possibly the authorities had confused him with someone with a similar name.
In the TV series and films, Alf is always shown as a pipesmoker, usually smoking a Straight Billiard type pipe. The character was a staunch defender of smoking and Warren Mitchell himself received the award of Pipe Smoker of the Year in 1967 for services to pipesmoking.
References to Alf Garnett in politics
The character's name has become a standard description of anyone ranting at the world in general, and has even found its way into politics, Oswald Mosley dismissing Enoch Powell after his Rivers of Blood speech as "a Middle Class Alf Garnett", former Prime Minister Harold Wilson also criticising Powell for making Alf Garnett 'politically articulate' and conferring upon him 'a degree of political respectability'  Denis Healey accusing Margaret Thatcher of possessing "the diplomacy of Alf Garnett" and more recently has been used in criticism of politicians such as Ken Livingstone and John Reid. On 9 June 2010 during Prime Minister's questions David Cameron referred to Ed Balls as "the new Alf Garnett of British politics" following his comments on immigration.
- BBC - Cult - I Love Til Death Us Do Part
- "Till Death Us Do Part" by John Burke at TrashFiction.com
- Till Death Us Do Part at The Museum of Broadcast Communications
- BBC News: "Tribute to Alf Garnett's creator"
- "Sir Oswald Mosley: Blackshirt – Stephen Dorril", Spike Magazine, 10 December 2007
- J.H. Wilson, The Labour Government 1964-1970: A Personal Record (Weidenfeld and Nicholson and Michael Joseph, London, 1971), p. 525
- Britain Since the Seventies, Jeremy Black, Reaktion Books 2004
- "Alf Garnett at the city hall" by Hugh Muir, The Guardian, 21 June 2006
- BBC News: "Reid targets illegal immigrants", 7 March 2007
- BBC News: "Prime Minister's Question", 9 June 2010