back to article Happy birthday Alf Garnett, you daft, reactionary old git

It’s 50 years ago this week that writer Johnny Speight leapt to fame with his creation of the bigoted conservative Cockney known as Alf Garnett, the loudmouth star of Speight’s sitcom Till Death Us Do Part. Alf Garnett Always intended to be laughed at, Johnny Speight's confrontational comic creation was controversial from …

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    IIRC the family emigrated to Australia for one series or film - possibly a tie-up with an Australian TV company. Probably had a "Whingeing Poms" slant.

    Only remember the episode documenting their eventual return to England after supposedly being away for several years. Alf goes into his local pub and his old mates greet him with remark something like "Been away on holiday? Have a nice time?". Which just about sums up the returning ex-pats' usual reception.

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I think the main reason that it was so popular in the 60s was because Alf said what most people were thinking, at least that was what my family and I thought.

    Looking back at it today (I remember the first series) and applying the present day liberal left PC agenda it was a program that would have the multi-culti brethren up in arms although it would still resonate with a large number of people today.

    As I understand it, Speight was torn between having a success that almost had a life of its own and his leftist views. The fact that so many people agreed with Alf didn't help either.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Devil

      I think the main reason that it was so popular in the 60s was because Alf said what most people were thinking, at least that was what my family and I thought.

      There were a lot of ignorant bigots around back then and still are, it seems.

      1. Triggerfish

        Growing up in that area (the town hall clock at the beginning is down the road from where I lived (although that's actually East Ham town hall clock not canning town)). The language used was pretty common, but there was some difference in peoples actions, there was a lot of East Londoners who would say things that sound racist, but then would have coloured friends. The older generation can sound a lot more racist than their actions actually are. I still have the odd cringe at some of the things said by older relatives.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Mahatma, you sound as if you are judging the past by the standards of the present. Much has changed since then, not all of it for the better - the country has lost much of its industry for a start and gained many economic migrants.

        There is a saying that hindsight is an exact science and it is but it does not and can not change the past. The country was recovering from a war, living conditions were far from ideal but the races did get along and work together. The operative word there is work, those that didn't were looked down on by everyone, also there wasn't the professional 'I'm offended' clique that we have today.

        So, unless you actually lived and worked at that time your comment doesn't carry much weight.

        1. Jonathan Richards 1 Silver badge
          FAIL

          ...the races did get along and work together

          The hell you say!

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          "[...] there wasn't the professional 'I'm offended' clique that we have today."

          Oh but there were. Usually expressed as the stereotypes of Captain Mannering or the middle-class ladies at the heart of the local church. Mary Whitehouse was the icon who took offence at anything she perceived as blasphemous, permissive, or anti-establishment.

          Things lightened up in the 1960/70s. Then there was a backsliding through the Thatcher years into the Political Correctness years of Blair. We are now back to the lip-service self-censorship that was the staple of the 1950s.

          I doubt I'll live long enough to see the balance restored.

        3. Dan Paul

          @Ivan4

          Have an upvote for acknowledging the difference. Also sick and tired of the professionally "offended" clique out there. I was 13 in 1969 and remember ALL the shenanigans from both sides. Todays "professionally offended" haven't even come close to having similar reasons.

          The fact remains that race, sex or gender is not the issue and never was, the willingness to work hard is. If you just want to live on the public dole and won't try to better yourself, then you get what you deserve and you have no right to criticize anyone.

          The left has to perpetuate the myth of victimhood or all they have are empty promises and ballot boxes. Funny thing, but as soon as you become successful (regardless of race), you stop voting for those fools pretty quick.

        4. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Well said Ivan 4

          Took the words right out of my er....keyboard.

          You cant change the past & theres no point arguing with it or attempting to villify the actions or attitudes of those that lived through it.

          While were on the subject of bigotry we'd do well not to forget that every single race & nation on the planet is ultimately racist to some extent or other - not just middle aged white guys from canning town - so perhaps we shouldnt judge ourselves quite so harshly?

    2. Little Mouse

      Re: "Alf said what most people were thinking"

      Speight's intention was for people to laugh AT Alf Garnett, not with him.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: "Alf said what most people were thinking"

        "Speight's intention was for people to laugh AT Alf Garnett, not with him."

        Humour is often the nervous reaction to taboo subjects. Much of the comedy in films, and even earlier in theatre, was derived from parodying certain types of people. If some had not held those views then the humour would not have been there.

        English humour is often based on a double-edged sword where those being mocked do not recognise they are the butt of the joke at which they are laughing.

        "Rising Damp" also held up a mirror to society - particularly in the character of the landlord Rigsby. The "Carry On" films were similarly a humorous treatment of the prejudices and conventions of their times. The list is endless.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        @Little Mouse - Re: "Alf said what most people were thinking"

        Speight's intention was for people to laugh AT Alf Garnett, not with him.

        Such is my recollection as well. I recall him being seen by me, and those I knew who watched it, as a figure of ridicule.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: @Little Mouse - "Alf said what most people were thinking"

          Such is my recollection as well. I recall him being seen by me, and those I knew who watched it, as a figure of ridicule.

          But one of the reasons he was seen like that is that we all knew someone like him. He wasn't as rare as Speight might have supposed.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: @Little Mouse - "Alf said what most people were thinking"

          Speight's intention was for people to laugh AT Alf Garnett, not with him.

          Very true. I recall an interview with Warren Mitchell where he expressed his frustration at the number of people who identified with Alf and thought he was in the right.

          This is a perennial problem with satirical characters - a lot of people identify with them instead of seeing their flaws. I'm sure you could say the same about Harry Enfield's Loadsamoney, Ricky Gervais' David Brent or Al Murray's Pub Landlord.

          That doesn't make the satire any less valid or funny. I was only a kid when Alf Garnett hit the screens but some of those shows were works of comic genius.

      3. Amorous Cowherder

        Re: "Alf said what most people were thinking"

        I believe Warren Mitchell would berate anyone who came up to him and tried to be his mate by saying how much they loved and agreed with Garnet's views. Mitchell would often say, "Garnet is a superb character to play, so full of emotion but he's a nasty, horrible person, you could never possibly want to spend any time with.".

      4. Pookietoo

        Re: Speight's intention was for people to laugh

        The Comedy Playhouse episode was shown on TV a year or two back, I found there was nothing much funny about Alf - he was a pathetic unpleasant isolated character rejected by his family.

  3. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    Dandy Nichols' comic timing deserves a mention. Else would occasionally puncture Alf's rhetoric with a beautifully delivered withering one-liner.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      There was a picture of her in a smart outfit looking quite glamorous. She played her part very well.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Tony Booth...

    Father to Cherie Blair nee Booth QC.

    As far as my father was concerned (Trade unionist and shop steward) that was Tony Blair's passport into the Labour Party. Call it marrying into a political party. He never liked either of them.

    Till Death was very un PC and deliberately so. It seemed to me that Alf G used the term 'wogs' in almost every episode. Yet it seemed as long as they worked they were ok by him. Ask yourself how much has changed (in some political circles)?

    1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: Tony Booth...

      "Till Death was very un PC"

      No it wasn't. It couldn't have been. The entire PC concept hadn't been thought of so there was no un PC for it to have been.

      1. Havin_it
        Childcatcher

        @Doc Re: Tony Booth...

        >The entire PC concept hadn't been thought of [...]

        Horse puckey. It has been known by many names -- "blasphemy", "obscenity", "offensive", "decency", "decorum" are a grab-bag of the For & Against over the years -- but there's nothing new about people feeling offended by words above deeds (particularly on behalf of putative others, aka "white knighting"), nor about them abusing the offices of government and legislature to censor (and censure) the "offenders".

        "Political correctness" (which, let's be honest, cannot literally describe anything other than an oxymoron) is simply the latter-day rebranding. I actually kinda like it, not least for what it says about whoever dreamed it up: although there may not be (and rarely is) any political inflection to that which is deemed to have transgressed, it not-so-subtly acknowledges that the "consequences" are likely to come backed-up by political clout.

        (Note to future historians: Yes, I'm not trolling you, this is really how it worked in our time.)

        The enemy has always been with us, because the enemy has always been within us.

        Signed: Somebody who likes telling "dirty" jokes and hopes he never gets machine-gunned for it.

  5. x 7

    Alf Garnett was my hero

    He encapsulated everything UKIP stands for now, A real man before his time.

    1. Little Mouse
      Meh

      Re: "Alf Garnett was my hero"

      Spiderman was my hero.

      Then I grew up.

  6. A Ghost
    Flame

    I always preferred Rising Damp

    Rigsby was a better class of bigot.

    An obvious physical coward, lying about his wartime service to impress or curry favour with those he chose to argue with. His sheer impotence as witnessed by his kicking of Vienna the cat when things didn't go his way. His blatant sexual jealousy towards Philip, not least because Ms. Jones had the hots for him in a BIG way.

    How the hell do you make a character like that palatable, let alone endearing and funny?

    But it worked, and you can watch the old episodes of Rising Damp and they never fail to raise a chuckle. Timeless might be a word to describe it, though it is obviously very dated stylistically apart from general attitudes.

    Alf Garnett might have had a point at one time, or he may not. But it's not a place I would wish to revisit today, for comedy value anyway.

    Philip, who may or may not have actually been a real African Chief, was the real star of that show (Rising Damp) in many ways. He was certainly the most suave. Also he had a very humanistic magnanimity towards not just Rigsby who was clearly baiting him, but also Alan, who displayed a modicum of what I would call 'ignorant' racism - that is, lack of insight into his culture, as opposed to the overt and malicious racism, of a little Island Monkey (what the Germans call us) who felt threatened and was impotently and blindly trying to hit back by any means necessary.

    Alan was definitely a little ignorant (as most people would have been at that time), but he was curious and good natured and genuinely wanted to know more. Then again, Rigsby was more of a pathetic character than an outright malicious one. You knew he never really did kick Vienna down the stairs, but when you heard him yell 'Go ooon, geroutofit, miserable little blighter', the joke was ultimately on him. A form of slapstick comedy, that I dare say had all but had its day by then, but was somehow tenuously living on in the remnants of the new media of the day.

    Back then it was cutting edge stuff. Today it's all been so rehashed and reboiled that there is no goodness left anywhere in the form, let alone the content.

    The SitCom as it was to become known was still a pretty hit and miss affair, and experiments were still being done. It escapes me now whether either of those shows were filmed in front of a live studio audience, or perhaps even from the stage itself. Still, call them racist and unpolitically correct all you want. It was a more innocent age in many ways. A time where people could voice their (however abhorrent) viewpoints. Today, resentments fester, and we don't get to laugh at EACH OTHER, as we should be allowed to do in any fruitful and healthy society.

    And for that reason, I mourn their passing more than any other.

    1. Havin_it

      Re: I always preferred Rising Damp

      Very good post for 99%, but it feels like you kinda betray the equanimity of your conclusion by the reference to "'ignorant' racism". Racism is, in my book (don't own a dictionary, among my sins), an inclination to, with malice aforethought, *act* in a manner prejudicial to those of another racial grouping.

      I can't grok therefore how it could possibly be "ignorant": the concept described is absolute, not defined by the opinions or feelings of the grouping who are its object.

  7. Anthropornis
    Linux

    from a stupid old git ...

    Well, we must have moved on in fifty years - at that time git was apparently offensive, now some of us use it whenever we are coding 8)

  8. PhilipN Silver badge

    Alf Garnett - Respect!

    "I do not agree with what you say but I would defend to the death your right to say it."

    Actually no I wouldn't.

    1. El_Fev

      Re: Alf Garnett - Respect!

      @PhilipN Then your a complete and utter fuck wit, and the reason why this country is going down the shithole!

      1. Jamie Jones Silver badge
        Headmaster

        Re: Alf Garnett - Respect!

        " PhilipN Then your a complete and utter fuck wit"

        His 'complete and utter fuckwit' what?

      2. PhilipN Silver badge

        Re: Alf Garnett - Respect!

        Guilty as charged!

        (Oh dear. Satire is lost on some people)

      3. Yugguy

        Re: Alf Garnett - Respect!

        @El_Fev

        So you would, would you? With a gun against your head or the noose round your neck you would REALLY give your life to defend a diametrically opposite view?

        Would you FUCK as like. Very, very few people would.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Alf Garnett - Respect!

          "Very, very few people would."

          It's an interesting trait of human nature which way people will jump. Not to defend someone's opposite view per se - but to defend the civil liberty that allows everyone to put their viewpoint without violence. Take the obligatory Martin Niemöller quote as read.

          In "Nineteen Eighty Four" - faced with his ultimate terror Winston capitulates. In "Brave New World" some of the people take banishment rather than toe the line.

          Many tyrants have won by threats that it is known they will carry out - and many tyrants have fallen because they carried out such threats.

          Only when it comes to the crunch does the individual find out how they will react - and if they are in a group then they can usually be overridden either way.

          1. x 7

            Re: Alf Garnett - Respect!

            "In "Brave New World" some of the people take banishment"

            Matter of interpretation: I always understood that to mean they chose freedom when it was offered, not banishment - which implies a kind of limiting punishment.

  9. Tony S

    I watched the pilot, then a couple of the shows. As a pre-teenager, I was initially amused by the language used, but that got old very quickly. I knew that it was taking the mick out of so many that did actually think like that; but just found the attitude expressed offensive.

    After about 4 or 5 episodes, no-one in the family was that interested in watching. Many of my school friends carried on watching it, and I just stayed away from those that seemed to revel in some of the more unpleasant scripts.

    But we exercised our right to turn off the idiot box and do something of more interest.

    Having said that, I did see Warren Mitchell some years later at a theatre production (can't remember now what it was; maybe Death of a Salesman?); a totally different character and it showed that he was actually a really good actor.

    1. El_Fev

      yeah yeah sure you did, when you were 10 , you were embracing your social consciousness, why do people bother to lie on boards like this?

      1. Tony S

        @El_Fev

        "yeah yeah sure you did, when you were 10 , you were embracing your social consciousness, why do people bother to lie on boards like this?"

        You don't know me, I don't know you; so you've no way of knowing if that's true or not. But I can assure you that it is; whether you believe that or not is irrelevant.

        It's nothing to do with social consciousness; I've always disliked anything that relies too much on shock tactics to get the audience's attention.

  10. biffbobfred

    Randy Scouse Git story

    The TV/Music group the Monkees had a song they called Randy Scouse Git, complete with quotes from the show (from what I suppose, since as an american, i really didn't see the original series)

    The record label here objected to the title, too vulgar. again to american ears, it means nothing. I didn't know what randy meant until Austin Powers movies. Git, until Linus invented the source control of the same name. Scouse? still don't know ;)

    Anyways, they asked for an Alternate Title to the song. and if you look at the record, you'll see a song titled "alternate title".

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