WARNING: This review covers subjects including racism and uses words which today are considered unacceptable.
Till Death Us Do Part is one of the most important and controversial sitcoms even made in Britain: it was controversial when it was broadcast in the 1960s and 70s due to the swearing which attracted the wrath of Mrs. Mary Whitehouse; and is controversial now for the openly racist and offensive views of its lead character, Alf Garnett, perhaps Britain’s most popular bigot (with the possible exception of Nigel Farage).
Created by Johnny Speight, the series followed the right-wing, West Ham supporting, working class reactionary docker from Wapping, played by Warren Mitchell. Every visit to Alf Garnett’s house would see him ranting about what he thought was wrong with the world, with his long-suffering “silly old moo” of a wife Else (Dandy Nichols) bearing the brunt his anger along with their daughter Rita (Una Stubbs). Coming into constant conflict with Alf is his son-in-law and Rita’s husband Mike Rawlins (Anthony Booth), a hard-left socialist Liverpudlian who was constantly out of work.
Not a moment goes by without the bigoted Alf and the “randy Scouse git” Mike arguing over politics, race, sex, religion, the monarchy, sport, or whatever the topic of discussion was that week. This has led to the main reason Till Death Us Do Part is never repeated on British TV anymore: Alf’s blatant racism. At the time Mrs. Whitehouse was complaining about the show using words like “bloody” – which was itself later mocked by making Alf a fan of Whitehouse. Today however, the main reason you don’t see the show is because of the use of the words like, “coon”, “wog”, “Paki”, “mick” and “yid”. The main purpose for these scenes was for Speight to mock Alf’s clearly idiotic views, although there some viewers at the time who failed to see the joke and ended up agreeing with Alf.
This in turn certainly makes Till Death Us Do Part an interesting watch, because it was challenging some deeply held political views at the time. It was one of the first sitcoms to portray working class life accurately, which even today is a rarity. The problem however is that while in some ways Till Death Us Do Part was ahead of its time, in others it was also way behind. This was a show that was attacking racist and sexist views, but it was also perfectly happy for Spike Milligan to “brown up” as a “Paki-Paddy” – something Milligan previously did in a previous Speight sitcom, Curry and Chips, often considered one of the worst sitcoms ever made. In comparison, Alf Garnett became one of the most successful comedy characters, with Garnett appearing in various sequels and only stopping when Speight died in 1998.
Clearly, some of the comedy has dated badly, partly because of the language, but also because much of the material was satirical, dealing with Harold Wilson and Ted Heath. However, there was also plenty that is still funny. It is still funny to laugh at how stupid some of Alf’s ideas are, such as the thought that is Edward VIII was a fan of the Hammers and if he didn’t abdicate the club might have become “Royal West Ham”. There is also the running joke that Alf might have Jewish blood, much to his horror and something he constantly denied (Mitchell himself actually was Jewish).
One of the other plus points of this collection is that it does contain a lot of material on it. Most of the early, black-and-white episodes have been wiped and don’t survive, but one of the discs in this collection contains audio recordings of all the missing episodes except the pilot and the first colour episode (the 1970 election special).
This boxset is certainly not for everyone’s taste, but Till Death Us Do Part still remains one of the most important sitcoms made. It is hard to see anyone tackling the same issues in the same way. The creation of a comedy character for the purposes of being mocked and actually being liked by the people it was meant to be attacking can backfire horribly. This is what in recent years to Dapper Laughs. But there is a big different between Alf and Dapper – Alf was funny.
Mind you, the comedy was not the only thing that backfired. Anthony Booth’s daughter for example had nothing to with left-wing politics – she married Tony Blair.
Till Death Us Do Part: The Complete Collection is released by Network.