1 9 6 5 – 1 9 7 5 (UK)
56 x 30 minute episodes
Alf Garnett was a bald-headed, bigoted, ignorant, lazy, selfish, jealous dock worker from the East End of London who first appeared in a 1965 BBC Comedy Playhouse where the family were originally called “Ramsey”.
In this controversial sitcom (written by Johnny Speight) Alf was played by Warren Mitchell (who had been a DJ on Radio Luxembourg) and was married to the “silly old Moo” Else (played by Dandy Nichols).
Alf came across as the most abrasive personality of the newly-created “permissive” era, ranting against “coons”, the Labour Party, and Liverpudlians.
Foul-mouthed, coarse, etched as a grotesque caricature several degrees below vulgarity itself, he stood for the Queen, the Empire long gone, the Church, the Conservative Party and West Ham United football club.
The Garnett’s shared their loveless marriage and their home in Wapping High Street with their daughter Rita and her husband Mike (the “randy Scouse git”). The part of Mike was originally offered to Michael Caine (a friend of Johnny Speight’s) who proved unavailable due to his blossoming movie career.
In 1975 Patricia Hayes and Alfie Bass joined the series as the neighbours who look after Alf when Else decides to visit her sister in Australia.
From his armchair, Alf regularly submitted his family to passionate rants on a variety of topics: “yer majesty”, women, Edward Heath (for taking Britain into the Common Market) and the permissive society – particularly his son-in-law Mike who had long hair and was a card-carrying Trotsky follower.
Complaints flooded in about his use of the word “bloody” and the series offended many – most notably Mary Whitehouse – but the curious irony was the extraordinary number of viewers who identified themselves with Garnett and his outpourings intended to lampoon prejudice, not promote it.
The series aired on the BBC on 6 June 1966. Two days later on 8 June, the Tories asked for a copy of the script which called Edward Heath a “grammar school twit”.
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 opposite 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.
Warren Mitchell was perfect in this role, and no doubt had a great deal of trouble shaking the character off in later years. By comparison, the character seemed mediocre in the 1985 sequel In Sickness And In Health in which only Warren Mitchell appeared (The series was supposed to be set after the death of the silly old moo).
Two feature films were also made: Till Death Us Do Part (1968) and The Alf Garnett Saga (1972).
The Americans made their own hugely successful version of the show called All In The Family with the Alf Garnett character being renamed to Archie Bunker. The Germans also made a version and The Garnetts’ became The Tetzlaff’s.