TILL DEATH US DO PART

British Situation Comedy

One of the first British shows to take a serious and sustained interest in race themes was Till Death Us Do Part, originally broadcast in the mid-1960s on BBC1. Five weeks into the first series the show had already toppled its immediate competitor, Coronation Street, in the ratings war. Although the idea for the series had been in the mind of its creator, Johnny Speight for several years, it wasn't until Frank Muir took over comedy at the BBC that production began, initially as a pilot but subsequently as a fully-fledged series. The comedy centred on the Garnett family, with the main "star" of the show in the person of the patriarch "Alf," sometimes known as "Chairman Alf" for his ready willingness to engage in scurrilous diatribes against the Conservative party. The other significant target of his rantings were black people and it is for the extreme views expressed by Alf on issues of race that the programme is most remembered (and denounced).

Although Alf's creator argued at the time of the original broadcasts (and since) that his intention was to expose racist bigotry through the exaggerated utterances of Alf, such an intention has back-fired for many commentators. The enormous popularity of the show signified that there was something about it which appealed to a significant proportion of the viewing public. Wherever the series has been shown--in Great Britain or in the U.S. or Germany (the last two in local adaptations)--the effects have by no means always been what the author intended. Alf's rhetoric was not always seen as the voice of the ignorant bigot, but often as the stifled cry of the authentic (white) working class. While the Garnett family, and Alf in particular, were clearly represented as disgraceful and abject characters, extreme even as caricatures, many critiques of the show suggest that part of its fascination for the audience was the kernel of truth buried in the lunatic wailings. Thus the crucial difference between Alf's grotesque soliloquies and the viewers' (our) beliefs was that Alf was simply too stupid to understand that racist sentiment must be concealed beneath a sheen of respectability: the persuasive and polished performance of Alessandra Mussolini in her Italian political career is more credible than Alf's degenerate ramblings but contains much the same message.

The inflammatory and controversial subject matter of the show and its American counterpart, All in the Family, ensured that they both became the focus of academic enquiry. Research findings were mixed, some suggesting that such shows had a neutral effect on viewers while others claimed that viewers identified heavily with the xenophobic ravings of Alf/Archie. It is likely that many British viewers, worried by the alleged "immigrant avalanche" constantly reported in the media during the 1960s and fueled by Irish Protesteant leader Enoch Powell's rabid jingoism, found a certain resonance in the racist bigotry espoused by Alf. Although Alf was challenged in his more ludicrous diatribes by his daughter Rita and son-in-law Mike, with the odd wry observation from his long-suffering wife "Old Moo", Warren Mitchell's powerful performance as Alf relegated the rest to mere bit players, as deserving butts of his wild wit.

Through Alf, a cascade of fear and prejudice was given unique prime-time exposure and articulated with such passion that during its transmission, 12 million viewers (then half the adult British population) tuned in to watch. It is highly unlikely that all these viewers were laughing at rather than with Alf, that they were all making wholly satirical readings of Alf's obscene racism and applauding Speight's clever exposition as they cackled at the "jokes". Looking again at the show with a 1990s sensibility, the virulent racism stands out as extraordinary and its nature and extent have never been repeated on British television. Till Death Us Do Part may have been written as brave social commentary but thirty years on, it looks seriously flawed and gives the lie to the notion that what the writer intends is always "correctly" interpreted and understood by her/his audience.

There is little evidence to support the claim of programme producers and writers that mixing humour with bigotry will automatically underline the stupidity of the latter through the clever device of former. If bigots do not perceive such programmes as satire, and much of the research effort so far seems to indicate that a satirical reading is by no means universal, then they are unlikely to become less prejudiced as a result of watching these shows. At the end of the 1980s, an Alf Garnett exhibition was staged at the Museum of the Moving Image in London, where visitors pressed buttons representing particular social problems and Alf appeared on video to opine on the selected subject. It is a strange idea and exemplifies the ease with which TV characters can make the transition from one medium to another, in this instance mutating from demon to sage in one easy movement. If it is a little too glib, from the smug security of the 1990s, to label Till Death Us Do Part as a straightforwardly racist text, it is nonetheless instructive to consider the limits of acceptability which prevail in any given decade and to continue the campaign for equality and respect while at the same time supporting the radical take.

-Karen Ross


Till Death Us Do Part
Photo courtesy of BBC

CAST

Alf Garnett............................................ Warren Mitchell
Else Garnett ...........................................Dandy Nichols
Rita ............................................................Una Stubbs
Mike...................................................... Anthony Booth

PRODUCERS    Dennis Main Wilson, David Croft, Graeme Muir

PROGRAMMING HISTORY   52 Half-hour episodes 1 45-minute special

BBC
July 1965                                Comedy Playhouse (pilot)
June 1966 -August 1966                                 7 episodes
December 1966-February 1967                     10 episodes
January 1968-February 1968                           7 episodes
September 1972-October 1972                       6 episodes
December 1972                                  Christmas Special
January 1974-February 1974                           7 episodes
December 1974-February 1975                       7 episodes
November 1975-December 1975                      6 episodes

FURTHER READING

Cantor, Muriel G.. Prime-Time Television: Content and Control. Beverly Hills, California and London: Sage, 1980; 2nd edition, with Joel Cantor, 1992.

Daniels, Therese, and Jane Gerson. The Colour Black: Black Images in British Television. London: British Film Institute, 1989.

Hood, Stuart. On Television. London: Pluto Press, 1980.

Ross, Karen. Black and White Media: Black Images in Popular Film and Television. Cambridge: Polity, 1995.

Vidmar, Neil, and Milton Rokeach. "Archie Bunker's Bigotry." Journal of Communication (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 1974.

Woll, Allen, and Randall Miller. Ethnic and Racial Images in American Film and Television: Historical Essays and Bibliography. New York and London: Garland, 1987.

 

See also All in the Family; Speight, Johnny