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David Keighley: Alf Garnett may have been a bigot but we laughed with him as well as at him


Rest in peace, you old bastard!

The death of Warren Mitchell, the consummate Shakespearian actor equally at home playing Shylock as Alf Garnett, one of the most memorable characters ever created on the BBC, is a sharp reminder of how bigoted and biased the Corporation is.

It is now possible to buy almost every programme you can remember (and many best forgotten) from the BBC Store, but not Till Death Do Us Part, writer Johnny Speight’s brilliant satirical evocation of British life and perspectives from the 1960s.

The show was no penny dreadful. Mitchell, Tony Booth, Dandy Nichols and Una Stubbs, the main cast members, were all accomplished actors at the top of their game, so much so that Mitchell won a BAFTA award for his portrayal of Alf in 1967.

The BBC Store is ram-full of foul-mouthed ‘entertainment’ galore, much of it crass and unfunny, from pygmy comedy ‘stars’ that the BBC has elevated beyond their talent because they propagate the Corporation world view – but no Alf. Some of the early black and white shows were wiped, but many still exist.

Let’s not mince words – that’s censorship. The high command at the BBC has decided that we cannot see it, even though it was one of the best loved shows of the 1960s and 1970s, reaching peak audiences of 16 million, far in excess of programmes that are lionised because of their anti-establishment approach, such as TW3.

Why? It’s true that times have changed, and some of the observations made by Alf on racial themes are hard for modern ears to tolerate. But we have judgement. And let’s not forget that Booth’s character Tony Rawlins was just as prejudiced the other way.  Abortion? Bring it on. Work? To be avoided at all costs.

The show – curses and all – reflected an aspect of East End working class life and attitudes, and the generational shift that was underway in the Baby Boomer era. Alf’s rants against immigration, in favour of British values and the rule of law and against the iconoclasm of Harold Wilson’s Labour government can now be seen as one of the last stands of a world we have lost.

The reality is, of course, is that Johnny Speight – an ardent socialist – created Alf to ridicule him. Perhaps, too, Mitchell had the same goals, because from his Oxford days onwards –a contemporary who persuaded him to become an actor was Richard Burton – he identified with left-wing activism.

Without doubt, the BBC only allowed the show to be developed for the same reason. This was the era of director general Hugh Carleton Greene (1960-9) who first took the Corporation firmly into the liberal-left territory that now so dominates public service broadcasting generally and particularly the BBC.

An irony is that Mary Whitehouse hated the show because of Alf’s perennial foul mouth. In retrospect, it’s possible to see that Carleton Greene probably defended Alf precisely for that reason – this was, despite Alf’s so-called reactionary views, a Trojan horse way of battering down lines of taste and decency.

The comedy shows that now populate the BBC Store in fact make Alf sound tame in the swearing stakes.

Another point relates to Charles Curran, Greene’s successor as BBC director-general, who alarmed at the show’s continued popularity, commissioned research about the audience’s reactions. No doubt, in true BBC fashion, he wanted to show that Alf was challenging and changing people’s conservative views rather than encouraging them.

He was in for a rude shock. ‘Significant numbers’ agreed with Alf.  The archives were released a couple of years back, and this is what the Daily Mail reported:

‘At a meeting on July 18, 1973, BBC director-general Sir Charles Curran said the report had diminished his confidence that it was possible to make ‘anti-prejudicial comedy’. The survey involved more than 700 people – regular and occasional viewers, and people who had never seen the show.

‘They were asked to consider some of Alf’s pronouncements, including ‘Women’s lib is a load of rubbish’; ‘Bloody foreigners come over here and sponge off us’ and ‘If we want a proper democracy here we’ve got to start shooting a lot of people’.

‘The report concluded that the survey supported the idea ‘that the series may have reinforced existing illiberal and anti-trade union attitudes’.’

In other words, the BBC high command justified the programme only because it was ‘anti-prejudicial’. In the Corporation’s world, then – as now – their mission to ‘educate’ (as well as to inform and entertain) was interpreted to mean that their comedy was acceptable only if it rammed down people’s throats liberal views.

Of course Alf Garnett was brimful of prejudices. Johnny Speight made him as vile as he could when he expressed them. But even a full-blooded socialist like Speight could not disguise that the so-called prejudices of the working class were also based on common concerns about integration and threats to services and jobs, and fears that old values were being destroyed by shallow, vapid liberalism.

The biggest tragedy is that Alf was so successful and so popular that now, when the working class is portrayed at all on the BBC, they are one-dimensionally useless. You can say what you like about Alf, but – overt racism apart – he had passion, he loved his country and he was not afraid of saying so. Who from the East End speaks like that now?

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David Keighley
David Keighley
Former BBC news producer, BBC PR executive and head of corporate relations for TV-am. Director of News-watch.

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