Saturday, 27 August 2011

Alf Garnet was a Socialist

Well Goodness My Guinness’ - as that old saying goes; it was way back in May when I started to write about Socialism and Comedy, a series that I had in mind to roll-out over the course of a few weeks. I find that it is only now that I discover that I have the time (make the time) to write my second offering. Indeed it has been a very actioned pact few months here in the UK, and need I say anymore comrades.

“There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain comedy and tragedy, humour and hurt.”

I love that quote from Erma Bombeck; I know what you are thinking, who is Erma Bombeck? Well she was an American humorist whose newspaper column 'At Wits End' grew to such popularity that it became an institution, born Ermu Fiste (February 1927 - 1996).

Erma’s quot fits nicely with the character that I am about to unveil, a legend if nothing else in his own mind. And for me resident in Canning Town a very local connection in more ways than one as you will discover. 

Now Alf Garnet, a characterisation, a very vivid and verbal description of a 'bigot and racist' captured by his creator Johnny Speight (1920 -1998), and bought to life by the actor Warren Mitchell.  So where do I begin to explain what this man was all about, and what was the connection to Socialism and Comedy?" Well I suppose at the beginning, and where I first came across him which I think it was in the 1960s as a young boy glued whenever our parents permitted it to an old black and white, and always second-hand television set, they were lovely them old TV sets, you use to turn then on and sometimes they would take a while to warm up, look around the back of the set and you would see the valves the complex body parts light up  like a Christmas tree, and they were like a work of art fit to grace any grand stately home, but we had one in our house and that’s all that mattered, they say that today the average child sits is in front of a TV for more than six hours a day, don’t think our parents would have allow this back then.

Anyhow lets get back to comrade Alf or chairman I think he was once called, ‘the thoughts of chairman Alf’. And didn't he have some thoughts; it was his very mental demeanour, that intrigued me even as a child. I was fascinated by this foul-mouthed cockney working class oracle of an authoritative person who knows it all including the past and the future.  

I don’t know why it is but every-time I think of Alf Garnet the Tory Enoch Powell swells around in my head, but then again Alf as I recall was a big fan of Enoch the leader the Tories never got, shame really, for had we had him, would we have got Thatcher I do wonder, and then what damage would he have done?

From Wikipedia:  “Alf was born in Wapping around 1919. He was always unpopular as a lad and it was said he only met his wife Else, whom he had known since they were children, after Alf's mother asked Else to go out with him. A courtship followed for two years during the first part of World War Two and the pair married in 1941 (the film Till Death Us Do Part from 1968 showed the couple marry in 1939 but the actual series always stated them to have been married in 1941). Alf and Else had a daughter Rita by 1942 and raised her in the slums of Wapping where Alf worked on the docks and Else stayed home and tended to the house.

Rita married her long haired layabout socialist boyfriend Mike in 1966 shortly after the general election of 31 March and they moved into the Wapping house. Alf was horrified by this and he and Mike rarely got along. Alf was still proud when the couple had a son together in September 1972. Else eventually left Alf in 1974 and moved to Australia to live with her sister Maud whom Alf hated. She later wired Alf in 1975 on his birthday asking him for a divorce and the same day Alf lost his job.”

Johnny Speight the creator of Alf Garnet was born here in my manor of Canning Town; when I walk around this area I often wonder, what was it  like for his generation growing up in the Canning Town of the 1920s come 1930s. How did his experience of a childhood shape his life, did he meet Alf Garnet in London's East End, and was Alf really someone who actually existed, was he a one off or was there more than one, was he a commonalty to be found in and amongst the very poor lumpenproletariat of East London?”

These and many more questions have sifted around in my head, like moving sand dunes over many years, and particularly as now I am a proud East Ender of many years standing. There is not a great deal of information around about Johnny Speight and his own thinking and why Alf was bought to life by his very talented pen, or anything that indeed can shed light on his most famous creation and character, but what we do know is that Johnny expanded the boundaries of what was possible in British television comedy. Subjects that had been considered sacrosanct up until then were taken on by Johnny, such as the class system, politics and that beheading offence of questioning the existence of  royalty, often or not in colourful language.

My own theory is that Johnny Speight was in fact the son-in-law of Alf Garnet, the long-haired, unemployed, 'socialist boyfriend' to Alf’s daughter, and of course played by Antony Booth, and we all know who’s dad he is.

Moving swiftly because of post length, let us now focus on that great actor who will forevermore be typecast and associated with his great convincing character performance. Warren Mitchel who is of Russian Jewish descent has made Alf' his very own; but I must add that he has a long and very distinguished career on stage, television and film. So it maybe somewhat unfair of me to say that he was and is typecast as Alf, for his acting accompaniments and accomplishments are indeed considerable, but he is best known to most of us as the actor who played Alf Garnet. 

Warren Mitchel is as you may have already guessed, the complete opposite to Alf Garnet, and in what we call real life. He is nothing like the bigoted cockney that he portrays so well and I am so sorry to tell my right-wing leaning friends who have been waiting for this post, but it is very true comrades.

Mitchel made it on his own as an actor through some very lean years; after training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, he married, had a family, and watched as his wife who also is an actress got steadier work than he did for many years while he raised the family. Them he got the role that turned him into a star when he won the lead in the television series Till Death Us Do Part. He played brilliantly that belligerent, bigoted, working-class, right-wing zealot Alf Garnett, head of a family that included his long-suffering wife, slightly bubble-headed daughter, and dedicated socialist son-in-law the rest is history.

One other very important attribute about Warren Mitchel and that is, he is a life long left-wing socialist, and whilst at acting school, at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and at weekends he used to sell a socialist newspaper with his comrades, in and on the streets of London, one problem that he had was that the other comrades would all sell more papers than him, he said this was because he lost his working class accent, you know that relative prominence of a syllable and musical note that denotes a working class dialect; due in part to acting school ironing it out of him, so he developed on the streets whilst paper selling his socialist paper the very familiar East End accent of Alf Garnet, which he said meant, instead of people blanking him on the street as they walk past, he was able to sell more papers than his other comrades from there on-in.

Well there is so much more that I would like to write about on this post, so much I have to leave out because of length, but maybe I will do that for myself some other time. The point of this post is to demonstrate how socialist actors and writers can and have used their considerable talents, to dismantle and destroy the right-wing dogmatists, stubborn, arbitrary and arrogant opinions that once had a fluency amongst working people, and much thanks is due to the late Johnny Speight and the great Warren Mitchel for their outstanding commitment and contribution. However there is still much to do and we can all play our part on taking on and winning against the bigots and racists that still walk the earth.  

Alf aways use to think he knew what Christmas is really about - Jesus. Although his views that Jesus was English and Joseph was just "the lodger" aren't the sort of opinions you hear around the sprouts nowadays - amen to that!”

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