Book review: A Family At War

The Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to Till Death Us Do Part

In a BBC poll to find Britain’s best-ever sitcom a few years back, Till Death Do Us Part came in at an inglorious No 32. Alf Garnett’s racist outbursts don’t chime with modern sensibilities and, robbed of the endless repeat cycles that turn defunct shows into comedy classics, the programme is fading from the national memory.

It’s hard today to appreciate just how important a s how it was – a ratings behemoth that threatened to topple Coronation Street, with catchphrases like ‘you silly moo’ and ‘randy Scouse git’ resonating in a way even Catherine Tate would be envious of.

Not only was it popular, it was culturally significant, too – with its bad language, disrespect for the Establishment and realistically bitter family squabbling, the show was at the vanguard of the Sixties’ fight between liberal permissiveness and the old older. While Oxbridge satires like That Was The Week That Was began criticising the status quo from within, Till Death came from without, as writer Johnny Speight was a staunch working-class socialist from London’s East End.

Clean-up TV campaigner Mary Whitehouse, who waged a long campaign against the Garnetts, called it ‘quite the worst programme I have seen during family viewing time’ – a quote which graces the cover of Mark Ward’s exhaustive new guide to the contentious comedy. Whitehouse also called it ‘dirty, blasphemous and full of bad language’, and over its ten-year lifespan, the programme notched up 1,436 ‘bloodies’, eight ‘bastards’, six ‘bitches’ and one ‘tit’. Ward, thorough that he is, seems to document every single one.

We don’t get vexed by ‘bloody’ any more, but plenty of the language is even more taboo. When was the last time you heard ‘coon’ in primetime? But in his otherwise comprehensive episode-by-episode chronicle of the swearing, even superfan Ward omits the racist.

Speight, of course, set Garnett up to be pilloried. Warren Mitchell’s character represented the old guard. He saw people like that as deferent, reactionary bigots stuck in their Little England ways. But as Al Murray discovered 30 yeas later, satirical caricatures can easily become unintended heroes of those who share their petty, parodied views. And behind all the bluster, Garnett had sympathetic traits: he was a man without power, trapped in a acrimoniously loveless marriage, as every value he held dear was being washed out on a tide of permissiveness.

The contrast to this was Tony Booth, stepfather-in-law to future Prime Minister Blair, as Garnett’s layabout son-in-law. He was a rampant, wayward left-winger, on screen as in life, who had a fractious relationship with the show’s star.

Ward describes Booth’s party-loving, freewheeling lifestyle in contrast to Mitchell’s austere, Method approach to the job and the inevitable personality clashes that ensued – the personal friction mirroring the friction being played out on screen, in turn mirroring the frictions in society.

Also recalled in painstaking detail is the genesis of the show from Speight’s playwriting background; the battles the BBC had with Whitehouse – and indeed within itself – over the content; the shambolic recordings caused by Speight’s perennial inability to deliver a script on time, or making any sort of sense.

Detail, indeed, is something Ward does very well. There is more information here than even the most meticulous TV historian could ever possibly want. In the first half of this densel typeset tome, Ward tells the definitive story of the programme, right down to the exact fee Speight was given for each script. But he also excels at putting a show that half the nation watched in its proper context.

But it’s in part two, the episode guide, when he really dons his anorak, cataloguing every scrap of information that seems to be available. Did you know that 87 per cent of the audience for series 4 episode three rated the sets and costumes ‘excellent’, that the Garnetts’ phone number was Stepney Green 1098, or that rehearsals for series one, episode 4, took place at St Nicholas Parish Hall in Bennett Street, Chiswick?

Whether anyone wants such itemised detail over Britain’s 32nd-most popular sitcom may be a moot point, but for the early episodes, particularly, this information is all that’s left, thanks to the BBC’s criminally short-sighted policy of wiping costly videotape in the Seventies.

We might not be able to watch Till Death Do Us Part any more, but this book is a useful aide memoire of a prime-time comedy that truly caught the mood of a nation in tumultuous transition.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

A Family At War: The Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to Till Death Us Do Part by Mark Ward is published by Telos Publishing, priced £12.99. Amazon link.

Published: 8 Oct 2008

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