I remember watching, “Til Death Do Us Part” as a child. Although I was politically aware from a young age, I don’t think it was the politics that I watched it for. I think it was the domestic situation. But in this production, “the Silly Old Moo” is dead. She died many years ago it seems. And there’s no reference to his daughter and son in law. So this time around Alf is living by himself; living with memories. A sad, lonely character and one that you are inclined to pity rather than revile for his reaction, often racist opinions.
When I mentioned to a few people at work that I was going to see the show there were three reactions. One was “why would you see that stupid old blooke”, another was “who?” and finally, amongst the older staff, a reaction of “oh how terrific, but is he still alive”. I, on the other hand, was pretty excited, having seen him perform at The Ensemble Theatre a couple of years ago in a play with Max Gillies I’ve forgotten now, but which included a second-half question and answer session in which Mitchell talked about his life and career. Gosh it was funny… and biting.
And that’s what I was looking forward to most about this… the biting humour inherent in the contraditions of Alf Garnett himself. In The Australian, John McCallum observed that Alf Garnett was created in the 1960s by writer Johnny Speight for one of the best English sitcoms, Till Death Us Do Part. He always operated in the danger zone between comedy and offensiveness. And he always had a sad quality, of a man complicit in his own oppression – a working-class reactionary angrily defensive of the British class system that keeps him in poverty.
Thirty years on, I thought the sadness of Alf Garnett was greater, but the affection I felt for the character was greater. I guess it has to do with my own maturity. Alf Garnett is like that uncle that everyone seems to have who makes racist and sexist comments and who you challenged when you were young but now, in midlife yourself, you no longer bother. It’s not because your opinions have changed, it’s because you understand more about why they are like they are. Life’s great lessons may, as I’ve discussed recently with a friend, be acceptance and patience. Or perhaps I’m becoming complacent?
The second half of the night was a series of anecdotes and jokes about his work and life. Regrettably, and unlike last time, the audience had little to say. Even my friend, Colin, who is never short on these occasions, failed to respond to the invitation to talk with Warren Mitchell, when I thought he might. Colin told me straight afterwards he degretted the lost opportunity.
It was during the second half that I realised that Mitchell was now an old man. Unlike when I saw him two or three years earlier, he sometimes struggled to move around the show, which he explained was due to a stroke in the second half of last year.
Despite the physical impact of the stroke, his mental reactions are still very sharp. I’m really glad I went to this performance… it was great fun… and it was terrific to see such an amazingly talented performer.