Till Death Us Do Part is a British sitcom that aired on BBC1 from 1965 to 1975. First airing as a Comedy Playhouse pilot, the series aired for seven series until 1975. Six years later, ITV continued the sitcom, calling it Till Death.... From 1985 to 1992, the BBC produced a sequel In Sickness and in Health.
Created by Johnny Speight, Till Death Us Do Part centred on the East End Garnett family, led by Alf Garnett (Warren Mitchell), a white working-class man who holds racist and anti-Socialist views. His long-suffering wife Else was played by Dandy Nichols, and his daughter Rita by Una Stubbs. Rita's layabout husband Mike Rawlins (Antony Booth) is a socialist. The character Alf Garnett became a well known character in British culture, and Mitchell played him on stage and television up until 1998, when Speight died.
In addition to the spin-off In Sickness and in Health, Till Death Us Do Part was re-made in many countries, from the United States, to Brazil, Germany, and Hong Kong, with the most notable remake being the long-running 1970's American series All in the Family. Many episodes from the first series are thought to no longer exist, having been wiped as was the policy at the time.
The series became an instant hit because, although a comedy, in the context of its time it did deal with aspects of working-class life comparatively realistically. It addressed racial and political issues at a difficult time in British society. The attitude of those who made the programme was that Alf's views were so clearly unacceptable that they were risible, but some considered the series uncomfortable and disturbing. Some were oblivious to the fact that Johnny Speight was satirising racist attitudes. Ironically, some racists and reactionaries enjoyed the show - and missed the point that Alf's opinions were offensive. Ultimately, the fact that Mitchell imbued the character of Alf Garnett with an earthy charm despite his opinions served to humanise Alf and make him likeable. According to interviews he gave, the fact that some viewers overlooked Alf's views and regarded him as rough diamond, disappointed Speight.
The show captured a key aspect of Britain in the 1960s - the widening generation gap. Alf (and to a lesser degree his wife) represented the old guard, the traditional attitudes of the older generation. Alf's battles with his left-wing son-in-law were not just ideological but generational and cultural. His son-in-law and daughter (a dutiful supporter of her husband rather than an active protagonist) represented the younger generation. They saw the positive aspects of the new era. Relaxed sexual mores, fashions, music etc. The same things were anathema to Alf - and indicative of everything that was wrong with the younger generation and the liberal attitudes they embraced.
Alf was the archetypal working-class Conservative. The subjects that excited him most were football and politics. He used language not considered acceptable for television in the 1960s. He often referred to racial minorities as "coons" and similar terms. He referred to his Liverpudlian son-in-law as a "randy Scouse git" (Randy Scouse Git as a phrase caught the ear of Micky Dolenz of The Monkees who heard it while on tour in the UK - and who co-opted it as the title of the group's next single - though their record label re-named it "Alternate Title" in the UK market to avoid controversy) and to his wife as a "silly moo" (a substitute for "cow" which was vetoed by the BBC's head of comedy Frank Muir). Controversially, the show was one of the earliest mainstream programmes to feature the swear word "bloody". The show was one of several held up by Mary Whitehouse as an example of the BBC's moral laxity.
In a demonstration of Speight's satirical skills - on learning that Mary Whitehouse was a critic of the show - Speight created an episode where Alf Garnett was seen as a fan of Whitehouse. He was seen proudly reading her current book. "What are you reading?" his son-in-law asks. When he relates that it's Mary Whitehouse - his son-in-law sniggers. Alf's rejoinder is "She's concerned for the bleedin' moral fibre of the nation!"
Ultimately "silly moo" became a comic catch phrase. Another phrase was "it stands to reason", usually before making some patently unreasonable comment. Alf was an admirer of Enoch Powell, a right-wing Conservative politician known for strong opposition to the immigration of non-white races into the United Kingdom. Alf was also a supporter of West Ham United (a football club based in the East End) and known to make derogatory remarks about "the Jews up at Spurs" (referring to Tottenham Hotspur, a North London club with a Jewish following). This was a playful touch by Speight knowing that in real life Mitchell was both Jewish and a Spurs supporter. In interviews, Speight explained he had originally based Alf on his father, an East End docker who was staunchly reactionary and held "unenlightened" attitudes toward black people. Speight made clear that he regretted his father held such attitudes - beliefs Speight regarded as reprehensible. Speight saw the show as a way of ridiculing such views and dealing with his complex feelings about his father.
Toward the end of the series Dandy Nichols fell ill and was unable to attend the live-audience recordings. The problem was solved by having her pre-record her lines which were then edited into the show. Eventually even this was too much and so in a later episode Else was seen leaving for Australia, to Alf's dismay. Afterwards Alfie Bass and Patricia Hayes joined the cast, playing Bert and Min Reed, the Garnetts new neighbours. But ratings fell, and in 1975 Speight decided to cease production.
As with most BBC sitcoms Till Death Us Do Part was recorded before a live studio audience. The programs were recorded onto 2 inch Quadruplex videotape. From 1966 to 1968 the show was both taped and transmitted in black and white. When the show returned in 1972 it was recorded the same way only in colour.
In 1985 Alf Garnett returned to the BBC for In Sickness and in Health. This took Alf and Else (who was now in a wheelchair) onward into old age, and some of Alf's more extreme opinions were found to have mellowed. Una Stubbs made some guest appearances but Anthony Booth apparently wasn't interested in reprising his role. Eventually Mike and Rita divorced and Rita began dating a doctor. After the first series Dandy Nichols died, and so subsequent episodes showed Alf having to deal with the greatest loss of his life - Else's pension. Inevitably the loss of Else and Rita as regulars in the cast meant that new characters had to be brought in as antagonists for Alf. These notably included his home help, Winston (played by Eamonn Walker), who was both black and gay, and Alf's prim upstairs neighbour, Mrs Hollingberry (played by Carmel McSharry), who eventually agreed to marry Alf. With such characters helping update the basic concept, the "Sickness and Health" series ran until 1992.
Warren Mitchell has also appeared solo on stage and TV as Alf Garnett, dispensing variations on Alf's homespun reactionary philosophy and singing old music hall songs. One show was called It Stands To Reason - The Thoughts Of Chairman Alf; one reviewer concluded that "Speight and Mitchell are to be congratulated for understanding so well the mind of a man who they hate".