Till Death Us Do Part
Till Death Us Do Part is a British television sitcom that aired on BBC1 from 1965 to 1975. The show was first broadcast as a Comedy Playhouse pilot, then in seven series until 1975. Six years later in 1981, ITV continued the sitcom for six episodes, calling it Till Death.... The BBC produced a sequel from 1985 until 1992, In Sickness and in Health.
|Till Death Us Do Part|
Original opening titles
|Created by||Johnny Speight|
|Country of origin||United Kingdom|
|No. of series||7|
|No. of episodes||54 (23 missing) + 3 shorts (list of episodes)|
Created by Johnny Speight, Till Death Us Do Part centred on the East End Garnett family, led by patriarch Alf Garnett (Warren Mitchell), a reactionary white working-class man who holds racist, prejudiced and anti-socialist views. His long-suffering wife Else was played by Dandy Nichols, and his daughter Rita by Una Stubbs. Rita's husband Mike Rawlins (Anthony Booth) is a socialist layabout from Liverpool who frequently locks horns with Garnett. Alf Garnett became a well-known character in British culture, and Mitchell played him on stage and television until Speight's death in 1998.
In addition to the spin-off In Sickness and in Health, Till Death Us Do Part was remade in several countries including Brazil (A Grande Família), Germany (Ein Herz und eine Seele), and the Netherlands (In voor- en tegenspoed), and it is the show that inspired All in the Family in the United States.
Many episodes from the first three series are thought to no longer exist, having been wiped in the late 1960s and early 1970s as was the policy at the time.
Although Speight said he wrote the series to challenge racism, it was felt by some critics that many people watched it because they agreed with Alf Garnett's views. The linguist Alan Crosby has argued that the constant use of the phrase "Scouse git" with reference to Anthony Booth's character spread both the word "Scouse" and negative stereotypes of Liverpudlians.
The title is a reference to the Marriage Liturgy from the Book of Common Prayer.
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. Mitchell imbued the character of Alf Garnett with an earthy charm that served to humanise Alf and make him likable. According to interviews he gave, the fact that some viewers overlooked Alf's racist views and regarded him as a rough diamond disappointed Speight.
The show captured a key feature of Britain in the 1960s—the public perception that the generation gap was widening. Alf (and to a lesser degree his wife) represented the old guard, the traditional and conservative 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 represented the younger generation. They supported the aspects of the new era such as 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 portrayed as the archetypal working-class Conservative. The subjects that excited him most were football and politics, though his actual knowledge of either was limited. 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 "Shirley Temple" or 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 used it as the title of the group's next single—though their record label renamed it 'Alternate Title' in the UK market to avoid controversy), and to his wife as a "silly [old] moo" (a substitute for 'cow' which was vetoed by the BBC's head of comedy Frank Muir). However, Michael Palin writes in his diary for 16 July 1976 that Warren Mitchell told him that "silly moo" was not scripted, "It came out during a rehearsal when he forgot the line "Silly old mare"." Controversially, the show was one of the earliest mainstream programmes to feature the swear word 'bloody'. The show was one of many held up by Mary Whitehouse as an example of the BBC's moral laxity.
In a demonstration of Speight's satirical skills—after a successful libel action brought against Speight by Mary Whitehouse—he created an episode, first broadcast on 27 February 1967, in which Alf Garnett is depicted as an admirer of Whitehouse. Garnett was seen proudly reading her first book. "What are you reading?" his son-in-law asks. When he relates that it is Mary Whitehouse, his son-in-law sniggers. Alf's rejoinder is "She's concerned for the bleedin' moral fibre of the nation!" The episode ends with the book being burnt.
Ultimately "silly moo" became a comic catchphrase. Another Garnett 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 particularly 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 sizeable 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 that his father held such attitudes, which Speight regarded as reprehensible. Speight saw the show as a way of ridiculing such views and dealing with his complex feelings about his father.
However, it was later claimed in the book about the series, "A Family At War" by Mark Ward, that the only similarities between Alf and Johnny Speight's father was that his father was a hard-working East End working-class docker and manual labourer who voted Conservative and revered traditional British values who was very polite to any and everyone he met no matter their background. It is claimed that Johnny picked up the idea for Alf's bigoted personality from railway station porters he had worked with in temporary jobs working for British Rail in the London area. The political views of both Alf and Mike were reflective of Johnny's own perception of people both on the left and the right, with the ignorance and bigotry of those on the right represented by Alf and the idealism of many sections of the left represented by Mike. Johnny Speight's own political views were that he was a left-winger, with frustrations about the class system and capitalism in general, but to his mind the political parties on the left were "ludicrous" and "out of touch with reality". This opinion was strengthened by his brief membership of the UK Communist Party. It is likely that the character of Mike was based on the people he came into contact with at left-wing, Labour Party rallies and on those he met during his brief membership of the Communist Party.
Johnny Speight gained a reputation for late delivery of scripts, sometimes unfinished and still in the form of rough notes (which would be finished and finalised as a script by the script editor and cast during rehearsals), either close to, on, or occasionally past the deadline. This was claimed by Speight to ensure maximum topicality for the series, although this was disputed by the programme's first producer, Dennis Main Wilson, who stated that Johnny Speight was frequently found late at night in a regular selection of West End bars, and that on more than one occasion the writer had to be physically dragged out of such establishments by Wilson and driven home to get the scripts typed up and finished.
This was the reason for the second series being 10 episodes long rather than the commissioned 13. As three scripts that were scheduled to be recorded and broadcast towards the end of that series were not ready and actors, crew and Johnny Speight had already been paid in advance for 13 episodes, it was decided that an Easter Monday Bank Holiday special - Till Closing Time Us Do Part - would be made and that this would mostly be made up of the cast and crew ad-libbing within the broad confines of a plot. For accounting reasons, this would be considered an 11th episode of the second series. At double the usual length, it also made up for screen time of a 12th episode. The addition of this episode meant that only one weeks' worth of pay was wasted, rather than three. Normally, a sitcom would have plenty of time (ranging from several weeks to several months) between recording and transmission to iron out any such script delivery problems. However, to ensure maximum topicality, most episodes of the second series of Till Death Us Do Part were recorded less than 7 days before their intended transmission date, and as all studios would be booked on other nights for other - sometimes more important - productions, this meant that the recording of Till Death Us Do Part episodes could not be moved to another night or another studio should the script not be ready in time for rehearsals or recording. Should this happen (which it did towards the end of the second series), this would mean no episode ready for transmission that week and - because of the less-than-7-days gap between recording and transmission, no ready-made stockpile of new, untransmitted episodes to replace them. Other programmes had to be used to fill in the schedule in the last three planned weeks of the second series' 13-episode run. It is because of these problems of topicality delaying (sometimes cancelling) scripts that the third series is noticeably less topical than the second and had some weeks between recording and transmission to act as a "cushion" to ensure continuity of the series should one or more episodes fall through.
The late delivery of scripts had been a problem that had first reared its head during production of the first series. The second series got off to a good start in this respect with the first four scripts being delivered ahead of the deadline, but it became clear as that series wore on that Speight was having these problems again. Amongst a myriad of other problems (detailed below), the final straw for the original run appears to have been a script in the final (third) series of eight episodes not being delivered in time for rehearsals to begin and thus losing one episode. This confirmed to the BBC their suspicions that Speight was not an ideal writer to be writing for a topical sitcom like this.
To combat these problems, it was suggested by the production team that there be "windows" or "spaces" within the script that could easily be excised and replaced with more topical jokes (a frequent tactic used in other topical sitcoms like Yorkshire Television's The New Statesman 20 years later), a suggestion that was initially refused by Speight in the 1960s run of the series but which was taken up during the 1970s run. This came to be particularly useful to ensure maximum topicality during the 1974 series, some episodes of which reflected and satirised the UK Miner's Strike and the Three Day Week. However, Speight's initial refusal to accept these suggestions, combined with his constant demands of pay increases (eventually becoming the highest paid comedy writer and then - after another increase - the highest-paid TV writer, during a time of strict public-sector pay restraints imposed by the Labour Government of Harold Wilson, which was a source of particular embarrassment to the BBC) and the increasing clashes he and the BBC were having with Mary Whitehouse came to a head. Over time, Mary Whitehouse and the NVLA had several court cases with the BBC directly or indirectly related to the series, some of which Mrs Whitehouse or the NVLA won. During the first two series, the programme was originally broadcast on weeknights in a 7:30pm timeslot - far ahead of the post-9pm watershed and both Mrs Whitehouse and Johnny Speight campaigned for such a change in scheduling - the only aspect of the programme that Whitehouse and Speight agreed upon. The reluctance of the BBC to reschedule the series at first can possibly be explained in the fact that the watershed was a relatively new phenomenon at the time and there was no consensus between the BBC and the ITA over what should and shouldn't constitute family-friendly broadcasting, nor when this "watershed" should start, the responsibility over what constituted family-friendly viewing being primarily placed with the parents.
Public outcry over the episode "The Blood Donor" as being a particularly distasteful episode and a new Chairman of the BBC Board of Governors - Lord Hill (who had been appointed as Lord Normanbrook's successor when Normanbrook died suddenly in June 1967) - taking a rather different, more conservative approach to the running of the BBC than the liberal and laid-back attitude of his predecessor were two other factors that turned up the heat of criticism against the series. Lord Hill had previously been the chairman of the Independent Television Authority and ensured that that station (ITV) remained relatively controversy-free. He shared many of the same opinions as Mrs Whitehouse and the wider NVLA, which also clashed with the opinions of the then BBC Director General, Hugh Carleton-Greene (he is quoted as having the "utmost contempt" for Hill), who had been the series' biggest champion and gleefully ignored Mrs Whitehouse whenever he had to. Many other members of BBC Management also voiced their opinions directly to Hill over his appointment, most notably the then Controller of BBC-2, David Attenborough, who compared Hill being Chairman of the BBC Board of Governors to "giving Rommel the command of the Eighth Army". It should be added that neither Hill, nor his predecessor, Normanbrook, had any direct influence over the series itself (as the BBC Charter prohibits this), but their relationship with the Director-General indirectly influenced the programme. Because of his total personality and culture clash with Hill, Greene resigned in July 1968 (soon after the series ended its original run) and, with the series' biggest champion now out of the BBC, it looked like the Garnett family would be making no more new appearances on BBC Television, at least for the time being. Another champion of the series - Head of Comedy output at the BBC, Frank Muir had resigned his post between the second and third series to take up a new, similar, post at David Frost's fledgling new ITV franchise London Weekend Television, which would launch on August 2, 1968. His replacement - Michael Mills - recognised that the series had enormous potential but didn't understand why it had to be so topical, controversial or full of swearing and blasphemy, which hugely irritated Speight.
The final straw for the BBC at this time came when a script for the third series - which was intended to be made up of 8 episodes - was so late that it missed the scheduled beginning of rehearsals. This episode was intended to be between the transmitted episodes 4 and 5, putting a break in the recording dates and leading to one week's less space between recording and transmission of episodes.
Given the problems the series had given the BBC with steep pay increases in them midst of a Government-imposed public sector pay freeze, scripts being delivered in varying degrees of completeness (and sometimes not at all), several court cases (usually libel or blasphemy), hundreds of complaints, several run-ins with Mary Whitehouse and her NVLA, the loss of the series' two biggest champions (first Frank Muir then Hugh Carleton-Greene), the new management having different opinions over the programme and the general stress its production placed on staff (primarily down to the incomplete scripts submitted by Speight), all despite its ratings success over ITV (particularly over Coronation Street) in its first two series and its general popularity as a whole, contributed to the BBC getting cold feet over the programme. A planned fourth series, scheduled for autumn 1968, was scrapped.
The programme was revived in 1972, during a time when the BBC were reviving some of their more successful sitcoms from the 1960s for colour production (Steptoe and Son being an example). A contributory factor to this decision may have been that, since the ITV franchise changes of the summer of 1968, ITV had paid a lot more attention to making sitcoms, particularly those featuring, and appealing to, the working class, which had previously been the preserve of the BBC during the 1960s. This can be attributed to as a direct effect of the popularity of Till Death Us Do Part, The Likely Lads and Steptoe and Son, which were the first sitcoms to truly depict the realities of working class life in Britain, and were not set in typical "middle-class sitcom suburbia". In amongst these programmes, Till Death Us Do Part would not look as out of place as it did in the late 1960s, particularly now as the show would be less topical (bar some 1974 episodes) but no less political or controversial as it had originally been. this was of great help to Speight, as it now meant that he didn't have to wait until the very last minute to submit completed or half-completed scripts.
However, this was also the series' downfall, as viewers noted the increasingly less-topical plots and the satire was much less vicious than it had been in the 1960s, with the style of the series in both 1975 series bearing little semblance to those transmitted in the late 1960s. Speight has put this down not only to reducing the pressures of working on a topical sitcom but also to his own personal declining interest in politics - which may be an explanation of why in Sickness and In Health was much less political and wasn't as vicious as its predecessor could be.
Additionally, towards the end of the series Dandy Nichols fell ill and was unable to attend the live-audience recordings. So in a later episode Else was seen leaving for Australia, to Alf's dismay. Her scenes were recorded separately from the rest of the episodes. The plan was for Nichols to tape scenes from time to time set in Australia where she would phone Alf or Rita in 1–2 minute segments. But only one episode featured such a scene and the idea was dropped as Nichols' health was poor.
Patricia Hayes, who had been seen from time to time previously as next-door neighbour Min, became a starring character along with her husband Bert, previously played by Bill Maynard and now by Alfie Bass. The show's rating began to suffer and when it was clear Nichols was not returning as hoped by the writers, in 1975, the series was dropped. The final episode saw Alf lose his job and receive a telegram from Else asking for a divorce.
As with most BBC sitcoms Till Death Us Do Part was recorded before a live studio audience. The programmes were recorded onto 2-inch Quadruplex videotape. From 1966 to 1968 the show was transmitted in black and white. When the series returned in 1972, it was transmitted in colour. The opening titles/end credits of the first colour episodes originally used the b/w sequence from the '60s tinted in red, as seen on UKTV Gold repeats in 2006.
The house seen in the opening and closing titles to the 1960s episodes was located on Garnet Street in Wapping (from where writer Johnny Speight took the Garnett family name). This terrace was demolished in June 1968 for road widening (which is why the street used in the 1969 film and the opening titles to the colour episodes do not match with the houses used in the original opening sequence). Subsequent to this, in the 1980s, a terrace of newer multicoloured homes and an estate agents took the places of the terraced estate. They are located on Garnet Street in close proximity to the local Wallace James shop, St Peter's Primary School, Gastronomica bar, Docklands General Store and Crane Wharf.
Missing black and white episodes
Most of the show's 26 episodes from series 1–3 that were videotaped in black and white and broadcast 1965–68 no longer exist; they were wiped by the BBC during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Currently, most material from twelve episodes still survives, with one episode on the original tape and the rest on film or domestic formats. The surviving 1960s B&W episodes are: "Arguments, Arguments"; "A House With Love In It"; "Intolerance"; "Peace & Goodwill"; "In Sickness and In Health"; "State Visit"; "Alf's Dilemma"; "Till Closing Time Do Us Part"; "The Phone"; "The Blood Donor"; and "Aunt Maud". Sequences exist from: the pilot episode; "Sex Before Marriage"; "The Bulldog Breed"; "A Wapping Mythology (The Workers' King)"; and "The Puppy".
The public appeal campaign the BBC Archive Treasure Hunt continues to search for lost episodes. In 1997 the long-lost episode "Alf's Dilemma" was found in a private collection on a 21-minute 16mm telerecording. This is the episode featuring Garnett reading Mary Whitehouse's first book. The episode was rebroadcast in 1998 on UK Gold. In August 2009, two more black and white episodes, "In Sickness and in Health" and "State Visit", were returned by a film collector. Seven years later in August 2016, the episode "Intolerance" was recovered.
Following its recovery to official archives, it was screened at the BFI's annual "Missing Believed Wiped" event on Saturday 16 December at their Southbank venue. Network's late 2016 complete DVD box set contains off-air audio recordings of what was then every missing episode. In autumn 2017 a copy of "Sex Before Marriage" was recovered.
In 1980, the ITV company ATV picked up the series and produced a solo show starring Alf—titled The Thoughts of Chairman Alf at Christmas—transmitted on 26 December. The master copy has been wiped; however, a home video recording is currently available to view at the National Media Museum in Bradford.
In 1981, ATV made six episodes under the title Till Death.... The series had Alf and Else sharing a bungalow with Min (Patricia Hayes) in Eastbourne following the death of her husband Bert (Alfie Bass). Although Rita remained in the cast, Anthony Booth declined to return. Rita's son Michael was now a teenager and a punk rocker (even though he was born in 1972 and therefore should only have been about nine or ten). The series was not a success and when Central Television were awarded the contract for the Midlands region from 1982, it was decided that Till Death... was not to return.
Alf Garnett returned to the BBC in 1985 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 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 subsequent episodes showed Alf having to deal with life as a widower.
The loss of Else (and later, 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. Hollingbery (played by Carmel McSharry), who eventually agreed to marry Alf.
In 1988, Speight was warned about the use of racist language – and after discussion it was decided that Alf's racist language was to be discontinued and the character of Winston was to be written out. With such improvements helping update the basic concept, In Sickness and in Health ran until 1992.
Warren Mitchell also appeared solo on stage and TV as Alf Garnett, dispensing variations on Alf's homespun reactionary philosophy and singing old music hall songs, most notably in the London Weekend Television show An Audience With Alf Garnett.
After Johnny Speight's death in July 1998, Warren Mitchell decided to retire the character of Alf Garnett.
- Warren Mitchell – Alfred 'Alf' Garnett
- Dandy Nichols – Elsie 'Else' Garnett
- Una Stubbs – Rita Rawlins, née Garnett
- Antony Booth – Mike Rawlins
- Joan Sims – Gran
- Patricia Hayes – Mrs. Min Reed
- Alfie Bass – Bert Reed
- Hugh Lloyd – Mr. Wally Carey
- Pat Coombs – Mrs. Carey
- Will Stampe – Fred the barman
In the Comedy Playhouse pilot, Alf's family name was 'Ramsey' but the BBC changed his name to Garnett for the subsequent series, not wishing to have a character with the same name as England's 1966 football World Cup winning manager.
Two feature films were made based on the series – the first was Till Death Us Do Part (1969), whose first half dealt with the younger Alf and Else during World War II, and whose second half dealt with all the Garnetts in the present day being moved from their East End slum to the new town of Hemel Hempstead, and the adjustments and changes that brought on the family. It gave a nuanced glimpse of British life at the time. The second film, The Alf Garnett Saga (1972), had Adrienne Posta playing the part of Rita and Paul Angelis playing Mike. It is notable for featuring Alf Garnett on an LSD trip.
In the UK, Network previously released the first two colour series (4 and 5) on DVD, but these releases are no longer printed – the licence had since expired and rights have reverted to BBC Worldwide, who release their titles through 2 Entertain. Some fans have since urged BBC DVD to release the series; however, In Sickness & In Health had seen all six series and the Christmas specials being released on DVD by 2 Entertain.
The fourth series was available in the United States and Canada, having been released before the Network edition and featuring some title sequence variations. The 1969 movie is available in both the UK and the US, but the 1972 movie is only available on DVD via bootlegs.
On 5 December 2016 Network Distributing, under licence with BBC Worldwide and 2 Entertain, released the whole colour series (4 to 7), along with every surviving episode from the black-&-white series (1 to 3) and off-air remastered audio recordings of all lost episodes, on DVD as an eight-disc boxset included with a detailed booklet which includes black-&-white and colour photographs, a "story of" and a full list of episode synopses.
Differences from All in the Family
- Where All in the Family, Else's counterpart Edith Bunker was a "dingbat", and loyal and loving wife, Else Garnett was a long-suffering woman who was bitter about her unhappy marriage and smoked heavily. She was more assertive than Edith, and she often lashed out verbally at her husband (who called her a "silly old moo"). This divergence evolved over time; in the early days of All in the Family, Edith was more like her English counterpart, but her character evolved into her better-known form over the course of the series.
- On All in the Family, Mike Stivic and Archie Bunker were always at odds and rarely got along. In Till Death Us Do Part, Alf and Mike, while never agreeing with each other, were civil to each other for the most part and often went to the pub together. Alf and Mike also attended the World Cup together and Mike was protective of his father-in-law.
- Mike Rawlins was a full-on Trotskyite in Till Death Us Do Part. For All In The Family, CBS had softened this considerably; in the American show, Mike Stivic, though sympathetic to the leftist beliefs of the Students for a Democratic Society movement, was simply a liberal Democrat.
- Where the Bunkers were living in quite comfortable (if slightly shabby) surroundings in Queens, in New York City, the Garnetts lived in a poor housing area in lower-class Wapping, in east London.
- Nussbaum, Emily (7 April 2014). "The Great Divide: Norman Lear, Archie Bunker, and the Rise of the Bad Fan". The New Yorker. Retrieved 28 July 2014.
- Wilson, Benji (1 September 2016). "Till Death Us Do Part should have remained lost – BBC Four, review". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 25 April 2017.
- Alan Crosby, The Lancashire Dictionary of Dialect, Tradition and Folklore, 2000, entry for word Scouser
- "Censoring the Past" (PDF). The Times. 22 February 2018.
- See, for example, her responses to an episode referred to as "Bird Fancier" (first transmitted on 20 September 1972), which features a discussion of the Virgin birth of Jesus, as detailed in Michael Tracey and David Morrison Whitehouse, London & Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1979, p.110-16. The episode is also known as "Pigeon Fancier", but the recording as broadcast contains no identifying caption.
- Mark Ward "A Family at War: Till Death Do Us Part", Archived 12 October 2010 at the Wayback Machine The Main Event (Kalaidoscope brochure) 1996
- Thompson Ban This Filth!: Letters From the Mary Whitehouse Archive, London: Faber, 2012, p.12
- Guide, British Comedy (30 October 2017). "Another Till Death Us Do Part episode recovered". British Comedy Guide.
- "Till Death Us Do Part". Network Distributing. 4 November 2016. Archived from the original on 16 November 2016. Retrieved 6 December 2016.
- Laughterlog – Detailed article and episode guide on Till Death Us Do Part and all other Alf Garnett spin-offs
- G. Schaffer ‘Till Death Us Do Part and the BBC: Racial Politics and the British Working Classes 1965–75’, Journal of Contemporary History, Vol 45(2), 454–477. ISSN 0022-0094. doi:10.1177/0022009409356914
- Lost Shows on Till Death Us Do Part
- Encyclopedia of Television
- BBC Treasure Hunt
- Till Death Us Do Part at British TV Comedy
- Till Death Us Do Part at the BFI's Screenonline
- Till Death Us Do Part at British Comedy Guide
- Till Death Us Do Part on IMDb