There doesn’t seem to be a week that goes by without an anniversary of some sort to remind me of just how old I’m getting. And here’s another. Fifty years ago today saw Till Death Us Do Part air on the BBC for the first time.
Actually, that’s not strictly true. The characters first appeared in the Comedy Playhouse pilot Till Death… in 1965, but let’s not quibble.
The sitcom was an instant success and made stars out of Warren Mitchell, Dandy Nichols, Una Stubbs and Anthony Booth. It was undoubtedly funny, as any Johnny Speight creation was, but underneath the laughter was a sharp observation of changing attitudes in British society.
Alf Garnett working class Conservative typical of the older generation, while Booth was the ‘scouse git’ who represented the changing attitudes of the younger generation, both political and cultural.
Despite running for ten years on the BBC and then later on ITV, the public reaction disappointed Speight. He had meant Alf to be a reactionary monster, but Mitchell brought a warmth and humanity to the role and people overlooked his atrocious opinions and found him likeable. Today he would probably be the leader of UKIP or the Leave campaign.
But it does demonstrate that you need to take care with irony if your target of ridicule isn’t to end up a hero to some.
I can’t imagine the BBC airing any reruns to commemorate the anniversary because it would be far too controversial for our sensitive times, which is a shame because in many ways it reminds us just how far most of us have come in the last fifty years. You can find the very first episode here, but the sound quality isn’t great, so I’ve included the Paki-Paddy episode below, with Spike Milligan in the title role. But first some Till Death Us Do Part trivia:
- Anthony Booth is the father of Tony Blair’s wife, Cherie Booth (for the benefit of foreign visitors).
- ‘You silly cow’ was vetoed by the BBC Head of Comedy, Frank Muir, and changed to the ‘silly moo’ catchphrase instead.
- It was one of the first shows to use ‘bloody’ as a swear word and upset Mary Whitehouse no end.
- Speight based Alf on his father, an East End docker who was staunchly reactionary and held ‘unenlightened’ attitudes toward black people.