If you were watching TV in the 1960s and 1970s, the chances are you can remember Alf Garnett and the comedy series “Till Death Us Do Part” and the 1980s follow-up, “In Sickness and in Health.” This Wapping boy may not seem to show the best of the East End at times, but he was an introduction to the area for many people living outside of London who had no real idea where Wapping was.
Alf Garnett – Wapping’s Most Famous Resident?
Alf became so famous that he even ended up with his own Cockney rhyming slang phrase – Alf Garnett = Barnet = Hair.
The character got his name from Garnet Street in Wapping. He is a curmudgeonly, rude, bigoted and sometimes racist old bloke who reflected the reactionary nature of some people of his generation. He also showed the world just how confusing it was for people of his age, born in the early part of the century, to cope with modern life. Alf was an old-fashioned Eastender who worked in the traditional Wapping industry down the docks. Plus, for many of us, it was the first time we got to meet a proper West Ham fan!
Warren Mitchell and Dandy Nichols
Alf, played by Warren Mitchell, was married to Elsie, or as she was more commonly known, Else. As far as Alf was concerned, the woman’s place was in the home and, although a staunch Tory, he could never quite like Margaret Thatcher because his working class roots told him that she should not have been working at all. Ironically, the politician, Denis Healey, once accused Margaret Thatcher of having the “diplomacy of Alf Garnett.”
Elsie, played by Dandy Nichols, was the butt of much of Alf’s abuse and the person who had to listen to most of his rants. She was regularly called a “silly old moo.” Generally, if you heard the words “it stands to reason” come out of Alf’s mouth, you just knew he was going to say something outrageous or completely inaccurate. However, we saw a different side to Alf when Else died, as he genuinely missed her and it became obvious that his bluster hid a genuine affection for his wife.
Alf and Elsie had a daughter, Rita, played by Una Stubbs. Rita was born during the war — Alf had avoided being called up because his work at the docks gave him reserved occupation status. Rita’s relationship with her boyfriend Mike, played by Tony Booth, was the basis for a lot of the humour in the show and the source of a lot of Alf’s tirades. Rita and Mike were from a completely different generation to the older Garnetts and were living in a very different world even though they lived at home in Wapping. To Alf, Mike was a “long haired layabout” or the “randy scouse git.”
Alf Garnet on TV in The 1970s
“Till Death Us Do Part” was an extremely popular show, running until 1975. There were some attempts to produce sequels after that, but none worked that well until Alf and Else were reunited in “In Sickness and In Health” in 1985. We saw a more mellow Alf at this stage, and after the first series, he had to deal with the death of his beloved Else. Viewers then had the comedy gold moment of watching Alf deal with his new home help, Winston, a black gay man who amused the audience, but not Alf, by calling him “Bwana.”
Although “Till Death Us Do Part” was filmed in a studio in front of a live audience, its early series titles were filmed in Wapping. The house you see in the opening and end credits of episodes from the 1960s actually was a house in Garnet Street in the area, although this street has now been demolished. Although none of the main actors were from the East End, the writer Johnny Speight was born locally in Canning Town.
It is thought that Speight based the character of Alf on a few different people he had known growing up in the East End. His aim was to poke fun at right-wing working class prejudices; however, this backfired a little, as some people took Alf at face value and were either outraged at his behaviour or completely agreed with it. Luckily, most people got the joke and just found Alf funny.
Alf Lived on in South Park
Alf lived on via Warren Mitchell for many years, who continued to perform in character every now and then. He retired Alf after the death of Johnny Speight. The show was also popular in America where it was adapted as “All in the Family”, although Alf’s character, Archie Bunker, was not as outrageous as the original. It is also thought that the creators of South Park based the Cartman character on Archie Bunker, giving Alf a connection to America that probably would really have outraged him!