Alf Garnett: The East End Legend Who Made Us Laugh and Think

Alf Garnett was born in Wapping around 1917 and grew up in the slums of Jamaica Street. He worked on the docks and married Else in 1941. They had a daughter, Rita, who married Mike, a socialist and a Liverpool supporter, much to Alf’s dismay.

Alf staunch supporter of the Conservative Party, the monarchy and the Church of England. He also intensely disliked immigrants, communists, Catholics, hippies, feminists and anyone who disagreed with him. He often expressed his views in loud and abusive rants, which were met with sarcasm or indifference by his family.

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 in a West Ham United scarf.
Alf Garnett

Alf Garnett – Wapping’s Most Famous Resident?

Alf became so famous that he even ended up with his own Cockney rhyming slang phraseAlf 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 how confusing it was for people 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 met a true West Ham fan!

Alf Garnett: East London’s Famous Resident

If you are a fan of British comedy, you might have heard of Alf Garnett, the outspoken and controversial character from the sitcom Till Death Us Do Part and its spin-offs. Alf Garnett was a working-class man who lived in the East End of London with his long-suffering wife Else, his daughter Rita and his son-in-law Mike. He was known for his bigoted and conservative views on politics, religion, race and culture, which often clashed with those of his more liberal and progressive family members.

Alf Garnett was created by Johnny Speight and played by Warren Mitchell, who won several awards for his character portrayal. The show was hugely successful in the 1960s and 1970s, attracting millions of viewers and sparking debates and controversies over its satirical and provocative humour. The show also spawned several films, such as Till Death Us Do Part (1968) and The Alf Garnett Saga (1972), as well as follow-up series like Till Death… (1981) and In Sickness and in Health (1985-1992). Alf Garnett also appeared in a chat show called The Thoughts of Chairman Alf (1998), where he shared his opinions on various topics with celebrity guests.

Alf Garnett was a fictional character, but he reflected some of the attitudes and prejudices in British society at the time. He also served as a target for ridicule and criticism by the writers and actors who wanted to expose the absurdity and ignorance of such views. Alf Garnett was not meant to be a role model or a hero but a flawed and complex human being who struggled to cope with the changing world around him.

Alf Garnett was one of British comedy history’s most memorable and influential characters. He made people laugh, but he also made them think. He was a product of his environment, but he also challenged it. He was East London’s famous resident but also belonged to the whole nation.

(1) Alf Garnett – Wikipedia.
(2) BBC Four – Till Death Us Do Part – Episode guide.

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 she should not have been working. 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 knew he would 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 apparent 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 Alf’s tirades. Rita and Mike were from a completely different generation to the older Garnetts and lived 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

Old TV Shows
Old TV Shows

“Till Death Us Do Part” was a top-rated show until 1975. There were attempts to produce sequels after that, but none worked that well until Alf and Else 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 was a house on 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. He aimed 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 ultimately agreed with it. Luckily, most people got the joke and just found Alf funny.

Alf Lived in South Park

Alf lived on via Warren Mitchell for many years, continuing to perform in character occasionally. 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 have outraged him!

10 thoughts on “Alf Garnett: The East End Legend Who Made Us Laugh and Think”

  1. Johnny Speight grew up in Dale Road, Canning Town (now replaced by a play area). My mother and her brothers (the Porters) were neighbours before moving to Desford Road. When “Til Death Do Us Part’ was on television, she told me that many of the characters were based on real people who had lived in the area.
    Incidentally, my mother will be 100 on 19 April 2020. Sadly we have been forced to postpone celebrations due to the need for social isolation.

  2. Barnet is not rhyming slang for Alf Garnett, it is rhyming slang for Barnett Fair, that piece of slang was in use well before Johnny Speight wrote TDUDP

  3. Hello what was the street called in the tv series in sickness and in heath in real life? ive looked everywhere but no such luck thanks

    • The street is in Battersea South London, the road is called Ingelow Road. Although the character was meant to be an East Londoner.

  4. I, Inder as young ladd in the late 60s or early 70s i think if my memory serves me well i do clearly remember watching one of alfi’s episode of till death do us part….where he tries to make phone call through that dr. whos phone kiosk which was situated outside close to his home….but as he goes there he has to wait as he gets frustrated and and angry and very impatient, because of a women who takes her time talkng to her boyfriend keeps him waiting.
    I wonder if you have that episode name so that i can find it on the internet or link or you tube?…………it was a black and white film version i think.
    Love alfi’s tv shows

  5. Great article ! Mike did like Alf and was very caring for him,I think Else was the main character , she sat right in the middle ,neither Alf or Mike we’re right was they.


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