Old TV Shows

Alf Garnett East London’s Famous Resident.

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

Old TV Shows
Old TV Shows

“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!

9 thoughts on “Alf Garnett East London’s Famous Resident.”

  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

    1. 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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