From 1965 to 1975, British TV audiences made Till Death Us Do Part—a taboo-breaking program about a working-class family whose patriarch (played by Warren Mitchell) wasn’t shy about making his uncomfortably racist views loud and clear—one of the BBC’s most popular situation comedies. Created by Johnny Speight, who based much of the show on his own upbringing (a situation he called “affluent poor”), Till Death is probably more familiar to American audiences as the series that inspired the equally long-running All in the Family (Speight and his creation get a shout-out in Family’s closing credits).
I don’t think Till Death Us Do Part ever aired on this side of the pond in the manner of a Monty Python’s Flying Circus or Are You Being Served?…though the fourth series of the show (from 1972) was made available on Region 1 DVD, as was the 1969 feature film inspired by the program. To become fully acquainted with the series, you would have had to renew your acquaintance with our old friend Region 2; both the fourth and fifth series (1974) were released to disc by Network Releasing in 2004 but went OOP not long after: the rights to Till Death having reverted back to BBC Worldwide/2 Entertain. In December of 2016, Network brought forth an audacious eight-disc collection entitled Till Death Us Do Part: The Complete Series.
I need to issue a caveat with regards to “the complete series.” Many of the telecasts from the program’s original 1966-68 run (the first three series) are no longer available, victims of the Beeb’s “wiping” policy. A baker’s dozen of Till Death Us Do Part survives in all its monochromatic glory, and excerpts from four other episodes (including the July 22, 1965 pilot presented on Comedy Playhouse) have managed to beat back the ravages of time and neglect. To make this “the complete series,” Network has filled in the gaps with off-the-air audio recordings that have been remastered for the collection; they are presented on a data disc with mp3 files of the “lost” episodes and matching pdf files of the scripts (well…not completely matching; one of the scripts is for “Two Toilets? That’s Posh!” is in actuality that for the available “Aunt Maud”). Dick Fiddy, author of Missing Believed Wiped: Searching for the Lost Treasures of British Television, contributed a most informative booklet on the show’s history; I’ll just say right up front that if you are as big a Britcom fan as I am you will not be disappointed with this box set. (As it so happens, I found some money in my pocket under mysterious circumstances and I bought a copy back in the beginning of December last year.)
I’m still making my way through the audio copies of the series but I was able to watch the surviving episodes from the first three series and the last two series presented in 1974-75. (I own the previous Network DVDs of Series 4/5.) The only episode from the original 1966-68 run that I had already seen was “Arguments, Arguments” (06/06/66)—the show’s inaugural outing, which was included as a bonus on the Series Five set. I’m not certain if this would be the show I’d pick to show someone who had never seen Till Death Us Do Part (assuming they’re game to watch); I think a good representative episode would be “Peace and Goodwill” (12/26/66), a Yuletide-themed episode whose title is a bit of a misnomer (Alf [Mitchell] and son-in-law Mike [Anthony Booth] go toe-to-toe on politics and Christianity as the family is seated for Christmas dinner). Mark Ward, the author of A Family at War: The Unofficial and Unauthorized Guide to ‘Till Death Us Do Part’, notes that the first series of Till Death is marked by much sitcom conventionality since creator Speight was still feeling his way—so one could argue episodes like “A House with Love in It” (06/20/66) might be a bit more palatable to the novice viewer. “House” finds Mike and Rita (Una Stubbs) taking Alf and Else (Dandy Nichols) out to dinner for the Garnetts’ silver anniversary. It’s familiar sitcom material, but falling-down funny (Ma and Pa Garnett’s attempts to assimilate into the atmosphere of the fancy French restaurant Mike’s taken them to are priceless).
Johnny Speight often stressed in interviews that he didn’t create Alf Garnett, he “just grassed on him.” As successful as his creation became (and it made Speight quite wealthy—he was at one time the highest-paid comedy writer employed by the Beeb) Johnny always regretted that some people missed the program’s satire (George Bernard Shaw was one of his heroes) and instead took Alf into their hearts as someone to admire for expressing what they themselves believed. The maturity of Till Death Us Do Part is what fascinates me about the series; its topicality requires a bit of knowledge about British life and politics from that era (I’ll admit that I have to look up an obscure reference or two) but its essential premise is one that remains surprisingly timely today: the clash between the ways of one’s elders (represented by Alf and Else) and the challenging ideas of youth (Rita and Mike). (The uncomfortable racism that seems to be making a comeback in this day and age makes these repeats all the more pungent.) In All in the Family, the character of Edith Bunker was always presented as a woman devoted to her husband Archie even if she didn’t always approve of the sentiments he espoused. It’s completely different in Till Death: Else shares many of the same uninformed opinions as Alf even if she’s not as obnoxious about it. (We also witness in the Garnetts a couple who can’t stand the sight of one another but remain together because by that point in their coupling they’re just going through the motions.)
In “Peace and Goodwill,” the episode wraps up with Alf’s accidental swallowing of a thrupenny piece that Else hid in the family’s Christmas pudding. Several episodes later, in “In Sickness and In Health” (01/31/67)—a title Speight would appropriate for a 1985-92 “revival” series of Till Death Us Do Part—Alf is suffering from stomach pains and he winds up in the hospital where it’s decided he’ll need to undergo surgery. The doctor reveals that Alf’s trouble…was the coin from “Peace and Goodwill.” In “Alf’s Dilemma” (02/27/67), Speight has a little fun poking fun at one of the show’s most vocal critics: Mary Whitehouse, a woman who crusaded against what she believed to be the permissiveness and immorality of broadcast television at that time (Alf is reading her book, Cleaning Up TV). “Dilemma” has a distinctive Rabelaisian flavor as Mr. Garnett suffers from a case of the trots…and since his outside toilet (“khazi”) is out of order, he must avail himself of the facilities belonging to his next-door neighbors (portrayed by Patricia Hayes and Charlie Bird).
Patricia Hayes would reprise her role as that neighbor in the third series’ outing “The Phone” (01/05/68), but really came onto her own once the sixth series got underway in early 1975. The Wikipedia entry for Till Death Us Do Part notes that Dandy Nichols’ health issues prompted her to retreat from further appearances after the fifth series…but author Ward states that the animosity between Nichols and TV hubby Mitchell played a more significant role in her decision to leave. (The series affected many of the show’s principals that way; Speight and Tony Booth, once the best of mates, had a falling-out that might have influenced the actor’s decision not to return for any of the subsequent TV revivals. Booth and Mitchell allowed life to imitate art by not playing nice as well.) It’s interesting to note that Speight had wanted to deal with Nichols’ departure by killing off Else (something All in the Family would do when Jean Stapleton announced she didn’t want to be Edith Bunker anymore) but the BBC persuaded him to find an alternate explanation for Else’s departure.
So, in “Outback Bound” (12/31/74), Else departs for Australia to care for her ailing sister Maud…and to say that Alf is nonplussed about this arrangement would be a minor understatement. Nichols’ swan song on Till Death Us Do Part would be a brief cameo in the following installment, “Phone Call to Else” (01/08/75): Rita begs Alf to stop being childish and call her mother; connected to her family by phone, Else puts the receiver down to answer the doorbell…then strikes up a conversation with the milkman. Till Death was never quite the same after Nichols’ departure (plus the show’s previous topical content began to dissipate with each subsequent series) but Hayes more than made up for Dandy. As Min Reed, Hayes was responsible for a delightfully eccentric comic creation who would prove quite perplexing at times to Alf; in “Moving in with Min” (11/05/75), Alf decides to move in with the next-door neighbors (and rent his house out to Rita, Mike, and their young son Michael)…and no sooner has he carried his suitcase up to the spare room when his new landlady put the moves on him. In the following episode, “Min the Housekeeper” (11/12/75), while the previous week’s living arrangements didn’t work out Min has told Rita that she’ll look out for her father by doing a little tidying-up. The Laird and Master of Castle Garnett comes home to find that Min the Domestic has done nothing but watch his color TV all day long and help herself to his liquor cabinet (along with the dustmen)…but brazenly insists on being paid for her “housekeeping services.”
Min’s husband Bert had previously appeared on the show as portrayed by Bill Maynard (of later Oh No, It’s Selwyn Froggitt! fame—he’s very funny in the Series 4 episode “Pigeon Fancier”) but he was replaced in Series 6 by Britcom veteran Alfie Bass (The Army Game, Bootsie and Snudge), who was an old mate of Warren Mitchell’s (Mitchell was Bass’ understudy in their theatre days). Bass’ Bert was an amiable old duffer (he only stayed with Min because she was a hell of a cook) who provided Alf with a sounding board much in the same fashion as Arthur English did in In Sickness and In Health. Both Hayes and Bass put their distinctive stamp on Till Death Us Do Part right up until the show’s final outing, “Unemployment” (12/17/75). Alf’s family and friends surprise him with a birthday party and Our Alf sure could use the levity: he’s been “made redundant” at his job, and at the end of the episode gets a telegram from Else…asking for a divorce. (A sentimental moment in a series not known for wearing its heart on its sleeve.)
At the risk of spoiling it for those of you in the blogosphere, Alf and Else Garnett did not have to hash it out in divorce court: the couple returned for a 1981 ITV series entitled Till Death… (the shorter title was necessary because the BBC owned the rights to the original) that found the Garnetts living in Eastbourne after Alf’s retirement and sharing a bungalow with neighbor Min. (Min’s husband Bert went on to his greater reward.) Mitchell, Nichols, and Hayes would all reprise their roles in Till Death…, and would be joined by Una Stubbs (as Rita) for an episode or two with her teenaged son Michael (now a punker) in tow. Young Michael was welcomed into the world in the Series 4 opener “To Garnett a Grandson” (09/13/72), so while he technically should have been only nine years old, he apparently caught that malady common to TV soaps (what Stephen King once called “the kid trick”) that allows children to age rapidly within a year in order to attract the daytime drama’s teenaged viewing audience. Till Death… lasted but one series; a more successful revival appeared four years later on the BBC in the previously mentioned In Sickness and In Health—where Speight was able to use the idea of Else’s passing once Dandy left this world for a better one after Sickness’ first series.
I haven’t gotten around to finishing the remaining series of In Sickness and In Health that I also purchased back in December last year…but in the meantime, they’re on my viewing schedule along with Till Death…, which was released to Region 2 DVD this past Monday (January 28) along with the 1998 series The Thoughts of Chairman Alf, which allowed the British comedy institution to participate in six mock Q&A-style programs giving him free reign to express all sorts of controversial opinions. The completist in me persuaded me to purchase both of these collections…as well as the 1969 feature film, because the recently unearthed (in 2017) TV episode “Sex Before Marriage” (01/02/67) is included as an extra. (Not only has “Marriage” been rediscovered but so have two lost episodes of The Likely Lads [“A Star is Born” and “Faraway Places”], which will be bonuses on Network’s DVD/Blu-ray release of the 1976 feature film adaptation of that series in March.) Despite its dated qualities, Till Death Us Do Part remains a fascinating social document of its era, presenting a side of England that was often overshadowed by its liberating “swinging” reputation.