‘Bloody marvellous, innit?’ One of the most controversial comedy characters is back, moaning, ranting and snarling through six more episodes, courtesy of this BBC DVD. Arch-bigot Alf Garnett (Warren Mitchell) and his long-suffering family first hit the silver screens back in the Sixties in Till Death Us Do Part. Its successor, In Sickness & in Health, ran from 1985 to 1992 and again featured Alf and family, though the kids have now grown up and his long-suffering wife Else (Dandy Nichols) is in a wheelchair.
Till Death Us Do Part was very controversial in its day, with Garnett’s racist, misogynist ravings making some people feel uncomfortable, and (worse) finding favour with other, less intelligent viewers who missed the point entirely and regarded him as a rough diamond. This greatly disappointed writer Johnny Speight. For example, a viewer famously congratulated Warren Mitchell for ‘having a go at the coons’. Mitchell replied, ‘Actually, we’re having a go at idiots like you’. He went away unenlightened.
In Sickness & in Health is less controversial than its predecessor, though much of this is down to television moving on rather than a change of attitude on the show’s part. Old Mr Garnett is still as bigoted, angry and (to be frank) up himself as he ever was, but by the 80s, comedy was less shy about tackling controversial issues like racism. Or at least it made a much better job of it when it did. Can you imagine Mind Your Language or Love Thy Neighbour being made any time after the 70s?
For at heart, the shows are a polemic against the racist, narrow-minded attitudes of people like Alf. In the best traditions of satire, he’s an only-slightly-exaggerated version of the barstool bore who sips his beer and rallies against other races, immigrants and just about everybody who’s not like him. And like the pub bigot, Alf is totally unable to see the hypocrisy in their message, and blames others for just about everything that’s wrong with his life. Garnett is very much the butt of the joke rather than the hero of the show. Like Viz magazine’s Sid the Sexist, he embarrasses rather than champions those he lampoons, but he’s more than a figure of fun. Through him, Speight held a mirror in front of the nation, and we didn’t always like what we saw.
The 80s show introduces a new character called Winston, a council-provided home help who Alf insists on calling ‘Marigold’. Unfortunately, in an uncharacteristic display of heavy-handedness, Speight made him both black and homosexual. It makes for some interesting interaction as he and Garnett get used to each other, but he’s so obviously there to push Alf’s buttons his presence in the show feels artificial and forced. A degree of realism is thus lost, and good satire should always be only one step ahead of reality.
But this is far from terminal. Alf is as opinionated, loud-mouthed, bad tempered, reactionary, prudish, homophobic and hilarious as ever, and it still makes for some great comedy. Some decent extras might have given this DVD another star (there’s bugger all on there apart from a subtitles option), but even as things stand, it’s a great way to spend a few evenings.