The fourth series of In Sickness And In Health, unusually for a sitcom, is a 7-episode story arc. Alf Garnett (Warren Mitchell), as cantankerous as ever, is struggling on his pension. Mrs Hollingbery (Carmel McSharry) lives in the flat above him but has become accustomed to watching his television and sitting in his chair. Alf’s mate Arthur (Arthur English) suggests Alf marry Mrs Hollingbery and buy his house from the council. Then he could be quids in to the tune of £100,000. Cue Alf being very pleasant to the devout Catholic widow and trying to propose – in his own way – over a supper of fish and chips washed down with bottles of stout.
Eventually accepting Alf’s offer of marriage, Mrs Hollingbery is delighted when her long lost brother Ricky (John Bluthal), invites the couple to Australia (at his and his business partner’s expense) for the wedding ceremony. After several build-up episodes, the unlikely couple and Arthur (feeling depressed after missing out on a huge football pools win) make their way down-under.
After some sightseeing in Sydney and encounters with sharks and a “crocodile”, the trio celebrate their future with a house party thrown by Ricky and his wife Railene. Can Ricky and his business partner really be trusted? Just what are the Aussies to make of Alf? Will the wedding go ahead?
There are some notable changes in this series. Garnett’s live-in home help Winston, an ultra-camp black man (giving Alf much to rail against) has moved out and making his debut is Winston’s girl-mad cousin Pele, played by Vas Blackwood (fresh from his success in The Lenny Henry Show).
There is great support too from the much-missed Ken Campbell as the obnoxious, uber right-wing insurance salesman, Fred Johnson. Fred is a charmless man who constantly belittles his wife in public. Chas and Dave updated their cockney knees-up theme tune for a third time to reflect Alf’s trip to Australia, although the sudden jump from the original filmed opening titles to the video-taped highlights of Alf’s departure jars somewhat.
Dandy Nichols’ death just after completion of the first series of In Sickness And In Health cast doubt over the show’s future. Three series later it was still going strong. This series was made in 1989 and, although Winston’s departure means there is notably less conflict between the regulars, Alf still has plenty to rant and moan about regarding the state of the nation.
Putting the series in historical context, there is mention of the Edwina Currie/egg salmonella affair, the then new 11am to 11pm drinking hours and the Australian bicentenary. There’s several mentions of the Aussie soap Neighbours which was at its height in this period. It is no coincidence the series filmed several episodes in Australia, given it was (in common with several BBC shows of the day) a co-production with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Although In Sickness And In Health lacks much of the bite and shock value of its parent show, Till Death Us Do Part, there is still the disquieting occasional use of racist words and a particularly unfortunate encounter between Alf and some Aborigines (albeit one in which the Aborigines have the upper hand). Johnny Speight famously wrote Alf as a monster but, frankly, for a primetime show made on the cusp of the Nineties, it is surprising what was considered acceptable.
Like so many British sitcoms, In Sickness And In Health is undoubtedly stronger when on home turf. If a show strays from its basic premise and indulges in special trips abroad the humour is somehow diluted. Whilst the Australian episodes are a pleasant distraction, something is lost watching Alf Garnett on what could be the set of Neighbours. Maybe the thinking behind the trip was to turn the grumpy Garnett into the archetypal ‘whingeing Pom’, broadening his narrow-minded attacks in the process.
Many of the scenes in Alf’s home and local pub seem protracted by today’s standards; one scene in particular lasted almost half an episode. Then again, the situation was always secondary to Alf and his rants. When Speight and Mitchell were on form they made Alf Garnett, despite his many faults, a genuine force to be reckoned with. By this stage, however, In Sickness And In Health was past its best and, although still amusing in places, it lacks the vigour of the earlier episodes.
In Sickness And In Health is available now.