The last time he’ll smile ’til 1966

Till Death us do Part is that rarity – a movie spun-off from a TV show which feels like it adds more to the story. Director Norman Cohen, who would go on to helm the first film version of Dad’s Army (1971) also directed the semi-documentary The London Nobody Knows ( 1969 – based on Geoffrey Fletcher’s book) which may explain the authenticity of this movie.

Johnny Speight’s 1966 BBC TV series was contemporary – so contemporary that sometimes the scripts were late – and usually centred upon arguments between Alf Garnett (Warren Mitchell), his son-in-law Mike (Anthony Booth) and daughter Rita (Una Stubbs), both of whom lodged with Alf and wife Else (Dandy Nichols) in their terraced house in Wapping.

The movie was made by British Lion soon after the TV series had been cancelled in mid-1968. The lateness of Speight’s scripts is given as one reason for the cancellation, although the controversy over the political arguments in the show (and Garnett’s frequent use of the then-offensive word bloody) made the show unpopular with an incoming BBC management. Speight and Cohen give the movie an epic scope by devoting the first hour to the Second World War.

Bob Grant, Sam Kydd, Bill Maynard & Michael Robbins listen to Alf’s theory

Opening with a black-and-white newsreel showing Nazi tanks massing, the movie picks up Alf Garnett’s commentary, “They’re all cardboard! He’s probably got men inside pedalling! It’s all propaganda! That’s yer Goebbels- he’s famous for it! Propaganda!” Throughout the TV series there had been controversy over whether Speight was satirising or espousing Garnett’s bigoted views, but with a wartime setting it is clear that Garnett is the archetypal pub bore. An early scene shows drinkers listening in silence as Garnett puts forward his theory that Dunkirk is actually part of Churchill’s grand strategy to strengthen the British forces. And before that, Garnett is shown being taken by surprise in his tin bath, when Chamberlain announces that the war Alf said would never happen, is actually happening.

After the first hour the action jumps forward the March 1966 General Election and Alf arguing with daughter Rita (Una Stubbs) about whether she can put a Labour poster in his window. Cohen captures the frenetic world of the TV series well – Una Stubbs’ affection and exasperation coming across as she argues with Alf while clearing the plates from the table (Dandy Nichols, sitting at the table as Else, neutral in the argument, suddenly puts her hand on Una’s to stop her taking the Swiss Roll away). Terry Knight’s detailed set design captures the mood of the 1960’s – halfway between Victorian and Elizabethan ages – Una’s micro mini skirt and mod design washing up liquid set against the 1930’s kitchen implements and wallpaper.

Garnett’s home (ironically shown as Jamaica Street by an insert when Alf mistakenly receives call-up papers) is represented by a lovingly created external set at Shepperton, which allows Cohen to take the characters through the ‘phony war’, the blitz, VE day, and through to the 1960’s. Powerfully, this also allows Speight to represent the experience of actual Londoners. Having survived the bombs, the Garnett’s find that their house is listed for demolition by the council (the actual Garnet Street in Wapping had already been demolished). When valuers arrive to put through the compulsory purchase, Alf is told that his house is worth £400.

But I bought it off the Council for Fifteen Hundred,” Alf protests, “And they gave me a mortgage!” The valuer (Frank Thornton) explains that £400 is the land value. There is no property value.

Alf refuses to sell, but the bulldozers move in, his local pub is boarded up and workmen begin to gut the neighbouring houses. Finally, Alf arrives home to find Else, Mike and Rita packing up and moving to the new tower block, where the council offer luxuries such as an indoor toilet. Defeated, Alf finally follows . But as he arrives at the brutalist concrete block, he realises he doesn’t know the apartment number. He begins knocking on doors as, on a lower level, the family go out to the cinema.

When the TV series returned in 1970, the climax of the movie was ignored and the Garnett’s were still settled in their terraced house*. Set against the context of the TV series, the end of the movie may be disconcerting, but it’s a small price to pay. The film itself hangs together well. Perhaps because the movie had to pass the British Board of Film censors, there are few of Garnett’s more outrageous racial comments and most of those are filtered through the wartime sequences ( although one slightly ugly scene with actress Cleo Sylvestre is singled out for inclusion in the original trailer, suggesting that the producers were trying to capitalise on the controversy of the TV shows).

However, the movie is generally funny, if you can be entertained by seeing man at his most craven and self-interested. The scene where Alf, craving some milk for his tea at a time of wartime rationing, snatches baby Rita’s milk bottle and tries to unobtrusively lighten his tea before Else comes back in the room has echoes of Laurel and Hardy .

The other point of note is that the film is pretty representative of the British comedy scene in 1969 with uncredited background characters being played by now familiar faces. Michael Robbins from On The Buses plays the landlord of Alf’s local (who refuses to give credit when the Blitz begins on the basis that his customers may be killed before they can settle up) while Bob Grant from the same show is one of the pub regulars. A restrained Brian Blessed plays an Anti Aircraft Gun Sergeant, who takes an interest one of of Alf’s neighbours. She is played by Kate Williams, who would go on to star in ITV’s Love Thy Neighbour (where bigoted Eddie Booth (Jack Smethurst) would refuse to watch the BBC because they had “That Man, and his uncouth language!”. Tommy Godfrey , from the same show , is another of Alf’s pub audience.

*In ‘Dock Pilfering’ (11 October 1972) Alf is gloating that the house is now worth £20,000 under a Tory Government, whereas it was only worth £600 under Labour. When Mike counters that it is just inflation, Alf retorts that, “According to Labour” the £2.00 a week Mike pays in rent is now worth only 25 shillings (£1.25). So, “On the black day you married my daughter and moved in here you were paying £2.00 a week rent in a £600 house. But, now thanks to me and the Tory Government, you’re only paying 25 shillings rent for a room in a £20,000 house! Under us, YOU’VE GOT ON!”