Alf Garnett On Film
For anyone under the age of, say, 25, the idea of making films from popular British sitcoms probably sounds pretty odd, especially as the British film industry can't easily support films that only have domestic appeal. But, believe it or not, the 1970s saw a fair few sitcoms transfer to the big screen, and although they have a bad rap as a genre among comedy fans, I think this is unfair. Yes, there's some real duds (which, inexplicably, seem to be repeated fairly often), but on the whole, the quality of the films are proportionate to the quality of the source sitcom. This is why Porridge is a pleasure to watch, and Holiday on the Buses is not. Here I look at the film treatments of the revolutionary sitcom Till Death Us Do Part, and assess how successful they were...
Poor Alf. Johnny Speight made him unlovable, and the effect of his devastating caricature is made evident by the two films that were spun off from Till Death Do Us Part. The first film, of the same name, was made in 1969, and the second, called The Alf Garnett Saga, was made in 1972. Interestingly, the second film was not the end of the franchise, with In Sickness and In Health appearing on our TV screens in the 80s, although it seems to have been made with this in mind, . Speight appears to have been outrun by the success of his creation, despite doing his damnedest to make Alf as unsympathetic as possible. The first film hits the ground running in this respect: Alf is seen to be unpopular with virtually everybody, with the possible exception of his next-door neighbour (played by Bill Maynard), with whom he discusses world affairs whilst on their respective back-to-back toilets. Amusingly, the film shows Alf and Else's animosity to have not been a product of many years of struggle. The film starts set in 1939, and they are shown to be as argumentative as they ever were, despite presumably being newlyweds. Else delights in winding Alf up into fits of temper (which isn't difficult), and he is just as physically inhibited. He refuses to let Else walk through the kitchen whilst he is having a bath in order to go to the toilet, and when she announces her pregnancy, Alf denies it, as he can't remember ever having contributed to the conception. Worryingly, neither can she!
As a prequel, the film is very effective, especially as it covers the subject of WW2, a godsend for Speight to show just how stupid, cowardly and selfish Alf is. However, this isn't a homage to wartime spirit: the representatives of the army stationed in Alf's street are shown to be womanising showoffs, and the hinted payoff between one of the officers and a woman living in the street illustrates the many liaisons that did take place during those difficult times. Naturally, Alf is disgusted, but, typically, this is actually motivated by jealousy over rations rather than any moral concern.
An excellent example of Alf's blind devotion to authority is his insistence to his neighbours and Else that there won't be a war, motivated by his loyalty to Chamberlain. He also criticises Churchill for challenging Chamberlain on Britain's readiness for war, but promptly takes the picture of Chamberlain down on his resignation and replaces it with one of Churchill. Alf is no better when the war actually starts. He makes the usual fuss over building a shelter, he blusters and whines during the bombing raids, and he also grumbles about the soldiers stationed in their road, with their plentiful supplies of food and cigarettes. Else gets her golden opportunity to taunt him when his call-up papers arrive, and he stammers that he is in a reserved occupation, and so can't go to war, however much he might want to. Else replies that she doesn't think that a timekeeper is an important occupation, and in any case, he'd be able to eat and smoke more in the army. Alf, severely upset, shouts "I'm going down the pub!", and storms out. The satisfied expression on Else's face is wonderful. However, Alf finds that he cannot get any credit with the landlord, due to the precarious situation. He cheerily shouts to Alf: "Tell you what, come in Friday, if you're still with us!". The army sergeant walking in with the aforementioned woman and ordering a large scotch does nothing to improve Alf's mood.
Alf's relationship with Rita, his long-suffering daughter, gets off to a bad start when he visits mother and baby in hospital. It transpires that Alf has injured himself whilst drunk in the blackouts, prompting Else to call him a drunken pig, with Alf not improving things by calling Rita ugly. Things carry on in this fashion at home, with the infant Rita crying and Alf complaining about her. Else claims Rita is crying because she knows that Alf doesn't love her, and exclaims to Rita "Nasty, ugly Daddy!". She gives Rita to Alf and he tries to keep her quiet, with no success. The relationship between Alf and Rita is touched on quite a few times in the film, with Alf begrudging Rita benefiting from all the milk ration, and even going to the lengths of taking milk from Rita's bottle to put in his tea. As Else puts it: "You pig! Robbing your own child!". The film covers the war years rather nicely: Alf and Else sheltering in Old Street station is done very well, with Alf proving how disagreeable he is to everyone, regardless of class, as he berates a polite Air Force Officer trying to pick his way through the crowd. It is also shot rather nicely, with Else's announcement of pregnancy at Christmas followed by a shot of a soldier with a gun in the street and 'Silent Night' playing.
When we jump 'Nearly 20 years later', we encounter a row between Alf and Rita over putting a Labour party poster in the window, with Else half-heartily attempting to make peace. The difference between the generations is made obvious by Rita pointing out to Alf that his years of voting Tory have done nothing for his own prosperity, and Alf's emotional tirade, missing the point as ever, fails to move her, even when Else chides her for being ungrateful. The parallels with Speight's own father are stark, as he said more than once that he found his father's allegiance towards a party determined to keep them in poverty very strange. It is also interesting that he chose to make the Garnett child a girl, as Rita was unusually forceful for a female character of this period. Perhaps that was intentional, as Rita and Mike, her socialist boyfriend, are very much a product of the confident, radical Sixties. Alf is backward both emotionally and intellectually, and his obvious jealousy of their sexuality and intelligence further shows his total impotence in every area of his life.
More trouble occurs when Rita and Mike get married: Alf disapproves of their initial decision to choose a register office, and then he gets even more angry when they choose a Roman Catholic church to appease Mike's devout mother. He splutters, "Look, if you wanna get married in a church, you wanna get married in (points to picture of the Queen) 'er church!". He then accuses Mike's mother of being a religious maniac and refuses to go. Naturally, when the photographer is framing the big family shot in front of the church, Alf is jostling for a good place, and distinguishes himself in the usual manner by getting drunk and arguing with Mike's dad about religion. Mind you, Mike's mum is no better herself, as she upsets Rita by openly telling Mike that he should have married a Catholic. With these displays of charming behaviour, the stage is set for Alf's coup de grace: he leers at a black girl, only to be told to "Be careful, it comes off!". He staggers drunkenly about, shouting "The coon's got a sense of humour!", before falling over and taking the buffet with him. Rita bursts into tears and wails to Else that he's ruined her wedding. Else comforts her with the fantastic line,"He ruined mine, too!".
The film then moves onto the 1966 World Cup Final, and the setup for its final section, with the news that the houses in Alf's neighbourhood will be demolished to make way for luxury flats. Alf takes this to mean that his house will increase in value, and instructs Mike to help him celebrate having the forethought to buy his house: "England for the cup, and Antony Armstrong-Jones for me bleedin' neighbour!". His celebrations after the match were short-lived, however, as he soon finds that his house is under a compulsory purchase order, and that the council are only willing to reimburse him for the land value, which they estimate at 300 to 400 pounds. As he paid 1,500 pounds for his house, Alf is furious.
Even as his neighbours all move away, Alf refuses to acknowledge that he also has to move, despite the insistence of his family and the demolition order posted outside. The rather lonely sight of demolition happening all around Alf's house (which has 'LEAVE' daubed on it, rather omniously) greets Alf as he returns home one day, and after a row with Else, who tells him that she's not staying, he goes to his local pub to find that boarded up with all the other houses. He returns to find his home nearly empty, with Else telling him on the way out of the door that she's left him his dinner in the oven, his chair and the bed. After complaining to his picture of Churchill, Alf goes to find the family in their new high rise flat, despite not having been left the address. He asks various residents, but, naturally, none of them know of the family, or of anyone else in the building. After a short while, he sees them below on the pavement, and shouts at them to wait, at which they all laugh. He catches up with them in the cinema, complaining all the while about them not leaving him the new address, and shouts at Mike and Rita for leaving before the national anthem. Else takes this as her cue to leave as well, with Alf snapping at her to leave the address, and the film ending.
The Alf Garnett Saga starts where the last film leaves off, showing footage of slum clearance in the East End, and leads us to the Garnett family having breakfast in their new flat. Alf is moaning in customary fashion because a power cut means he can't have breakfast, as they have an electric cooker. He is still bitter about having to move, and to a certain degree, his complaints are justified: he has to travel much further to work, and the local pub is a mile away, which is a big difference from his old local at the end of his street. However, there is another reason why Alf is finding it difficult adjusting to his new life. He is afraid of heights. Although he refuses to admit it, his family are well aware of this, and waste no time teasing him about it.
Interestingly, his cry of "Antony Armstrong-Jones for me bleedin' neighbour!" in the first film is not so far from the truth, as his neighbour in the second film, Mr Frewin, works in a bank near the docks. Played by John LeMesurier, we see both him and Alf commuting to work, although we get the distinct impression that Mr Frewin is simply tolerating Alf for the sake of politeness. The most interesting thing about Mr Frewin is his relationship with his wife, played by Patsy Byrne. Despite the fact that she is at home all day, he doesn't let her cook or shop for groceries, and tries to avoid discussions about having children. As this makes Mrs Frewin very sad, it is hard to fathom what Speight meant by this sub-plot, and it is resolved in the end credits rather abruptly, when we see a pregnant Mrs Frewin, along with a knitting Mr Frewin, in the same doctors' surgery as an also pregnant Rita. There is no real explanation of the resolution either, so the only assumption I can make is that they were intended as comic relief to the Garnetts, especially as Mrs Frewin manages to persuade a reluctant Else to let her tag along whilst she went to the shops. Mrs Frewin is full of excitement and wonder at her new freedom, while Else finds her enthusiasm a little irritating.
Another character from the series surfaces as Alf arrives at work: his colleague from the docks, played by Roy Kinnear. They have a very entertaining argument about some money that Alf owes him, and spend a fair few minutes shouting "Bollocks!" at each other, as they part company. It is not difficult to come to the conclusion that Speight revelled in the freedom that film gave him, as the rules governing TV broadcasting never allowed Alf to express himself as he would have done so in real life. This freedom reaches its climax at the end of the film, where Alf's last line to Else is "Piss off, you fat cow!". One can almost imagine Speight sitting back from the typewriter with a sigh of pleasure: at last Alf can talk as he really would!
This hard-edged tone is prevalent throughout the film, and drags it down in a way which doesn't happen in the first film. The fact that Rita and Mike's characters are changed substantially doesn't help, nor does the fact that they are both played by different actors: Adrienne Posta and Paul Angelis respectively. Although they both do a good job with the characters given to them, their performance can't distract from the fact that their characters' behaviour is so out of place. Rita is far more rebellious, and Mike is not only unemployed, but adulterous as well, as he and his similarly work shy friend spend their days chasing women. Curiously, even though Mike is shown in bed with his lover, we never find out for sure whether Rita has committed adultery. We see her storm off with Kenny Lynch (of all people) after she finds Mike talking to his lover in the disco where Kenny is singing, but we never see the two of them in bed, and she refuses to elaborate when she returns to the flat the morning after. Despite the fact that Mike's enquiry after her after a night spent on the sofa shows suspect activity on his part, this is forgotten by Alf as soon as he finds that there's a possibility that Rita has 'been with a coon', although he doesn't turn down the opportunity to be given a lift to work in Kenny's limo, and both him and Mr Frewin get hammered on Kenny's whisky.
However, the second film does contain some interesting scenes, such as the one with Else with Gran, played delightfully, as ever, by Joan Sims, who has come up from London to visit. She refuses the help of the bus driver, mistaking his kindness for a sexual advance, and spends her time in the pub reminiscing about her past, very much in the style of the TV series, and dreamingly dips her cheese sandwich in her gin. This is a lovely scene, but is disconnected from the rest of the film, and so still seems a little odd. Another odd sequence is the procurement of a tab of LSD by Mike, who hides it in the kitchen, only to have Alf mistake it for sugar and go on what is a rather bizarrely executed trip. It gives Else the opportunity to tell Mike and Rita that Alf's ancestors were retarded, and Alf the opportunity to embarrass himself in the pub, but doesn't fit well with the characters established in the TV series and the first film at all.
As Speight is now dead, it is difficult to know what he intended with The Alf Garnett Saga. If he saw it as an opportunity to make the family more realistic, then, in my opinion, he failed. Although Mike and Rita were certainly children of the Sixties, there was no prior hint that they would either commit adultery or indulge in drugs. Interestingly, there seems to be an effort to haul Mike back to a more conservative character by his anger at Rita cheating on him with 'a coon', but this doesn't make much sense either, as it is unlikely the Mike of the TV series and first film would have resorted to racist language to express his anger. Indeed, the downright nasty behaviour of Mike is uncomfortable to watch, and Rita seems a lot less intellectually sharp, and more like a stroppy teenager. In all, The Alf Garnett Saga is disjointed, distinctly odd, and seems like a failed experiment to make the family more dysfunctional than it needed to be. Part of the appeal of the Garnetts is that, despite the arguing, they all loved each other, but the Garnetts of the second film are a lot less harmonious and are genuinely nasty to one another. Even Else's behaviour seems to go that little bit further, as she tells the terribly camp milkman (played by Roy Hudd) that Alf wet himself after coming home drunk, in Alf's presence, and as they both laugh at him, I did find myself wondering if Else really would go that far. She may well have aimed many bitter comments at Alf during the TV series and the first film, but these tended to be kept within the earshot of the immediate family.
So what made such a difference between the first and second films? I feel that there were several factors, one being the difference in material. The first film covers a far greater period of time, including the fertile territory of WW2, and consequently has far more of a story to tell. The writing is tight, and we get a real feel for Alf's background, as well as learning about the troubles of other working-class people in the East End at that time. It feels if Speight is telling us his story, and all the characterisation is perfect. As all the principal actors are experienced in their roles, it has the cosy feel of a real family and their problems. The Alf Garnett Saga, on the other hand, changes both the behaviour and actors of two principal characters, presumably in an attempt to show another side to the liberation of the Sixties, but fails to portray a convincing picture of a 'modern' Mike and Rita. The second factor is the disjointedness of the second film's plot. What is the point of Mr and Mrs Frewin? Why are they and their strange relationship there in the first place, and why isn't it resolved in any logical manner? The first film has a linear plot which is backed up by context, and makes total sense throughout. The Alf Garnett Saga is all over the place, and seems to be one long excuse for as much swearing, sex and racial abuse as could reasonably be shoehorned into the script. As a result, although you do get some nice performances, the overall effect is baffling.
A good example of the second film struggling under its impossible brief is the preposterous number of celebrity cameos, including the simply bizarre fling Rita is meant to have with Kenny Lynch. During the after-match celebrations of a West Ham-Manchester United game, we see Eric Sykes, Arthur Askey (Arthur ASKEY?!), Max Bygraves, Bobby Moore and George Best, most of whom take it in turns to tell Alf to piss off after he bothers them. It's fleetingly amusing to see Alf being sworn at (with the insult being whispered in the ear, oddly, and Alf referring to it afterwards), but no more than that, and the whole sequence just seems an excuse to cram as many unlikely celebrity cameos as possible to pull the punters in. Another is the odd inclusion of two pre-pubescents snogging and claiming 'kids' lib' to Alf when he castigates them (he loses none of his prudishness, even being disgusted by Rita's perfectly legitimate pregnancy at the end of the film).
What was Speight trying to say? It seems obvious that he was using the second film to say something, but the message is so muddled that the overall effect is one of total confusion. Perhaps the fault lay in the execution of Speight's ideas, but to be fair to the production team, the script was so bizarre that perhaps they felt celebrity cameos were going to be the only attraction. Certainly the producer, Ned Sherrin, used it to promote both Julie Ege and Patricia Quinn, who both appeared in Rentadick in the same year, the film whose writers, Graham Chapman and John Cleese, disowned, leaving the film with only 'additional material' credited. In A Liar's Autobiography, Graham Chapman blames Ned Sherrin for changing the script (and title) beyond recognition, and it would be fascinating to hear the story behind the making of The Alf Garnett Saga. Sadly, although I sent questions about the film to Ned Sherrin, his answers were minimal, so I am left to draw my own conclusions, which, incidentally, I encourage any readers to do. Flawed though The Alf Garnett Saga is, it is a fascinating snapshot of the early Seventies, and the first film, Till Death Us Do Part is a pleasure from start to finish. Perhaps context is indeed everything.
This article was first published in kettering Issue 3. Support your local comedy fanzine!