Friday 21 October 2016

Obituary: Warren Mitchell

Actor best known for playing the irascible, bald-headed bigot Alf Garnett in the television comedy series 'Till Death Us Do Part'

Published 22/11/2015 | 02:30

BIGOT: Warren Mitchell as Alf Garnet (right) in Till Death Do Us Part with Anthony Booth as son-in-law Mike, Una Stubbs as daughter Rita and Dandy Nichols as Else
BIGOT: Warren Mitchell as Alf Garnet (right) in Till Death Do Us Part with Anthony Booth as son-in-law Mike, Una Stubbs as daughter Rita and Dandy Nichols as Else

Warren Mitchell, who died last Saturday aged 89, was the actor who created the monstrous Alf Garnett; the balding bigot with his Kipling moustache and West Ham scarf became the vehicle for some of the most iconoclastic satire ever seen on television.

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Indeed, so believable was Mitchell in the role that he was regularly congratulated on his views by those members of the public who were precisely the target of him and writer Johnny Speight.

The character first appeared in 1965 as 'Alf Ramsey' in a one-off BBC play by Speight. Mitchell, not yet 40, was the third choice for the part; the first was Peter Sellers. A series, Till Death Us Do Part, began the following year and ran until 1975.

Each week docker Alf would treat all within earshot to his substantial prejudices, his favoured topics being race, permissiveness, feminism and the monarchy. Much of its success was due to the ensemble playing of the cast, notably Dandy Nichols as his wife Else - the "silly moo" - and Una Stubbs as daughter Rita and Anthony Booth as her husband Mike. As satire it struck only one note, but its power lay in guilty laughter, in exposing to view what many secretly thought.

Those who complained about the bad language either missed the point of caricature, or did not want to hear.

The programme spawned two films and a stage production, The Thoughts of Chairman Alf.

Mitchell was born Warren Misell in Stoke Newington, London, on January 14, 1926. His grandparents were Russian Jews who had emigrated to Britain in 1910. His father, a china and glass merchant, was so orthodox that he would later refuse to meet Mitchell's wife, the actress Connie Wake, because she was not a Jew. He only relented when she took the part of a Jewish girl in a play. Young Warren was influenced more by his mother, who fed him bacon and took him to performances by Max Miller or The Crazy Gang.

His faith was dealt a further blow when he played football for his school on Yom Kippur instead of fasting and was not immediately struck dead.

He was educated at Southgate County School and in 1944 went up to University College, Oxford as an RAF cadet to read Physical Chemistry. His mother had sent him to singing and dancing lessons since he was seven and he soon fell into dramatic company in Oxford, making friends with Richard Burton.

His studies ended in 1945 when the pair were sent for air training in Canada, where Burton's ability to impress girls by declaiming Shakespeare convinced Mitchell to take up acting. He was accepted by Rada in 1947.

He struggled to find work initially but made his first professional appearance at the Finsbury Park Open Air Theatre in 1950 and met his wife soon after while at the Unity Theatre. A spell standing in as a disc jockey on Radio Luxembourg prompted him to change his name when told he needed one "people could write in to".

His break came when appearing on Hancock's Half Hour, then transmitted live.

When Tony Hancock dried up on one occasion, Mitchell was quick-witted enough to fill for him while he recovered.

Mitchell's dark complexion also secured him numerous small roles as ethnic types in films from 1954, when he made his debut in The Passing Stranger. He had appeared in nearly 40 films, including the Beatles picture Help! and with Burton in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold before his apotheosis as Alf Garnett.

He continued to perform in the theatre and was drawn to playing life's losers. In 1979 his Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman at the National Theatre brought him an Evening Standard award and an Olivier. He had more success as an excellent Shylock, both in a 1981 BBC television production of The Merchant of Venice and for Radio 4 in 1996.

In later years he found his best roles on television and stage. In So You Think You've Got Troubles, a BBC series in 1991, he played Ivan Fox, and in the BBC's lavish adaptation of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast in 2000 he was the vicious bearded dwarf Barquentine. On stage, he won a second Olivier in 2004 for his role as the crotchety Yiddish furniture dealer in Arthur Miller's The Price.

Mitchell lived in Hampstead but was a regular visitor to Australia and in 1989 took dual Australian-British citizenship. He could be forceful, even aggressive, company, always seeing himself as something of an outsider. He loathed what he considered the cautious mediocrity of contemporary television, believing that "you can't be funny unless you offend people".

His interests ranged from playing the clarinet to sailing and yoga. His chief passion was Tottenham Hotspur Football Club. He married Constance Wake in 1952; she survives him with two daughters and a son.

© Telegraph

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