Obituary: Warren Mitchell, actor

Warren Mitchell, accomplished actor best known for playing Alf Garnett in Till Death Us Do Part. Picture: Getty Images
Warren Mitchell, accomplished actor best known for playing Alf Garnett in Till Death Us Do Part. Picture: Getty Images
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Born: 14 January, 1926, in London. Died: 14 November, 2015, aged 89.

Warren Mithcell created one of the most memorable and controversial characters in British television as the working-class bigot Alf Garnett in Till Death Us Do Part and its spin-offs and sequels which ran from the mid-1960s into the 1990s.

Alf was sexist, racist, homophobic and foul-mouthed. He was a Tory, but regarded Ted Heath as a jumped-up “grammar school boy”, and disliked Mrs Thatcher even more, blaming her husband for failing to keep her under control. Alf was a West Ham supporter, forever denigrating “the Jews up at Spurs”.

Ironically, Mitchell was born into a Jewish family, though he became a Humanist. He was a Tottenham Hotspur fan and a lifelong socialist, honing a working-class accent while selling socialist papers in the street.

He was also a very talented and underrated actor, winning two Olivier awards. His performance as Willy Loman in the National Theatre production of Death of a Salesman is probably the single most powerful, most poignant performance I have ever seen on stage. He came to the Theatre Royal in Glasgow with the play in 1980.

Writer Johnny Speight based Alf on his own father and his prejudices. But it was Mitchell’s skill as an actor that brought real depth and pathos to a character that could easily have been no more than caricature.

Mitchell elicited sympathy for a man who believes that his 
values, misguided though they may be, are under siege. You can see the rage in his eyes behind the wire-rimmed glasses, but also the anguish as his certainties crumble, and he has nothing to replace them.

Alf is alone and lonely in a hostile world. In the 1970s, as the show grew and developed, Alf’s wife left him and moved to Australia. In the final episode of the initial run in 1975 he received a message that she wanted a divorce and another from his employer that he was sacked.

The quality of Mitchell’s characterisation was the secret of the show’s success and it was in itself a problem. Speight thought Alf’s opinions were so obviously ridiculous that people would laugh at them. But viewers took Alf seriously. Mitchell recalled a Tottenham fan who congratulated him on “having a go” at immigrants. “Actually,” Mitchell replied, “We’re having a go at idiots like you.”

Mitchell was originally Warren Misell, born in London in 1926. His father sold glass and China. He started acting as a boy, and began a chemistry degree at Oxford University, where he became friends with Richard Burton. Together they joined the RAF. He completed navigator training just as the Second World War ended.

Burton persuaded him to train as an actor rather than complete his degree and he studied at Rada, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, in London, and acted with the left-wing Unity Theatre, where he met his wife Connie.

He worked briefly as a DJ with Radio Luxembourg in the 
early 1950s, and was forced by the station to change his name. He appeared on Tony Hancock’s radio and television shows as various different characters, and by the second half of the 1950s he was getting regular TV work in comedy and drama.

He had major roles in several now-forgotten series, starred in one-off plays including the boxing drama Requiem for a Heavyweight, playing Sean Connery’s trainer, and made guest appearances on such hit series as The Saint and The Avengers.

Mitchell went bald at an early age, looked vaguely foreign and had a talent for accents, which made him popular with film producers needing someone to play foreign agents and villains. Early films include The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, but also Carry on Cleo and Help!, in the tiny role of Abdul, who works in an Indian restaurant that the Beatles visit.

Mitchell first played Alf on a one-off Comedy Playhouse in 1965. He was called Alf Ramsey and Gretchen Franklin played his wife Elsie. The BBC commissioned a series, with Dandy Nichols taking over from Franklin and Una Stubbs and Anthony Booth as the left-wing daughter and son-in-law.

While Alf worked as a docker, Booth’s character was unemployed and not only seemed perfectly happy with his situation, living in Alf’s house, but was smug and self-righteous as well. In real life Booth’s daughter Cherie married Tony Blair, with whom Booth did not see eye to eye either.

The original show ran for seven series from 1966 to 1975 and Mitchell won a Bafta for best television actor in 1967. There were two feature film spin-offs. The pipe, moustache, waistcoat and tie suggested a figure from a previous age, but Alf became an iconic figure of the 1960s, with its shifts in values and tensions about immigration.

ATV revived it as Till Death… in 1981, with Alf and Elsie retiring to Eastbourne, and the BBC rebooted it as In Sickness and In Health in 1985, with Elsie confined to a wheelchair. Dandy Nichols died after the first series and it was decided to have Elsie die too, and so Alf had to deal with bereavement, touching her empty wheelchair as he sobs “silly old moo”.

In Sickness and In Health ran for six series till 1992, with subsequent specials. Mitchell also played the character on stage and in 1998 in an Australian show version called The Thoughts of Chairman Alf, in which Alf answered questions from a studio audience. Mitchell had spent a lot of time there and took out dual nationality.

In the public consciousness Alf Garnett overshadowed 
everything else, but Mitchell was an accomplished actor in other television, film and stage roles. He played Shylock in the BBC’s The Merchant of Venice in 1980.

And he was deeply moving as Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, playing a father who loves his son Biff, but cannot communicate with him and ends up killing himself in a car crash, seemingly believing the insurance pay-out will set Biff up in business, though Biff does not want to be a businessman.

He won his first Olivier for the play in 1979 and a second, as best supporting actor, in 2004 for his performance as an irascible old Russian-Jewish New York antique dealer in another Miller play, The Price. He came to Edinburgh’s King’s Theatre with the play. He also won acclaim for his performances in Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker and The Homecoming.

He is survived by his wife Connie, to whom he was married for more than 60 years, and by three children.

There were obvious differences in outlook and background between Mitchell and Alf, but Mitchell revealed: “Connie once said to me: ‘You are like that awful Alf Garnett, only he’s funny and you’re not.’”