ONE Sunday morning in 1938, Warren Mitchell went to Liverpool Street station with his father, a Jewish businessman.
Mitchell, or Missell, as he was before becoming an actor, was only about 13 as he watched the throng. As a young boy, he could not have known the day’s significance, that it was the beginning of a remarkable story that would weave coloured threads through the tapestry of his life. More than 50 years later, in 1989, he would watch a BBC television documentary showing the arrival of the Kindertransport. He could not believe it when he saw the cameras had captured Ilsa stepping from the train. Now a man approaching his 65th birthday, he recognised that the threads needed to be tied, the picture completed. Knowing Ilsa had lived in New York, he took an advert in the New York Times. Ilsa Moses, please contact Warren Missell.
WARREN MITCHELL is 78 now, and still working. "What else would I do?" he says. As the door opens stage left in Great Malvern theatre, it is hard not to expect Alf Garnett to appear. Garnett, the foul-mouthed, racist, right-winger in Till Death Us Do Part, was so believable, such an icon, that it became difficult to remember Warren Mitchell was in there at all.
A frisson runs through the audience as Mitchell enters. He looks like Garnett, only older, more frail. But in minutes, all thought of Alf is gone. Mitchell is playing Solomon, a semi-retired, Jewish New York furniture dealer, in Arthur Miller’s The Price. He won an Olivier award for the role, and little wonder. He is magnificent: funny and serious, scheming and vulnerable in one. Mitchell’s personality is swallowed up again, lost inside 90-year-old Solomon as he totters his way round the stage. As the applause rings out, he is helped from his chair to take his bow, and he stands a little unsteadily in stocking feet, a figure at once both tiny and immense.
We talk the next day. The hotel room is completely empty save for two chairs facing one another and a table in the middle, like an interrogation scene from a film. Mitchell shuffles in. He wears a sweatshirt, but with a jacket on top - an old-school touch of formality. He is quietly roguish, with a "when I’m old I shall wear purple" quality. His actor’s voice is a strong instrument still, more powerful than the rest of his body. "We’ll have lunch, shall we?" he says. If he likes. Will my paper pay? Yes. "Good," he says. "I’ll have the works then."
He likes the idea of screwing lunch out of a newspaper. Johnny Speight, the writer who created Garnett, used to laugh at Mitchell’s dislike of the press. One Saturday, tabloid reporters bluffed their way into his garden. "I have a pool," says Mitchell, "and I tend to walk around bollock-naked. I came out of the pool, saw the blokes, and punched one and kicked the other." Unable to get the interview, the paper ran a story about Mitchell cavorting with male guests from Australia. "The whole implication was that there had been homosexual orgies going on in the pool. Johnny thought it was very funny. ‘They always win,’ he said."
A psychiatrist friend of Mitchell’s wife Connie once said his antics were partly caused by losing his mother at 15. "Apparently some of my bad behaviour is because I haven’t had a mum for a long time. She said, ‘You have to make allowances for Warren; he obviously lacks a mother.’" What bad behaviour? "Oh, I’m irascible, and I change my mind rather frequently. That drives my wife bonkers." He remembers talking in plummy tones as a young man about the possibility of "that bounder Attlee", of the Labour Party, being elected prime minister. Within weeks he had been converted to communism.
It was his mother who first awakened his interest in theatre. She took him to variety theatre and they saw every Crazy Gang show there was. They were even at the theatre when the Blitz started. "We sat there holding hands," recalls Mitchell, "watching the play while the guns were going off all around us."
His mother would have loved his success. All these years later, his memories have dimmed, but he speaks tenderly of her. "I don’t remember her very well, and I don’t remember very much. I have pictures of her at home in my bedroom. She was very beautiful in a way. Obviously I didn’t inherit the looks. She was dark-haired and had a Roman nose, a lovely nose, and very kind eyes and a beautiful mouth, as I remember." She came from a big family. "She was the peacemaker, the secretary general of the family. She was forever trying to heal rifts. She was loved by all of them."
And does he agree with the psychiatrist that he has missed her all his life? "I have never understood that psychobabble. It always bewilders me." He does admit, however, that he once did a film about the philosopher George Gurdieff, and became fascinated. "It was wonderfully interesting and revealing of myself. I learned how to deal with certain problems that I thought were insoluble. Things like circling thoughts. And keeping accounts with people - you did this and you never did that and I did this for you; all those sorts of human relationship problems."
He has had obsessions, then? "Oh yes. You get to dislike somebody at rehearsal. You lie in bed and think, ‘I want to go to sleep now. Go away!’ But they won’t. How could they do that? How dare they!" Any particular themes to the obsessions? "Sometimes I got very worried about money. We were very poor for a long time, and that did obsess me. I’d think, ‘How could they charge me that amount of money for that? I’m going to sort that out tomorrow.’"
His poverty was as a young actor, not as a child. His father was comfortable rather than wealthy, proud of owning his own house on the border of a council estate. He was hugely proud, too, of Mitchell’s acting achievements - he used to sign hotel registers "Alf Garnett’s father". When Mitchell won his first Olivier award, for Death of a Salesman, he introduced his dad to Princess Margaret. "He almost behaved like Alf, bowing and scraping. It was the best day of his life."
Yet their relationship was troubled for many years, mainly because of his father’s insistence on seeing anti-Semitism where there was none. "I remember going into a garage with him. In those days they put the petrol in for you, and if they spilled a drop he’d say, ‘Look at this Yiddified mummser, anti-Semitic bastard!’ I’d say, ‘Come on, Dad. They don’t know you are Jewish.’ ‘They know, they know, don’t worry, you’ll see. Your only true friends are Jews.’ I loathed this particular form of racism even at that time."
Mitchell had signed up for the RAF in a deal that kept his place at Oxford studying physical chemistry open while he trained. But he met Richard Burton in the RAF and never went back to university, going on to study drama instead. Neither did he return home. "I had my last leave in the RAF and wrote to my father saying, ‘I won’t be coming home to live. I can’t live in a house where the rule is ‘Jews only enter here’."
His father’s upbringing had not been strictly Jewish, yet he refused to speak to Mitchell’s Gentile wife, Connie, for two years. "It was awful. Finally his brother interceded and we were invited to Sunday lunch. My wife said, ‘I can’t...’ I said, ‘Darling, you’ve got to. He has made the effort.’ He was too embarrassed to look at her. He’d say, ‘Would your wife like more chicken?’ It really was hysterical."
His father called once when he was out. "He always had stocks of china and glass, but nothing ever matched. They were all samples. He turned up on the doorstep one day with two little boxes, and Connie opened the door. He said hello and leaned forward and kissed her, and then realised he shouldn’t have done it and jumped back as though he’d been shot. They both jumped back. I think he was secretly hoping the marriage would end in disaster; he thought it couldn’t last. He was a racist."
Mitchell wants a proper table for lunch. He is prepared to negotiate the flight of stairs and asks the waiter to show us to the restaurant. "No problem," replies the waiter.
"I hate ‘no problem’," grumbles Mitchell, sotto voce. The waiter brings his beer. "Thank you," says Mitchell.
"No problem," repeats the waiter.
"I’m trying to get people to join my no no-problem club," Mitchell says.
The waiter smiles uneasily. What kind of sweet would he like? "Bread-and-butter pudding." Bread-and-butter pudding is not on the menu. "Make some quick," says Mitchell. His teasing is deadpan.
No kosher food, but he feels Jewish. "I can’t define it, I just am." It is not spiritual. "I am an atheist, thank God," he quips.
He is a keen sailor and launches into a tale about being in the Bay of Biscay in terrifying conditions. "I really wished I hadn’t been an atheist. I really wanted to sink to my knees and pray. I didn’t think we were going to survive; it was really horrific. But we did. And I didn’t pray," he adds proudly.
He did pray once, about 20 years ago, when he was struck down with acute transverse myelitis, a polio-like illness, while in Australia. Alf Garnett made him a star and he is now an Australian citizen, spending several months there each year. The Aussies loved the show’s irreverence, particularly towards the Queen, or Betty Battenburger, as they called her. But Alf was sometimes criticised for encouraging racism in those who failed to see the irony. Did that worry him? "No. People who couldn’t understand what the writer was at were beyond redemption anyway. A guy came up to me in Tottenham once and said, ‘Hey, Alf, I love that show of yours where you have a go at the coons.’ I said, ‘Actually, we’re having a go at f**kwits like you.’"
Anyway, there he was in Australia, paralysed from the waist down. "I lay in hospital and looked up at the ceiling and said, ‘If there’s anybody up there, God, Fred, Shiva or whoever, if you let me walk again, I promise -’ and I thought I had to make some kind of votive sacrifice - ‘I will never smoke another cigarette.’ I did walk again, and it was easy to give up smoking. I couldn’t break that vow."
Why not, if there is no God? "Why indeed? I don’t really know." Perhaps he believes more than he admits. "Maybe. I don’t know. I’ve never really gone into it in depth. I am too busy living. I am very un-introspective. Very occasionally, when I am in the middle of the Australian bush, I look up at the sky and think, ‘Oh my God, look at that!’ Those sorts of imponderables do occasionally impinge, but not often."
But his background impinges frequently. He remembers his maternal grandmothers descriptions of fleeing the Cossacks. "Saturday afternoon fun with the Cossacks: chase a few Jews. They taught the world how to hate Jews. In eastern Europe, Poland and Russia were the progenitors of anti-Semitism. It was hideous."
He never visited Russia, but felt pulled by those roots. "Although I didn’t think a great deal of the film, in Zhivago, when the camera dwelt on this wonderful, undulating... I thought, ‘That’s me. That is my land.’" Jewishness runs through him like a vein, filled with the blood of his family’s experiences. Ilsa Moses is part of that blood.
ILSAMOSES’S daughter phoned while Mitchell was in hospital having his hip done. She had seen his advert. What was his connection to Ilsa? "I said she was my sister for some time," recalls Mitchell. "That’s right," Ilsa’s daughter replied. "Mama says you are the only brother she ever had."
Ilsa had spoken no English when she arrived in the Mitchell house, but learned quickly. She had not been to school for a year. "It was awful what happened to her. It wasn’t so much the Gestapo or the Nazis, but the neighbours. When you have a propaganda minister convincing the population that Jews are vermin, it’s not difficult to get round to hunting them."
Ilsa went on holiday to Somerset with Mitchell, his sister and mother. She was very tearful, fearing she would never see her parents again. Then Mitchell’s father phoned. Ilsa’s parents were in London. "She went off her skull, jumping about," says Mitchell, and then breaks off. He is a wonderful raconteur, dramatising stories, slipping in and out of accents. For a moment, when his voice breaks, I think he is illustrating how Ilsa cried. But as his head goes down, a sob breaks from him, and I see that it is not Ilsa who is crying, but Mitchell himself. "Stop..." he says, "I’m sorry. It still affects me now. He wipes his eyes. "At my age, I cry very easily." I rest my hand on his arm for a second. "Thank you," he says softly.
Ilsa’s parents had left for New York on a German liner, but the German high command ordered the boat back to Hamburg in case war broke out. Having escaped, Ilsa’s parents were now back in Germany. The Jewish underground smuggled them into Holland, then Belgium, and finally to London. Their possessions had been confiscated, but Mitchell’s father kitted them out and waved them off on another liner, the Athena. It was the first boat to be sunk in the war. Mitchell’s father ordered the family to keep Ilsa away from the papers and the wireless. A week later he rang again. Ilsa’s parents had been picked up on a lifeboat in the middle of the Atlantic.
They were now classed as enemy aliens and imprisoned. "I saw a letter recently, which my sister found," says Mitchell. "It was the letter Ilsa’s father Alfred had written to the prison governor, asking for permission to write on plain headed notepaper to his daughter in London. He didn’t want her to know he was in prison." His voice breaks again, his eyes lit with tears. He looks at me across the table. "Cheer up," he says. "Terrible, isn’t it?"
Ilsa stayed only a year, but her story resonates through Mitchell’s life. "I became a fervent German-hater. Really, my motive in joining the RAF was to shoot down a few Krauts. I really was full of hatred for what had been done to Ilsa and her parents." Ilsa’s father had taken Mitchell and his father into a room and removed his shirt. "He said, ‘After the war, they will say there were not Nazis. You can say you saw what they did to me.’ His back was covered in weals where he had been flogged."
Mitchell never buys German cars. "I have a very old Jaguar. My wife has a Mazda. I wouldn’t buy an Audi or a Merc or a Volkswagen. I’ve never really been able to go to Germany. I went once and was uncomfortable. Everybody my age or older, I automatically put them in an SS hat." And yet he hated his father’s racism, hated Alf Garnett’s racism. Does he disapprove of his own? "Oh yes," he says. "There’s nothing I can do about it. I am so prejudiced."
His Ilsa story ends sadly, also marred by prejudice. At the end of the war he went to New York to see the Moses family and was greeted rapturously, but he didn’t see Ilsa for many years after. When her daughter phoned, he invited Ilsa to his 65th birthday celebrations. He even offered to pay her fare. But Ilsa would not come. "Connie not being Jewish, we didn’t have a kosher household."
Shortly after, he had a film interview in New York and said he would visit her instead. She arranged dinner with her daughter and son-in-law, very orthodox Jews. "I brought a magnum of champagne and a box of chocolates as big as this table, but they weren’t allowed in the flat because they weren’t kosher. The son-in-law started on me over dinner. ‘Why did you marry out of the faith? You realise you are completing Hitler’s job for him, destroying the Jewish nation?’ I said, ‘Ilsa, I have to go, darling. I can’t listen; this is not what I expected.’ It was very sad. The whole evening ended disastrously - which it always does when you meet fundamentalists, doesn’t it?"
He hasn’t heard from Ilsa since. "I sent her a picture," he says. "I did a play for the BBC called Wall of Silence, in which I played an orthodox Jew. I sent a picture and said, ‘Show this to your son-in-law; tell him I’ve converted.’ I didn’t get a reply."
We rise from the table, Mitchell to have a sleep before the evening performance. "I don’t think they liked the joke." n
Warren Mitchell appears in The Price at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, October 19-23