Warren Mitchell: there was more to him than Cockney foghorn Chairman Alf

Warren Mitchell

The seven-decade acting career of Warren Mitchell, who has died at the age of 89, was defined by a paradox and a frustration.

The former was that he was a highly-intelligent liberal who was celebrated for playing the right-wing moron, Alf Garnett in Till Death Us Do Part on television. The latter was that the durability of that character over-shadowed Mitchell’s considerable talent as a stage actor; his theatre CV including landmark performances in plays by two of the greatest 20th century playwrights, Arthur Miller and Harold Pinter.

Bright enough to have been accepted to read physical chemistry at Oxford University, he was persuaded by an educational contemporary, Richard Burton, to abandon his studies to become an actor. But, whereas Burton flourished first as a Shakespearean stage actor and then a film star, Mitchell – having been persuaded to anglicise for professional purposes the Russian-Jewish family surname – made a mark in radio comedy before taking, in 1965, the TV role that he played on-and-off for 33 years.

For reasons that may relate to a low sense of national self-worth, most of the indelible male characters of British TV sitcoms have been buffoonish incompetents: Captain Mainwaring is a hopeless soldier; Basil Fawlty made an unwise professional choice in becoming a hotelier; Del Boy Trotter lacks the aptitude for selling and David Brent for middle management role.

Alf Garnett is an exception to this rule, in being world-class and unsurpassable at what he does – bigotry and bloviation. Alf was conceived by writer Johnny Speight as a panoramic parody of the most unpalatable attitudes to be found among some of the traditional white working-class in Britain at the time: loud-mouthedly anti-immigrant, anti-semitic, anti-socialist, sexist, philistine.

Mitchell was first bewildered – and then irritated – to discover that, for a section of the TV audience, Alf was seen as championing rather than satirising the political positions he stupidly espoused. Most spectacularly missing the joke was the morality campaigner Mrs Mary Whitehouse, who held up the potty-mouthed white supremacist as a prime example of the BBC’s moral depravity and attempted legal action to force it off air.

One reasonwhy some viewers found Alf so convincing was that Mitchell was an actor who liked to disappear completely into a role, paying close attention to the way that a character spoke, walked, dressed and arranged their hair or, in the case of Garnett, hairlessness. Garnett’s bald pate, round wide glasses and moustache which gave him the contradictory appearance of a white, racist Mahatma Gandhi, were memorably off-set by permanent presence round his neck of the scarf of his beloved West Ham United. The voice, copied from those the actor had heard growing up in London, was a Cockney foghorn, delivering outrageous propositions in a tone of wearily wheedling common-sense captured in the catch-phrase: “It stands to reason”.

Mitchell was always bemused when asked to do impromptu turns as Garnett at charity events, prize-givings, on panel shows or in the stands at Tottenham Hotspur, the team he personally supported. The West Ham-supporting fascist, he pointed out, was a character speaking lines created by a writer and so expecting Mitchell to have Alf on tap was akin to asking an actor to ad-lib some extra bits of King Lear. For this reason, Alf died in 1998, at the time that Johnny Speight did.

As well as the two major TV series featuring Garnett – Till Death Us Do Part (1965-75) and In Sickness and In Health (1985-92) – Mitchell also played the role in various stage plays by Speight, including the award-winning The Thoughts of Chairman Alf, although most of theatre work was a deliberate and impressive rebuke to those who sought to categorise him as a sitcom actor.

At the National Theatre, he memorably played a celebrated American fantasist – the tragic victim of capitalism, Willy Loman, in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman – and an English (or possibly Welsh) self-deluder, the tramp Davies, in Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker.

The writers were so delighted by his attention to verbal and physical detail and ability to make failure charismatic that they chose him for other roles: the ancient antique dealer, Solomon, in Miller’s The Price and Max and the dark father figure in Pinter’s The Homecoming. It was a measure of his reputation as a theatre actor that Jonathan Miller, who had directed Sir Laurence Olivier in The Merchant of Venice at the National Theatre, cast Mitchell in the part for the BBC Shakespeare project in 1980, thus lodging in the TV archives a stark contrast to the Jew-baiting Garnett.

An atheist but a respecter of his cultural heritage, Mitchell enjoyed playing Jewish roles, although he may sometimes have made the characters of Miller and Pinter more tribal than the writers intended. While the religious identity of Solomon in The Price is specified, those of Willy Loman and Pinter’s protagonists are not. Pinter, although an admirer of the actor, publicly disagreed in an interview with Mitchell’s insistence on Max as a Jewish patriarch.

The fact that Mitchell could play impressively on television both Garnett and Shylock – a mouthpiece for religious intolerance and a victim of it – is a measure of his range. The only obstacle to his position in televisual posterity is that increasing fears of offending have made Alf less repeatable than Mainwaring or Fawlty – another example of people failing to get the joke about intolerance that Mitchell, in his signature role, so powerfully embodied.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Mark Lawson, for theguardian.com on Saturday 14th November 2015 20.52 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010