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Warren Mitchell, the UNAlfGarnett and Forks in Brains.

November 14, 2015


Hard to think of anyone less like Alf Garnett than Warren Mitchell.  Or rather, anyone less like him in terms of the really critical character defining stuff.

He was a thoughtful man and a passionate man.  He was a skilled actor who asked difficult questions both of his own profession and the world around him.

He trained for the RAF in Canada alongside Richard Burton and, apparently, had to lecture Burton about anti-semitism, but he never got to fly in combat.  Mitchell’s own background was Harold Pinter’s – he was a North London working-class Jewish skeptic and unsurprisingly he was a great interpreter of Pinter’s work.  He left a fascinating and varied and challenging body of work behind him when he passed yesterday, aged 89.

Premature baldness meant that he got to play characters much older than he was, which meant that he got defined as a “character actor” early in life.

My brother has already posted a link to one his most endearing roles – the philosophical removals man from Rosenthal’s 1985 TV drama – The Chain.

To be over-defined by a single role is, of course, the great curse of any actor.  I bet Kelsey Grammar wakes up in the night ever so often shouting “I hate you Sideshow Bob”.  The great tragedy of Garnett is of course, its political failure as a project.  A character co-created by a left-wing anti-racist writer (Johnny Speight) and a left-wing anti-racist actor (Mitchell) ends up being a figure claimed and loved by racists.

(Part of the problem is that you can’t tell a skilled comic actor to tell a racist joke and not expect them to tell it well.  I remember as a student I was in a production of Trevor Griffiths’ Comedians.  I played one of a number of aspirant stand ups who sell out – exploit prejudice – and do very well for themselves.  After performing my “act” – if the audience laughed I’d think “did they just miss the entire point of this?” and if they didn’t laugh I’d think “was I just crap?”

Garnett was one of the most influentially negative characters ever created for television.  American friends of mine are sometimes aware that he was the prototype for Archie Bunker – and so he was – structurally.  But Archie Bunker was a diamond in the ruff – he had a heart of gold.  Where as Garnett was bitter and twisted to the bone.  Beneath his hateful exterior there were just layers and layers of more hatred.  There’s something courageous about decades of refusal to succumb to redemptive sentimentalism.

It ought to have worked better as a political project.  All of Garnett’s prejudices were stupid and self-defeating.  He was constantly being worsted by people who had let more love into their lives than he could.  His most famous antagonist was of course Tony Blair’s father in law.  It seems impossible for anyone who doesn’t have a fork stuck in their brain not see any episode of “Till Death Us Do Part” or “In Sickness and in Heath” as a transparently anti-racist parable.

But racists do have forks stuck in their brains.  It’s why they are racist. If you’re a racist, then you’re committed to living a miserable fearful and illogical existence and the fork in your brain helps you do that.  You hate nothing more than any attempt to remove the fork.  The fork prevents such things as narrative logic or moral coherence from functioning.  When racists saw Alf Garnett – they didn’t notice that his racism was poisoning his life – they just loved seeing someone on TV saying racist stuff.  “He says what other people are thinking” they exclaimed (as though this was in itself an admirable quality).  With forks in their brains, racists simply didn’t have the functioning circuitry to see that Garnett’s hatreds were as imbecilic as they were toxic.

Garnett was a flawed political project – but not an ignoble one.  How to mock racism without simply adding to the repertoire of racist archetypes?  Eh?  There’s an ongoing 21st century endeavour.

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