Guest Actor Biography
by Pete Stampede
Warren Mitchell will forever be linked with his character, or maybe that should be alter-ego, of bigoted, small-minded, loud-mouthed Alf Garnett, the comedically monstrous Cockney who dominated the ground-breaking series Till Death Us Do Part (BBC, 1965-75), later to be equally successfully (and controversially) transmogrified into All In The Family's Archie Bunker. Quite an achievement for the "sophisticated, left-wing Jewish actor," as playwright Peter Nichols once described him. Given Alf's suspicions of anything pertaining to the Left politically, Mitchell's repeated casting as a Soviet apparatchik (albeit one as daft as Brodny/Keller) in The Avengers is all the more ironic.
He was born in London in 1926; his Russian-Jewish grandparents had fled to Britain in 1910. His real name is Warren Misell; he says he regrets anglicising it now, as if you remind people what your name is often enough, they'll remember eventually. During WW2, while serving in the Royal Air Force, he managed to get onto a six-month course at Exeter College, Oxford, alongside another would-be actor called Richard Burton; later biographies of Burton tended to overlook the fact that the university only made these short courses possible because most of the students were in the services, but it was still quite an achievement for the Jewish North Londoner, and Welsh coal-miner's son, respectively. After the war, Mitchell studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), where Paul Eddington remembered him as an "impressive contemporary"; however, Mitchell claims he learned little there, and that his real alma mater was the semi-professional Unity Theatre. He was already playing leads there, and generally these were characters years older than his real age; the fact that he was already bald must have been an odd advantage. It also can't have hurt that Johnny Speight, later to create Alf Garnett, was a contributor to Unity revues.
On radio, Mitchell got into the supporting cast of Educating Archie (BBC Light Programme, 1948-60), a series starring ventriloquist Peter Brough and his dummy Archie Andrews; despite being basically terrible, it was highly popular and provided a launching pad for many future stars including Tony Hancock, Sid James, Benny Hill, Marty Feldman (as writer only) and even Julie Andrews. Another useful connection was that another of the scriptwriters, Ronald Wolfe, was a cousin of Mitchell's; he also wrote some gags for Beryl Reid's character "Monica" (an overgrown schoolgirl) himself, receiving the princely sum of one pound per joke.
His TV debut was, oddly enough, as Oliver Cromwell in a children's series, The Children Of The New Forest (BBC, 1955). The following year, he had several supporting roles in the first TV series of Hancock's Half Hour (BBC); "The Dancer", "The Radio Show" (both 1956), and later, "Lady Chatterley's Revenge" (1957) and "Underpaid! Or, Grandad's S.O.S." (1959). But just as HHH was rather better on radio than on TV, so his best contribution to Tony Hancock's work was in "The Poetry Society" (1959), probably my favourite radio Hancock episode. Vocally unrecognisable, Mitchell, rolling his r's with abandon, played a pretentious prat called Gregory whose meaningless poems, "Plastic apples on coconut trees... splish, splash, splonk," are hailed as works of genius by the luckless Hancock, but Sid James and chums soon jump on the bandwagon; Mitchell's fellow "Charmers" guest Fenella Fielding purred away, as another beatnik called Greta.
Mitchell began making films around this time, with small roles in Manuela (1957) and Alec Guinness' last Ealing comedy, Barnacle Bill (1957), but frankly, it's never been his medium. Nearly always in minor parts, and generally calling on his facility with dialects, his films nonetheless ranged from Hollywood-in-Britain productions like The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961) and Promise Her Anything (1965), both starring a very different Warren, namely Mr. Beatty, to B thrillers and horrors like The Trollenberg Terror (1958: adapted from a Quatermass-ish TV series which, as far as I know, he wasn't in), Calculated Risk (1963) and The Night Caller (1965. US: The Blood Beast From Outer Space). 1965 alone saw him popping up in Help! (1965) and the real contrast of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1965). Surprisingly perhaps, his only tangle with the Carry Ons was in Carry On Cleo (1964), as a slave trader called Spencius, who's got a brother called Marcus... An oddity was Where Has Poor Mickey Gone? (1964), a short in which he was an Italian magician who, after being bullied by some young thugs, makes one of them disappear; this currently only exists in an incomplete print, with no opening titles.
Sticking with TV, Mitchell carried on alternating between straight and comic work; it's been the pattern of his whole career. Several live TV plays included the BBC's production of Rod Serling's Requiem For A Heavyweight (BBC, 1957) in the Sunday Night Theatre strand; Sean Connery (when the BBC couldn't get Jack Palance, who'd done the original telecast) starred as the fading fighter, supported by Mitchell as his trainer, and Jacqueline Hill, later to be one of Doctor Who's first assistants, while, believe it or not, one of the other boxers, as little more than an extra, was Michael Caine. It would be fascinating to see it now - however, as no recording exists, we never will. After that, it was a real contrast for Mitchell to be a regular stooge for short, squeaky-voiced slapstick comic Charlie Drake in Drake's Progress (BBC, 1957). Mitchell's first starring sitcom, almost a decade before Alf Garnett, was Three "Tough" Guys (ATV, 1957), a quite forgotten caper about a trio of stupid villains which, in those formative days of television scheduling, was shown fortnightly rather than weekly. A little later, he was in an equally obscure, six-part send-up of war heroics, Colonel Trumper's Private War (Granada, 1961), as a kidnapped Polish professor, with Dennis Price in the title role of an untrustworthy officer. Odd guest spots included The Anne Shelton Show (Rediffusion, 1959), supporting the forces' sweetheart; and a real odd one was a Musical Playhouse spectacular, Carissima (BBC, 1959), which imported Ginger Rogers at great expense, but for some resaon, didn't require her to sing or dance!
Alongside all these live shows, as ITC and other companies increased production of filmed series in Britain, with their often unconvincing attempts at foreign locales, Mitchell was frequently called in to play characters of differing nationalities, sometimes in pretty small parts. Crossing the comedy-drama boundaries was Dick And The Duchess, "The Wild Party" (CBS/Sheldon Reynolds, 1958), which crossed other boundaries by being made in Britain, but by Americans. In the action-drama mode, Mitchell did William Tell, "The Black Brothers" (ATV/ITC, 1959); The Four Just Men, "Panic Button" (ATV/ITC, 1959); Sir Francis Drake, "The Prisoner" (ATV/ITC/ABC, 1961: a very rare example of networks collaborating) and Man Of The World, "Death of a Conference" (ATV/ITC, 1962). His several episodes of Danger Man, as more or less a different type of foreigner every time, began in its first series, in the half-hour format; "An Affair of State" (ATV/ITC, 60), also with John LeMesurier and, again, Fenella Fielding; "The Traitor" (1960) in which, cementing his status as a totem of political incorrectness, he was 'browned-up' as an Indian (what would Alf have made of that!), and "Find and Return" (1961). When the series expanded to an hour, with the title changed for the US to Secret Agent (man!), Mitchell returned for "The Colonel's Daughter" (ATV/ITC, 1965) and "I Can Only Offer You Sherry" (1966).
He had a recurring role in the monochrome episodes of The Saint, as an aide of Simon Templar's when in Rome, called Marco de Cesar; be warned, David and others, he played this part in pretty much the same, frantically gesticulating way he played Brodny! The episodes were "The Latin Touch" (ATV/ITC, 1962), "The Charitable Countess" (1962) and "The King of the Beggars" (1963), the latter including the bizarre, frequently excerpted sight of Oliver Reed and Ronnie Corbett (Ronnie Barker's fellow Two Ronnie) sharing the screen. Mitchell was also in an episode of Ghost Squad, "The Princess" (ATV, 1962) which, intriguingly, also guest-starred Honor Blackman, and Brian Clemens was script editor; another tenuous Avengers connection was The Human Jungle, "Time Check" (ABC, 1963), a series made on film (unlike most of ABC's output) and produced by Julian Wintle, as The Avengers would be. It starred Herbert Lom as a psychiatrist, in this episode trying to find out why weedy burglar Melvyn Hayes is terrified of clocks; Mitchell supported as a fellow crook. Appearances in more modestly produced, videotaped drama series included Armchair Theatre, "Night Panic" (ABC, 1960); Crime Sheet, "The Superintendent Takes a Trip" (Rediffusion, 1961), a follow-on from No Hiding Place, starring forgotten actor Eric Lander (who ended up being last on the cast list in "Two's a Crowd"); Detective, "The Case of Oscar Brodski" (BBC, 1964), as a Russian in an anthology series which showcased a different detective each week (usually adapted from short stories); KIPLING, "The Sending of Dana Da" (BBC, 1964), browned-up again for the episode's title role, and I'm afraid, so were most of the other actors in this now unrepeatable series of Rudyard Kipling adaptations; Armchair Mystery Theatre, "And Where It Stops" (ABC, 1965), a spin-off from the first in this list, hosted by Donald PLeasence; Out Of The Unknown, "The Fox and the Forest" (BBC, 1965); and The Man In Room 17, "Catacombs" (Granada, 1966), with Denholm Elliott, an unfortunately never-repeated series that often bordered on the fantasy genre.
Between parting company with Tony Hancock and setting up Steptoe And Son, masterly writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson inaugurated the anthology series Comedy Playhouse; indeed, all the early episodes were written by them (including "The Offer", which became the Steptoe pilot). Mitchell was in the very first, "Clicquot et Fils" (BBC, 1961), which sounds like a French version of Steptoe And Son but was actually about an undertaker, played by the indefatigable Eric Sykes. Mitchell's other segments included "The Channel Swimmer" (BBC, 1962); "Tooth and Claw" (BBC, 1969), written by Marty Feldman and Barry Took and starring Mitchell and Feldman as Reuben Tooth and Sydney Claw, a pair of warring Jewish businessmen (it sounds like the kind of thing that was OK as a one-off, but would have been a bit forced if it had become a series); "No Peace on the Western Front" (BBC, 1972), a WW1-set two-hander for Mitchell and Ronald Fraser, respectively as a German and a Scottish soldier; and (with a change of network, and slight title change to The Galton And Simpson Playhouse) "Big Deal at York City" (YTV, 1977), in a wig as a gambler.
In between these, he did another episode, "Till Death Us Do Part" (BBC, 1965), as a bad-tempered, bald-headed bigot called Alf Ramsay; Johnny Speight had originally intended the role for Peter Sellers, who despite the best efforts of producer Dennis Main Wilson (who had produced The Goon Show years earlier) was unwilling. Lionel Jeffries was then offered the role but proved unavailable, and Leo McKern very nearly did it but was delayed while making a film. Despite being cast at the last minute (he claims Main Wilson phoned him on an afternoon when he happened to be out of work), Mitchell and the show made such an impact that it became a series the following year, once Alf had undergone a name change to Garnett (the manager of the England soccer team at the time was called Alf Ramsey), and the role of his wife was recast.
At a time when twee, happy-family sitcoms dominated British TV (a holdover from the days when all programmes, especially the BBC's, had a basically middle-class viewpoint; after all, not everyone could actually afford TV sets then), Till Death Us Do Part was one of the first shows to be neither silly, or "sophisticated", but realistic as well as funny. Alf was a dockworker of near-retirement age, living in the East End area of Wapping, with his suffering-in-silence wife Else, played by Dandy Nichols, daughter Una Stubbs and son-in-law Anthony Booth. Booth's character, representing a younger, more liberal Britain, constantly argued with Alf and was usually the first to criticise his prejudices; Alf's general response was to label him a "randy Scouse git" (which lent itself to a Monkees song title) and to point out how his hairstyle made him resemble Shirley Temple. Alf may have been on the bottom of the ladder socially, but with his overweening respect for royalty (more than one episode had a dream sequence of him meeting the Queen) and the Establishment in general, he hypocritically had no time for his own class; in one episode he declared, unaware of the inherent contradiction, "My father borrowed a pait of boots to walk fifteen miles to the polling station to vote Conservative!" Another use of irony was that he'd often say "Makes yer think, though, dunnit?" before launching into a particularly outrageous and ill-thought out comment.
His prejudice against foreigners of all kinds, especially Britain's immigrant population, was frequently stated; it's typical of Britain's self-styled Clean Up TV campaigner, Mary Whitehouse, that she criticised the series for its now-mild swearing (mainly "bloody", which to Americans at least seems to be a harmless colloquialism) and jokes about royalty, while apparently overlooking the abusive descriptions of various races. Speight always insisted that his basis for including such terms was purely to point out the ignorance of real-life prejudice, and not to have done so would be as bad as claimimg that prejudice doesn't exist; he also admitted, having grown up in Wapping himself, that there were plenty of genuine Alfs about. In an interview in THE GUARDIAN, only last week at the time of writing, Mitchell admitted there were times when their creation could have been taken the wrong way: "There have been times when I've felt ashamed. When I've been doing Alf to a live audience and he says something like "Enoch Powell had the right idea" or "Adolf Hitler had his moments", and somebody in the audience cheers." Mitchell's being Jewish in real life was cleverly incorporated in one episode, "Intolerance" (1966), where Booth forces Alf to go to the mirror and take a good look at his own nose.
Political issues aside, the 60's and 70's was a particularly rich time in British sitcoms for comic monsters; Albert Steptoe (Wilfrid Brambell), the senior half of Steptoe And Son; Rigsby (Leonard Rossiter); Basil Fawlty (John Cleese). And it can't be disputed that Mitchell made Alf Garnett an unforgettable specimen of this grouchy breed. In granny glasses, with pipe in mouth, Mitchell played Alf in the single-minded manner of the truly inflexible, often delivering his jaundiced beliefs as he sat in his living room chair, slightly lowering his newspaper and saying the unsayable with the casual air of a father telling a child not to play with matches. Then, whenever one of them (usually Booth) dared disagree, his whole body language changed and he'd bristle with impotent rage, his moustache disappearing into his top lip, alternately jamming his hands deep into his pockets or using them to point anguishedly. OK, so the series didn't really have a single likeable protagonist. OK, so very often there wasn't much of a storyline. And OK, sometimes the studio audience seemed to negate Speight's intentions by howling with laughter each time a term of racial abuse was used. But it was a damn sight better show than Are You Being Served.
When the 1968 season ended, it was claimed at the time that the series had finished for good; however, Alf was back in 1970, in a short called The Campaign's Over! (BBC, 1970), broadcast on the night of the General Election, but only once voting had finished, so that none of the fickle electorate could be swayed by satire. Eventually, the series returned in 1972 for its first regular run in colour, continuing for five more series. In 1976, Mitchell did a solo stage show, The Thoughts Of Chairman Alf, at the Theatre Royal, Startford East; he subsequently toured in this for years, and it was twice captured for TV (in 1980 and 1994). Till Death... (ATV, 1981), however, was a revival, with Alf and Else retired to the seaside resort of Eastbourne, that didn't work out. The most successful spin-off from Speight's original, of course, was All In The Family, in which Alf underwent a sea-change to become Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor). If anything, this was even more successful than the British original; however, in a late 70's satellite link-up between Eamonn Andrews' talk show in London and Dick Cavett's in the US, on which Mitchell, Speight, O'Connor and writer/producer Norman Lear participated, Mitchell informed O'Connor he didn't think much of the adaptation. (Utter trivia: O'Connor actually started his acting career in Ireland, and for a while was in the same rep company as Jack MacGowran.)
With the fame playing Alf had now given him, Mitchell made several appearances in character on other shows, terrorising variety and talk show hosts. Perhaps the most notable was on DUSTY (BBC, 1967), in a specially written routine by Speight in which Alf, as a volunteer from the audience, completely wrecks a magician's act (it looked like Carol Cleveland was the magician's assistant) before getting to sing with the late, lovely Dusty Springfield. A Series of Birds (BBC, 1967) was a vehicle for likeable satirist John Bird that didn't launch him into the mainstream, although he's happily still going today; Mitchell was in the first of the series, and later guests included Peter Cook, Michael Palin and Eleanor Bron. Again with Cook, Mitchell was one of the guests (so was John Cleese) on Goodbye Again (ATV, 68-69), Cook and Dudley Moore's shortlived ITV series which wasn't as popular (or as good, apparently) as their BBC classic Not Only But Also, and didn't break them in the US when shown in the Kraft Music Hall Presents slot, either.
Returning to films, Mitchell had showy charcter parts, though still in the funny-foreigner mode, in Diamonds For Breakfast (1968), and The Assassination Bureau (1968), starring Diana Rigg. It was hoped at the time that the film of Till Death Us Do Part (1969) would launch him as a screen comedy star (Brian Blessed was among the supporting cast); capitalising on his being nowhere near as old as Alf in real life, the idea of starting in WW2 was a good one, but as always with big-screen versions of TV comedy series, the inevitable feeling was of three episodes stuck together, and there was a dangerous element that the audience was being asked to sympathise with Alf here. Ray Davies of The Kinks, the perfect songwriter for wry class-consciousness, supplied a song for the end titles. The Alf Garnett Saga (1972) was even patchier, with different actors in Booth and Stubbs' roles, and like all the work of producer/raconteur/confirmed bachelor Ned Sherrin, tried to paper over plot cracks with cameos by stars Sherrin had blackmailed into taking part (including John LeMesurier). All The Way Up (1970) had Mitchell top-billed as a grasping Northern businessman, a role Leonard Rossiter had done on stage (then called Semi-Detached); it was really only noteworthy as one of the first instances, commonplace since the start of Channel 4 in the 80's, of a TV company, in this case Granada, backing a film for cinemas.
At Christmas 1970, Mitchell was in a fascinating special, 'Wilton's' - The Handsomest Hall In Town (BBC, 1970), in which contemporary stars recreated an evening at the Victorian music hall of the title. Mitchell played Gus Elen, a performer of maudlin Cockney songs ("It's a Great Big Shame!") while other participants included Ronnie Barker, Spike Milligan and, in what was by then a rare TV appearance, Peter Sellers. As himself, Mitchell did more than a few guest shots on Jokers Wild (YTV, 1970 and 72), usually telling Jewish jokes and on a couple of occasions sharing the bill with fellow "See-Through Man" guest Roy Kinnear: Mitchell and his frequent team captain.
Bob Monkhouse share the distinction of having been on both this very old-fashioned show and Have I Got News For You (BBC, 1990- ), nominally hard-hitting satire but with a surprisingly similar format, right down to appearing spontaneous but actually being pre-rehearsed. As a change of pace, he played an MP called Sir William Mainwaring-Brown in Men Of Affairs (HTV, 1973-74), a reputedly wet series of farces that was really a vehicle for king of trouser-dropping Brian Rix. Secrets (BBC, 73), written by Michael Palin and Terry Jones in between the third and fourth series of Python, and the first in an anthology called Black And Blue, starred Mitchell as the head of a north country chocolate company, faced with a moral dilemma when three men accidentally fall into a vat making the chocs of the title, which prove to be highly popular! The last shot was of a billboard reading, "We're letting people into our Secrets"; criticised at the time for bad taste, the master tape of the play was wiped by the BBC and currently, the only existing version is one taped off air on a now obsolete make of VCR (with picture quality resembling something taped with a portable aerial), and held by the British Film Institute. Even worse, a film remake, Consuming Passions (1988), not involving Palin, Jones or Mitchell, was vulgarly rewritten and a disaster. A more successful Pythonic credit was his supporting role as Mr. Fishfinger, father of Palin's revolting true love Grizelda, in Terry Gilliam's sorely under-rated solo directorial debut, Jabberwocky (1977).
An outrageous episode of The Sweeney, "Big Spender" (Thames, 1975) had Mitchell as a larcenous car park attendant who ends up trying to evade the Sweeney by dressing in drag. He worked again with John Thaw years later, in a very straight role as a Holocaust survivor, in an episode of Thaw's legal drama Kavanagh Q.C., "Ancient History" (Central, 1997), written by Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale. He starred in The Merchant Of Venice (BBC, 1980), in the BBC Television Shakespeare marathon, but by now had discovered Australia and was increasingly spending time there. In his recent Guardian interview, he admitted using his position there to get theatre roles he wouldn't get in Britain, such as King Lear, which he played in Australia 17 years before he did in Britain (in 1995, at the Hackney Empire); "I'd never have got to play Norman in The Dresser, or be in Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? here." However, it's hard to say which of his films was more tasteless, the Australian Norman Loves Rose (1982), as a Jewish paterfamiliar, or the British Foreign Body (1986), which in critic Anne Billson's words "leaves one gasping for the subtleties of Confessions Of A Window Cleaner." And his most recent film, Crackers (1998), an Australian venture in which he apparently plays a one-legged Scottish loon, has gone straight to afternoon showings on cable TV in Britain, and according to my housemates is quite appalling.
During the 80's, he actually became an Australian citizen; but he was back at the BBC, to play Alf again in In Sickness And In Health (BBC, 1985-92), a logical follow-on from the earlier show. Although it ran for seven years in all, and still had plenty of airing of Speight's topical grievances, it didn't quite match the impact of the original series; Booth firmly turned down the chance to return and Dandy Nichols died after the first series. Alf's resulting status as a widower, along with being a senior citizen, struggling on a state pension (although he wasn't too happy about Thatcher, surprisingly) couldn't help but raise the question about who the audience were really meant to have sympathy with. Added to which, the new supporting charcters were fairly one-dimensional and unmemorable. Speight blamed the series' cancellation in 1992 on "political correctness gone mad", but frankly, dwindling audience size and interest was a more likely reason.
While Mitchell still gave 100% when playing Alf, the character's next few outings illustrated the law of diminishing returns. An Audience With Alf Garnett (LWT, 1997), one of a long-running skein of specials in which a star takes planted questions from a celebrity audience, was largely recycled from The Thoughts Of Chairman Alf. A Word With Alf (Carlton, 1997), a series of sketch-like pieces (each less than 10 minutes), was, despite being made by one of the ITV networks, only shown on the satellite channel UK Gold, which usually only shows re-runs. And a series of The Thoughts Of Chairman Alf (Carlton, 1998), again solo before an audience, had comments about the likes of the Spice Girls glued onto material going back to over thirty years before; Speight's death the same year couldn't help but underline the fact that the character's days were over.
Between the last few seasons of In Sickness..., Mitchell did another sitcom, So You Think You've Got Troubles (BBC/Alomo, 1991), as a Jewish man in Northern Ireland, caught between the warring factions and doing his very best to be impartial. It only ran for one series, but was, IMHO, a brave try at tackling a deeply unfunny subject. A single film drama in the Screen One strand, Wall Of Silence (BBC, 1993) about a murder apparently concealed by the fiercely loyal Jewish community of Stamford Hill, North London, again saw a return to his roots. Ain't Misbehavin' (Anglia, 1997), a three-parter about post-war musicians, saw Mitchell supporting Robson Green and Jerome Flynn, a pair of absolutely nondescript actors, and even more nondescript singers, who in the current sad world of British TV are considered more likely to catch the telly-watching public, and therefore get more star roles, than any other pair of British actors you might care to name. (And, I'm afraid, that includes Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg.)
In a 1997 radio interview, at the time of the release of that movie, Mitchell, when talking about his early TV roles, did a quick burst of the Brodny accent when saying "if you look at some of the early Avengers, I'm playing a Russian ambassador", adding in his own voice "Diana Rigg used to giggle behind my back, the bitch!... but he was wonderful to work with, Patrick Macnee, and Honor Blackman". He then took the opportunity to attack the influence critics have, using the film as an example, without actually defending it, "OK, so they've made a turkey..." He has most recently been seen as part of a very strong cast (including Christopher Lee) in the BBC's adaptation of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast (BBC, 2000), which unlike most BBC literary adaptations, actually dared to be visually imaginative.
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