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Speight of the nation

Back in the 1960s, an MP in the House of the Commons once said that the only sensible political debate in this country was taking place in Till Death Us Do Part.

It may now be hard to recall, but Alf Garnett, a man whom his alter-ego Warren Mitchell dubs a "bald-headed, racist git", made the impact of a crash-landing meteor when he first burst into our consciousness in a 1965 pilot for Comedy Playhouse.

Many were shocked by the sheer stupidity of Alf and his rantings about blacks, Jews and "silly moos", but no one could ignore him. Mitchell, for one, thinks Garnett's creator, Johnny Speight (right), who died last month, invented a timeless, universal figure. "You still hear these sort of debates on the Tube and from taxi-drivers," he says.

"I've been fortunate to play parts written by Shakespeare, Pinter and Speight. I don't hesitate to bracket Johnny in that group. He'll be remembered for creating a character as memorable in his way as Falstaff. He's perhaps the greatest political satirist since Jonathan Swift." High praise, indeed.

Tony Moss, executive producer of A Tribute to Johnny Speight on BBC2 tonight, reckons that Till Death Us Do Part, "was the first great working- class comedy. It helped define the nature of the great British sitcom, which tends to be about domestic life with larger-than-life monsters at the heart of them. These characters remind us of our parents. Janet Street- Porter said that Alf Garnett was most people's father. My son certainly thinks I'm like that."

The writer did not at first appear destined to reap such eulogies. "Johnny was the son of an East End docker whose family expected him to follow in his dad's footsteps," Mitchell says. "When he turned up one day with a typewriter, his mother thought it was disgusting. And when Till Death Us Do Part first went out, he asked his dad if he'd seen it. `No,' he replied, `we never watch that side'.

"Johnny was influenced by his early reading of George Bernard Shaw in the newspapers. At first he thought Shaw was a music-hall comedian because he was so funny. Then he went to Canning Town Library and saw he'd written all these plays. He read them all and said, `I want to write like that' - and he did. Whereas Shaw debated topics through the mouths of highly articulate people, Johnny debated them through the mouths of four idiots."

With their ill-informed ravings, these four idiots - Alf, his wife, Else (Dandy Nichols), daughter, Rita (Una Stubbs), and son-in-law, Mike (Anthony Booth) - stirred up no end of controversy. But according to Mitchell, that only goes to underline Speight's effectiveness as a writer. "Look at Friends. It's very clever, but it's written for people with a 10-second attention-span. With Till Death Us Do Part, people were invited to take sides. Many points were raised.

"I've just been re-watching the episode about donating blood. Alf believed that if a white man got blood from a black man, there was a danger of awful disease. Then his son-in-law said something equal to anything campaigners come out with: `So all you've got to do is take Cassius Clay, drain him of his blood, put it in a white, British man, and you'd have a white, British heavyweight champion of the world'. That says all there is to say about the idiocy of racism."

The black writer Darcus Howe has said: "I love Till Death Us Do Part, because my wife would sit there and hurl abuse at Alf. She'd throw boots at the television. Nothing ever engaged her interest in the same way. It was the earliest example of interactive television."

Moss chips in that "Alf is a brilliant characterisation of human frailty and stupidity. In an early episode, he is railing about not being Jewish, when he clearly is. The more irate he gets, the more Jewish he becomes. It's a wonderful insight into the myopic nature of most of us."

All the same, many bigots missed the point and took on Alf as their champion. "If they did, hard luck on them," says Mitchell. "If Alf is all they've got as a champion, then it's a pitiable state of affairs."

When the series reappeared as In Sickness and in Health in the 1980s, it soon fell victim to a changed climate. The PC police were feeling its collar. "There was a time when it was said that at Islington Town Hall, you couldn't order black coffee," says Mitchell, "you had to order coffee without milk. Political correctness is an attempt to right the injustices of racism, sexism and every other "-ism". But Oleanna, that wonderful play by David Mamet, shows the nightmarish things that can happen if you take PC to extremes. Johnny was a victim of fearful pinkos at the BBC."

The wheel may now have come full circle, however. ITV has just announced a new six-part series for the autumn called The Thoughts of Chairman Alf.

Would you bleedin' believe it?

`A Tribute to Johnny Speight' is on tonight at 9pm on BBC2