A tribute by PETER FROST
Actor Warren Mitchell, lifelong left-wing socialist, yet best known for his Tory voting, racist, sexist, grumpy old man London docker character Alf Garnett, has died aged 89.
Playing the balding bigot with his Kipling moustache and West Ham scarf, Mitchell became the vehicle for some of the hardest-hitting satire ever seen on television.
Indeed, so believable was Mitchell in the role that even years after the sitcom’s success, the star was often stopped in the street by people who really thought he was the working-class, anti-semitic Tory bigot he portrayed.
He won a Bafta award in 1967 for the Alf Garnett role and there were many later spin-off series featuring the same character.
Sometimes great acting and ironic writing can mask a greater truth. Mitchell rose to fame for playing the loud-mouthed, chauvinistic, homophobic, sexist and racist Alf. In reality he was a left-wing socialist, the antithesis of the character that won him so many accolades and awards.
In fact he was an active and enthusiastic socialist all his life, adding his support to many left-wing campaigns.
The Daily Mail couldn’t resist a snide comment on the actor’s death: “For a time, Mitchell sold socialist newspapers in the street, crying out with his polished, actor-trained voice. That was when he developed his working-class voice.”
Mitchell would have laughed out loud reading that in the newspaper whose readers he so ably satirised.
The truth is much more profound. Mitchell was quick to credit Alf Garnett’s loud and rough cockney accent as a direct copy from Unity Theatre actor George Tovey (below).
Tovey was a rough-and-ready cockney actor with a distinctive loud, coarse speech pattern from his native East End. Tovey, Mitchell and Harry Landis, who tells the story, starred together in the 1950s Unity production of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.
Mitchell was born Warren Misell in Stoke Newington on January 14 1926. His family were strict Russian Jews who had emigrated to Britain in 1910. His father was so orthodox that he at first refused to meet Mitchell’s wife, the actress Connie Wake, because she was not a Jew.
His mother on the other hand fed him bacon sandwiches at Lyons Corner House and took him to see Max Miller and the Crazy Gang. When he reached seven his mother sent him to singing and dancing lessons.
He won a leading role in his primary school nativity play but his father wouldn’t let him perform a part that required eating non-kosher Christmas pudding on stage.
In later life Mitchell would say: “I enjoy being Jewish, but I’m an atheist … I hate fundamentalism in all its forms. Jews, Catholics, Baptists, I think they are all potty and capable of destroying the world.”
He was a keen supporter and patron of the British Humanist Association. In 1944 he went to Oxford as an RAF cadet to read physical chemistry. A fellow student was Richard Burton. The pair encouraged each other to act. In 1947 Mitchell was accepted by Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Rada).
After Rada he struggled to find stage work and earned a living as a porter at Euston station and in an ice-cream factory.
His first professional appearance was at the Finsbury Park Open Air Theatre in 1950. He also joined and acted at the communist-inspired Unity Theatre, acting in left-wing plays and shows in the evenings after a day at drama college.
As well as Mitchell himself, Unity brought so many great performers and writers to the world of theatre including Harry Landis, Lionel Bart, Alfie Bass, Michael Gambon, Julian Glover, Michael Redgrave, Bob Hoskins, David Kossoff, Bill Owen and so many more. Here are many of the Unity company on a 1948 outing to Box Hill.
Unity drew on the repertoire of world theatre, including Sean O’Casey, Jean Paul Sartre and Bertolt Brecht. Among early supporters were Bernard Shaw, HG Wells, Sybil Thorndike and Paul Robeson.
Perhaps even more important, at Unity Theatre Warren acted alongside fellow socialist actor and Rada student Connie Wake. The couple (below) married in 1952 and were together until his death. They had two daughters and a son.
After a brief spell as a disc jockey on Radio Luxembourg, he appeared on radio, first in Educating Archie and then Hancock’s Half Hour.
His first film part was in 1954. It would lead to a screen career of nearly 40 films, including the Beatles picture Help! and The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.
He continued to perform outstanding dramatic roles on the stage. In 1979 his Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman at the National Theatre brought him an Evening Standard theatre award and an Olivier.
He also appeared at the National in The Caretaker and in a tour of Pinter’s The Homecoming in 1991.
He won a second Olivier award in 2004 for his role as the crotchety Yiddish furniture dealer Solomon in Arthur Miller’s The Price — he carried on with the run despite having suffered a mild stroke.
Mitchell was a regular visitor to Australia, frequently appearing on stage in Sydney, and in 1989 he took dual Australian-British citizenship, saying he preferred its egalitarian culture to the hidebound structure of British society.
His chief passion was always Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, first attending a game aged five. Fans were always astonished that Alf Garnett was among them rather than at West Ham.
I sometimes think that in the character of Alf Garnett he had more trouble getting out lines in support of West Ham than the racist and sexist Tory rubbish that were so distant from his own personal socialist principles.
Landis, (below) who first acted with Warren in the 1950s Unity production of the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and remained friends all his life, told the Morning Star: “Despite all his fame, right up until his death. Warren Mitchell remained a good socialist fella.”
This tribute first appeared in the Morning Star 16 November 2015