Monday, 21 April 2008

94: “In Sickness and In Health”

Written by Johnny Speight

Warren Mitchell – Alf Garnett
Eamonn Walker – Winston
Arthur English – Arthur
Richard Speight – Winston’s friend

“In Sickness and In health” was a return in the ‘80s to the character and opinions of Alf Garnett, as performed by Warren Mitchell. Garnett had become a nationally recognised figure in the 60s sitcom “Till Death Us Do Part”. Written by Johnny Speight, Alf Garnett was an ignorant, reactionary, working class, East End, Little-Englander bigot, who was forever venting his prejudices with great force. The character was intended as satire, to expose the stupidity of such views. In expressing such forthright views about politics, sex and race the sitcom was different from everything around at the time and was a lightning conductor for controversy. It was also immensely popular. Alf was the butt of many jokes, but Mitchell’s performance had such vigour, and Garnett’s opinions were such common prejudices, that the character won enormous popular affection. The sitcom was adapted for American television in the 70s and became “All in the Family”, with Archie Bunker as the lovable family bigot.

The first series of “In Sickness and In Health” introduced the character of Winston, a black gay home help for Alf’s wife. “In “Till Death Us Do Part”, Garnett had had his daughter and son-in-law as foils, to rile him up and also refute his bigoted views. Winston was a new character to set Alf off. Alf referred to Winston by the nickname of “Marigold”. Winston was played by the actor Eamonn Walker who has since gone on to bigger and better things in America. I doubt that clips of his performances as Winston get played during interview on chat-shows over there.

This clip I think is from the second series. Only the first four minutes are really relevant. There are two aspects to consider. The first is the performance of Winston. The second is the conversation about homosexuals between Alf and his friend Arthur.

Winston seems to be a fairly broad caricature, but updated for the times. The idea that that gays are now out means that they are in-your-face, with obvious sexual overtones. Every line is topped by an over-the top leer and wiggle. Whether this is a performance by Winston to wind-up Alf is a little lost, since the audience laughs more at Winston’s simpering than at Alf’s questionable statements.

A dialogue about homosexuality on a mainstream sitcom is a moderately daring thing for this time. There are still may who would not want to see such a thing discussed as supposed entertainment. It is ironical then, that Alf is the spokesman for these reactionaries, arguing for rolling back the permissive society. It’s only a positive discussion by default, since the ideal right-thinking audience will reject all of Alf’s small-mind arguments. But the energy and drift of the argument is ostensibly homophobic, and about the only cliché he doesn’t spout is the one about “Blimey, the governments made it legal, they’ll be making it compulsory next.”

No comments: