Saturday, May 5, 2012

Till Death..... Well at least it felt like it

I guess you can call me a liar. Last week I mentioned that I was going to run one of my banked articles that I wrote in 2011. This was going to be Against the Crowd: Murrain. What happens is that even though I may not write about the stuff I watch, it doesn’t mean I am not still keeping a schedule of programs that I randomly pick and then actually watch them. Programs that I watch but not had written about for the blog lately includes The Hound of the Baskervilles and 2 episodes of the ATV series The End of Part One. I figured I would not worry about writing until early May until I watched the final episode of series 2 of Sherlock. That was until I watched the first two episodes of Till Death…..
What is Till Death… ? It is the 1981 follow up series to Till Death Us Do Part. Of course, Till Death Us Do Part was the ground breaking series started in 1966 about a bigot that no one really paid any attention to, Alf Garnett. Till Death Us Do Part was a series that showed how generations living in one house could grow apart and be so different. On one side is Alf Garnett who has strong views on everything from people who have different colour of skin than him to the Monarchy. On the other side of the spectrum was Alf’s daughter Rita and her husband Mike basically living off Alf but were the mouthpiece of the younger generation. In the middle was Alf’s wife Else who would dip onto either side of the argument depending on what suited her. Till Death Us Do Part lasted for seven series and ended in 1975. Although I didn’t write about it at the time, the final two episodes were among some of the stuff I watched last May. Back in June of 2010, I wrote an article about some of the early episodes of the series. When I got around to watching the last episodes, the series ran out of steam, the focus was no longer on the Garnett’s and by that time Else was gone. She had moved to Australia to take care of her sister. In fact, the final moment of the last episode had Else sending a telegram on Alf’s birthday to inform him that she wanted a divorce! With that, one of the greatest comedy series came to an end. Five years later, series creator Johnny Speight had other plans.

I don’t know if the BBC were no longer interested or if Speight wanted to move it from the BBC, Till Death Us Do Part becomes resurrected in 1981 as Till Death…. and big changes were ahead for Alf Garnett. Thinking about it, they could have called it Till Death Us Do Part1980, other series were doing it at the time!  But, and not for the first time, certain aspects of the Garnett’s life would be “forgotten”. First of all, the series takes place after Alf retires. Alf and Else move out to Eastbourne. No mention is made about Else’s move back from Australia or their non-divorce. Maybe because it’s not important to the overall story line and I can appreciate that. Though, maybe Else knows that as much as it sucks, she would be better off with Alf. One thing that is different now is that their neighbor Min is with them. Min makes an appearance very early on in Till Death Us Do Part and has been on and off with the series for years. She is a big part of the final years of the series and in many ways becomes the female lead of the series. Min is played very well by Patricia Hayes. I really enjoy her work and if you get a chance, check her out in Hancock’s Half Hour where she plays Tony Hancock’s housekeeper, Mrs. Cravatte. What? You don’t own the boxset for Hancock’s Half Hour? You need to order it right now! You will not be disappointed! Min moved down to Eastbourne with Alf and Else and they all share a house together. The question is, is this new series any good?
Sharing With Min 17/05/81

Have you ever watched Last of the Summer Wine? It is the longest comedy series of all time and lasted for 3 million years. Anyway, it is about 3 old people who don’t have anything going on with their lives and simply roam from one place to another. Usually its different parts of the town, comment on stuff and generally get in people’s way. The first episode of Till Death…. is exactly like this. The episode starts with Alf, Else and Min wandering on a pier in Eastbourne while Alf goes on endlessly about all sorts of topics. From there they go onto a game arcade then finally to the Queen’s hotel. The whole time Alf is complaining and pontificating on all manner of topics. The difference between this episode and an episode of Last of the Summer Wine is that the latter actually has a plot. I don’t know where the plot was on this episode. For an opening episode to re-introduce these characters, it was horrible. I lost interest and couldn’t wait for the episode to be over.

A real annoying thing about this series is that there is no laugh track to the episodes of any kind. Till Death Us Do Part always had a laugh track. The laugh track was helpful because it helped us (the audience) to understand when we needed to laugh at some of the outrageous and stupid things Alf had to say. It helped me laugh at Alf Garnett regardless how bigoted he was. In Till Death…. , no laugh track almost nullified that it was a comedy. The stuff Alf was saying was not funny. He makes a mention how he thought more atomic bombs should have been dropped on the Japanese (he didn’t say Japanese either). That’s not funny and with no laugh track or someone to oppose him on his silly views, it actually becomes more disturbing. In Till Death Us Do Part, Alf sparred with Rita’s husband Mike. Mike didn’t always make sense but he was the opposite side to what Alf believed in. To make Alf funny, we needed someone like Mike to put Alf in his place. In this episode of Till Death…. , Alf had no one like that. We end up with Alf going off on a tirade and very few people would disagree or tell him to shut up! It made the whole outing unpleasant. Also, the way the episode was shot (all on location) made the comedy very forced. If you have ever seen the film to Are You Being Served?, there are a lot of shots in the beginning at Grace Brothers as the department prepares for their trip to Spain. There are a lot of shots of comedy happening and then we cut to a strange reaction shot from Mrs. Slocombe or someone who would give a real odd expression. The comedy would sometimes fall a little flat. There was a lot of that type of thing in Till Death…. It didn’t heighten the comedy, just made it unfunny.
Punks 24/05/81

The second episode of Till Death…. is definitely better. For one thing, most of it takes place at the Garnett’s flat which is shot in the studio and it actually has a plot! Like I mentioned, the first episode has Alf, Else, and Min just meandering around different locations with very little going on. In this episode there is some structure.
It starts with Min and Else trying to do a Snow White puzzle and Alf complaining that there is no sugar in his tea and generally acting like a baby. After talking about money and how Thatcher is running the country, Min goes out and brings in the mail. The letter that arrived is for Alf and Else but Min opens it up. The letter is from Rita and she says that she will be coming down to Eastbourne with her son Mike at the weekend. Min mentions that Rita is coming to see “us”. Alf stops, and looks at her. He is confused. How is Rita coming to see “us”? Rita is coming to see Alf and Else. Min responds, “That’s right, they are coming to see us.” It’s kind of cute. At the point Alf goes out of his way to explain why Alf and Else is not “us” including Min but it is “us” only referring to Alf and Else. This is fine but it gets out of hand. The one thing I have always found annoying about Alf is how often Warren Mitchell really goes over the top with some of his performances. Now, I understand the character of Alf Garnett and I know that he has an explosive, hair triggered temper. Yet when Mitchell ad-libs in this role, it gets to be too much for me. This is one of those cases. He gets loud and abusive to the point, at least to me, it is no longer funny. This scene really exemplifies why there was a need for studio laughter. There is no energy but loudness. It really is bullying Min especially as she is this cute little old lady in glasses with her big eyes. It seems almost cruel.

The good news is, as always, for every action Alf does of being a bully, bad things tend to happen to him. At the beginning of the episode, Alf, Else and Min were talking about how there have been some beatings and rapes in the area. Alf was pretty tough thinking that no one needs to worry about such things. Later, after he is done yelling at every one, Alf goes for a walk. A group of kids come up to him to try and help him across the street and Alf freaks. He starts pleading for his life then on his knees he offers them money in a form of writing them a check. The kids are freaked out by him and run off. Alf even gets the police involved. Alf probably didn’t know what to think because they were a little punk. He wouldn’t know anyone like that.

Mike is Alf’s grandson who is 15 and punk. You may remember the Till Death Us Do Part episode from 1972 titled To Garnett A Grandson. It was the first episode of series 4. In that episode Alf’s grandson Mike was born. The episode I am writing about now is from 1981. Mike should be 9. He is 15 and very punk. All he does is listen to music on his head set. He really doesn’t talk with anyone. Of course, this drives Alf crazy. Mike’s hair is dyed red, white, and blue which also makes Alf crazy. Anyway, while eating dinner, the Vicar shows up. With Alf’s back to the dining room door leading to the entry way, Min brings the vicar in. Unbeknownst to Alf, the vicar is standing behind him. Knowing it was the Vicar at the door and thought he was told to push off so Alf goes into a tirade about the Vicar until he turns around to see the Vicar had been there all along and heard every word he said. The Vicar stopped by because he wanted to set the record straight about the boys who “attacked him”. The boys were just out doing a good deed as part of a church choir program, yet when they tried to help Alf across the street, he freaked! The Vicar then goes on to say to everyone else in the room how Alf tried to buy the boys off with writing them a check for money rather than hurting him.

With Alf looking like an idiot, Rita and Else go out for a walk. Mike stays in and Alf goes to take a nap. While Alf takes a nap, Mike takes some make-up and writes all over Alf’s face and bald head including on his forehead, “I Love Johnny Rotten”! When everyone gets back together again, they see what Mike did to his Granddad but before they can tell Alf, he decides he wants to walk Rita and Mike back to the train station. On the walk back everyone sees how funny Alf looks. Finally, Alf runs into the Vicar again where he apologizes and takes off his hat in respect. The Vicar sees the “I Love Johnny Rotten” written on him and exclaims, “So you have been converted!”
If you ever have a chance, please take a look at the article I wrote for some of the early episodes of Till Death Us Do Part here. In it I try to explain why those 1960s episodes of the series were so ground breaking. To me, the message we get in Till Death…. is muted. Where Till Death Us Do Part is about a generation gap and how the differences between those generations are defined, Till Death… is much more a sitcom about old people who retired. By this stage, it has become nothing more than Alf lecturing on about everything. Don’t get me wrong, I know he was always like that but not quite as much. Nobody seems to like Alf anymore. In the 1960s, he was tolerated and he was a hard worker. Now, Else not only seems to not like him but would prefer it something happened to him. There is something a little unpleasant about this series. It is nice to see Una Stubbs reprise her role as Rita. I have always enjoyed her in this series.  Speight has moved with the times though. Mary Whitehouse had been mentioned quite often in the original series but only gets one mention in the first episode. The new target from Speight in this series is Margaret Thatcher. Even ideas from Till Death Us Do Part get regurgitated into this series. In Alf’s Broken Leg from Till Death Us Do Part, Alf gets his face painted by kids while he is a sleep in his wheel chair. Strangely the theme music changes between Sharing with Min and Punks. The music from episode two onwards is in the same vein as the theme from Till Death Us Do Part, just not as good.

There is only one series ever made of Till Death…. I think the lack of audience laughter of any kind robbed this series of much needed energy.  In 1985 the Garnett’s would return again in the BBC series In Sickness and in Health. I have yet to see it despite the entire series being available on DVD. Clearly it had a more successful formula than Till Death….. as it last for 6 series. Almost as long as the original series plus if I am not mistaken, In Sickness and In Health implies it takes place after Till Death Us Do Part and makes no mention of any of the events in Till Death….just like it never happened. Perhaps it can be looked like as what happened with Mama’s Family. Just stay with me on this one for a second. Mama’s Family was based off the skit of The Family on the Carol Burnett Show. Mama’s Family, which is a traditional sitcom, started on NBC in 1983. Most people remember the characters from the skits or Mama’s Family but does anyone remember the teleplay Eunice that aired on CBS in 1982. In fact, it was more of a dramatic play than a comedy which ended with the funeral of Mama. No one remembers that and it is not part of canon which is what appeared to be the same fate for Till Death….
I watched these episodes from the original off air recordings done at the time of broadcast. You can imagine they are not immaculate but it gives a nice insight into what these series looked like. Sometimes I can be a quality snob but not for this. It does have ad caps in place. If it is something I have never seen before and I really want to see it, I will take it any way I can get it. I was reading on the Wikipedia entry for this series that Network had been looking into releasing this on DVD. Who knows when that was written. Of course if it is released, it would be great as this series, even with its faults should be seen. The greater crime of course is that still very few episodes of Till Death Us Do Part have been released especially from the informative black and white years. I was banging on about it in 2010 when I wrote that original article and I am banging on about it in 2012. I guess like Alf Garnett, some things never change.

Next week: As I mentioned before, I reserve all my viewing in May to revolve around episodes that end a series or a season. Next week I look at the ultra-cool Sherlock and take a look at the conclusion to series two, The Reichenbach Fall.

Have a great week!
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Dave G said...

I have tried to watch Till Death... but I just could not make it through that first episode. It was painful and I freely admit I gave up on it halfway through. Perhaps I will try again sometime and see if it does actually improve.

But I won't hold my breath.

Greg said...

I have to agree, I think the first episode is virtually unwatchable. It does get better as the series goes on but Alf basically becomes loathesome much more so than ever before.
It's just not a great series.