Date of Birth: 14 January 1926, Stoke Newington, London, UK
Birth Name: Warren Misell
Nicknames: Warren Mitchell
Warren Mitchell was the actor who created the monstrous Alf Garnett; the balding bigot with his Kipling moustache and West Ham scarf became the vehicle for some of the most iconoclastic satire ever seen on television.
Indeed, so believable was Mitchell in the role that he was regularly congratulated on his views by those members of the pubic who were precisely the target of him and writer Johnny Speight.
The character first appeared in 1965 as “Alf Ramsey” in a one-off BBC play by Speight. Mitchell, not yet 40, was the third choice for the part; the first was Peter Sellers. Alf’s convictions were made apparent from the first line as he looked as his watch while Big Ben struck 10: “That blaaady, Big Ben… fast again.” A series, Till Death Us Do Part, began the next year and ran until 1975.
Each week, from his armchair, docker Alf would treat all within earshot to his substantial prejudices, his favoured topics being race, permissiveness, feminism and the monarchy. Particular ire was reserved for the long hair of his son-in-law and for Edward Heath, the prime minister, for not having attended a “proper” school such as Eton.
The plotting was thin and much of its success was due to the ensemble playing of the cast, notably Dandy Nichols as his wife Else – the “silly moo” – Una Stubbs as daughter Rita and Tony Booth as her abrasive husband. As satire it struck only one note, but its power lay in guilty laughter, in exposing to view what many Britons secretly thought. Those, like Mary Whitehouse, who complained about the bad language either missed the point of caricature, or did not want to hear.
The programme spawned two films and a stage production, The Thoughts of Chairman Alf, and was transplanted, in milder form, to Germany and America as All in the Family. It was revived between 1985 and 1990 as In Sickness and in Health, but Alf’s views now seemed dated and peevish rather than disturbing.
Mitchell was born Warren Misell at Stoke Newington, London, on January 14 1926. His grandparents were Russian Jews who had emigrated to Britain in 1910 and were involved in the fish trade. His father, a china and glass merchant, was so orthodox that he would later refuse to meet Mitchell’s wife, the actress Connie Wake, because she was not a Jew. He only relented when she took the part of a Jewish girl in a play.
Young Warren was influenced more by his mother, who fed him bacon at Lyons Corner House and took him to performances by Max Miller or The Crazy Gang. Is faith was dealt a further blow when he played football for his school First XI on Yom Kippur instead of fasting and was not immediately struck dead. He celebrated with egg and chips and was thereafter a fervent opponent of dogma and tradition.
He was educated at Southgate County School and in 1944 went up to University College, Oxford as an RAF cadet to read Physical Chemistry. His mother had sent him to singing and dancing lessons since he was seven and he soon fell into dramatic company in Oxford, making friends with Richard Burton. His studies were ended in 1945 when the pair were sent for air training in Canada, where Burton’s ability to impress girls by declaiming Shakespeare convinced Mitchell to take up acting. He was accepted by Rada in 1947.
He struggled to find work on leaving and was employed first as a porter at Euston Station and then making ice cream at the Walls factory. He made his first professional appearance at the Finsbury Park Open Air Theatre in 1950 and met his wife soon after while at the Unity Theatre. A spell standing in as a disc jockey on Radio Luxembourg prompted him to change his name when told he needed one “people could write in to”.
His break came when appearing on Hancock’s Half Hour, then transmitted live. When Tony Hancock dried on one occasion, Mitchell was quick-witted enough to fill for him while he recovered. A grateful Hancock gave him a regular role, often as an indeterminate, peculiar foreigner. Mitchell’s dark complexion also secured him numerous small roles as ethnic types in films from 1954, when he made his debut in The Passing Stranger. He had appeared in nearly 40 films, including the Beatles picture Help! and with Burton in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold before his apotheosis as Alf Garnett.
He continued to perform in the theatre and surprised many who had overlooked, amidst Alf’s bigotry, the quality of Mitchell’s acting. He was particularly drawn to playing life’s losers. 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. Sir Peter Hall said it was one of the finest half-dozen pieces of character acting he had seen. Mitchell also appeared at the National in The Caretaker and in a tour of Pinter’s The Homecoming in 1991.
He played the miser Harpagon in Moliere’s play at Birmingham, although the critics felt his stab at King Lear in 1995 to be underpowered. He had more success as an excellent Shylock, both in 1981 BBC television production of The Merchant of Venice and for Radio Four in 1996.
He appeared in several other unmemorable films but despite increasing ill health in his later years he found his best roles on television and stage. In So You Think You’ve Got Troubles, a BBC series in 1991, he played Ivan Fox, a Jewish businessman caught in the religious crossfire of Belfast, and in the BBC’s ambitious adaptation of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast in 2000 he played the vicious bearded dwarf Barquentine.
On stage, 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. His performance, aged 82, in Visiting Mr Green (again, playing an elderly Jewish man) in the West End was described by the Telegraph’s Charles Spencer as “incredibly touching”.
Mitchell lived in Hampstead but was a regular visitor to Australia, frequently appearing on the Sydney stage, and in 1989 he took dual Australian-British citizenship, saying he preferred its egalitarian culture to the hidebound structure of British society. He could be forceful, even aggressive, company, always seeing himself as something of an outsider. He loathed what he considered to be the cautious mediocrity of contemporary television, believing that “you can’t be funny unless you offend people. Comedy comes from conflict, from hatred.”
He had a wide range of interests, from playing the clarinet to sailing and yoga. Several hip operations made him more implacable at the tennis net, but he had to give up the game after developing transverse myelitis, a nerve condition. His chief passion was 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.