Thursday, June 19, 2008

“That’s bloody marvellous, innit!”

Back in June of 2005, I finished up an essay/review on a now-discontinued Region 2 DVD of the fifth series (from 1974) of one of Britain’s classic sitcoms, Till Death Us Do Part, with these words:

…I’d certainly like an opportunity to check out In Sickness and In Health if only to get the opportunity to marvel at the staying power of one of British television’s cherished institutions…Alf Garnett.

Three years after that post, I’ve learned that all good things do come to those that wait. BBC/2 Entertain Video released the first season of Health on Region 2 DVD on June 9…so naturally it fell upon me to purchase a copy in order to experience what this long-running sitcom had to offer.

First, a little background history is in order. Writer Johnny Speight was the creator of Till Death Us Do Part, a groundbreaking situation comedy starring Warren Mitchell as Alf Garnett, a working-class stiff at war with the world and frequently given to bigoted tirades. Each week, he would subject his family—long-suffering wife Elsie (Dandy Nichols), daughter Rita (Una Stubbs) and son-in-law Michael (Anthony Booth)—to his warped pronouncements on every subject imaginable: economic conditions in London, politics, minorities, etc. The show made its first appearance as a pilot on the BBC’s Comedy Playhouse on July 22, 1965…and generated such a positive audience response that a regular series was commissioned beginning June 6, 1966. Death, though extremely popular with the viewing public, lasted only three series before it was pulled due to protests about its uncompromising language and controversial scripts.

A 1969 article in Variety about the show’s cancellation caught the eye of future television wunderkind Norman Lear, who decided to take an enormous gamble and buy the American rights to the sitcom…despite the fact that Lear had never actually seen an episode of Death. In turn, he pitched an Americanized version of the comedy (soon to be immortalized as All in the Family) to all three networks before CBS agreed to roll the dice and premiered Family on January 12, 1971. All in the Family would change the face of American television comedy (after a slow start, the program took off and was the #1 series among Nielsen viewers from 1971 to 1976), and its popularity inspired both the BBC and Speight to bring Death back to UK television screens beginning in 1972, where it would run an additional four series before calling it quits December 17, 1975.

The character of Alf Garnett—an absolute monster who, as played by Mitchell, would sometimes reveal brief glimpses of humanity—became a cherished institution in UK TV, and like his American counterpart, Archie Bunker, proved to have tremendous staying power on the tube. (All in the Family ran from 1971-79, and its spin-off, Archie Bunker’s Place, lasted four more seasons before ringing down the curtain in 1983.) Alf and Elsie Garnett came back to TV in 1981 with a short-lived ITV comedy abbreviated to Till Death… that failed to capture much of an audience. Four years later, Speight had another go and created In Sickness and In Health—which ran for 47 episodes over six series between 1985 and 1992.

In Health, the Garnetts have relocated to a lower-class first floor apartment in London’s East End; Alf, who’s retired, must take care of “Else,” (as he always called her) who’s now confined to a wheelchair due to rheumatoid arthritis. The Garnett character—a bit mellowed with age but still able to kick up a fuss when the need arises—continues to vent his spleen about the welfare system (of which he is now part of), unions, the National Health, minorities, homosexuals, etc. and still gets no support or sympathy from his “silly old moo” of a wife. His chief irritants on the new series are Winston (Eamonn Walker), a gay black man who is Elsie’s caregiver, and Fred Johnson (Ken Campbell), whose frustration with Alf frequently manifests itself in his banging his head against a wall. Alf also has a drinking buddy named Arthur who is seen frequently on the show; Arthur is played by Arthur English, a veteran “variety comedian” best remembered for his long-running stint on Are You Being Served? as Mr. Harman, Grace Brothers’ cheeky janitor.

Fans of Till Death Us Do Part are often split in their opinion of In Sickness and In Health, with many asserting that the series just couldn’t measure up to the original. I’ve not seen every episode of Death (only the premiere episode and series four and five) but based on what I have seen I think Health can more than measure up to its parent series, even though I'll concede it was a tough act to follow. Mitchell, as I’ve stated previously, is amazing in the way he can make a character like Garnett—a man who in real life you’d go out of your way to avoid (and in fact, in one of the episodes on this DVD you see that very thing happening as he strolls down a street while his neighbors duck and run for cover)—vulnerable despite his awfulness. Nichols, despite her frailty (she was very ill during the show’s first series…and her death in 1986 necessitated her character being written out of the show), is still marvelous—underplaying her part and reacting to Mitchell’s diatribes with hysterical deadpan reactions. And as Winston, Eamonn Walker deftly plays a role that under normal circumstances would be considered uncomfortable stereotyping (that of the swishy, flamboyant homosexual)—but you get the feeling that most of Winston’s shtick is just a mocking reaction to Garnett’s constant taunts (he’s nicknamed the caregiver “Marigold”); masking his contempt for Alf with thinly disguised sarcasm (in turn, he refers to Alf as “Bwana”).

The episodes of Health are untitled, but the best outings on this DVD are Episode Five, in which daughter Rita (actress Stubbs would make sporadic guest appearances on the show) stops by for a visit; Winston and his lover have planned a farewell dinner on the night before she’s scheduled to return to Liverpool and although Alf wants no part of it (“I’m going to the pub!”) he changes his mind when the couple bring two large bottles of Jamaican rum to the party. (Alf ends up passed out on the sofa, wearing a pith helmet that Winston bought as a present for his “bwana.”) The sixth episode is also filled with laughs: Alf is doing everything he can to “lighten” Elsie’s wheelchair because of the physical toll it’s taking on him wheeling her around everywhere. (He even tries to get a motorized vehicle from the DHSS but is informed that his wife’s condition isn’t serious enough to allow him to have one; ironically, Elsie could acquire a “Rascal” if Alf were dead...or divorced.) Alf finally gets a friend to put a motor on the wheelchair but in testing it out he ends up in the hospital. Since he also foiled a bank robbery during his "test drive," he’s proclaimed a hero in the media and press—but Winston offers a few words of warning:

WINSTON: Listen, bwana…
ALF: What?
WINSTON: I don’t want to frighten you, right? But when our lame villains see you on the television…and realize that you is the one who caused them all that agro…spoiled up their little earner…put three of their mates away inside a prison…well, them is gonna want to fix you, innit? I mean, them is hard men, you know…they don’t like people give them agro…and them use shooters, too! Them will want to blow you away! Them will want to waste you! So, listen…before you go on the television…you just make sure you make some nice little provisions for Mummy here (indicating Elsie)…take out some insurance or something, ‘cause she’s going to be all on her own…she is going to be…a widow
ELSIE (quietly): I’ll be all right…I’ll get my powered wheelchair once he’s gone

Episode Three is also a nicely-done piece; what starts out as a raucous night at the local pub turns melancholy as Alf, Elsie and their friends muse about funerals, death and the hereafter. It also introduces actress Carmel McSharry to the program; her character goes unnamed here but she would become a regular by the second series as Mrs. Hollingbery, Alf’s new landlady and recipient of much of his abuse after Elsie’s passing. (Health’s sophomore season is scheduled to be released September 22, 2008.) The first season DVD is missing a Boxing Day special of the program from 1985; I do not know if this will be made available in the second series disc or, if past BBC comedy collections are any indication, will be saved for a Yuletide-themed DVD (Health had a total of five Christmas specials during its run).

It’s sad when one realizes that very few episodes of the 1960s incarnation of Till Death Us Do Part have survived today, thanks to the Beeb’s practice of “wiping” their old videotapes for reuse (sometimes recycling isn’t necessarily a good thing) and sadder still that the great Dandy Nichols was only available for the first series of In Sickness and In Health. As I mentioned previously, both the 1972 and 1974 series of Death were released to DVD by Network but they are now out-of-print and the only option available to anyone interested in seeing All in the Family’s British cousin would be to track down the Region 1 release of the 1972 series (which is mostly intact except for the 1972 Christmas special), released by BFS Entertainment. I’ve added the second series of Health to my wish list at Amazon.co.uk and when I purchase it I’ll have more to say about this timeless sitcom classic.

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