The copyright of this recording and transcript is vested in the BECTU History Project. Dennis Main Wilson was interviewed by Alan Lawson with Norman Swallow in 1991.
1. Genesis and locations
DMW: In 1965 Johnny Speight and 1, Johnny Speight the author, well established, he had been writing a very successful series for commercial television, called the Arthur Haynes show, one of Britain's leading old-fashioned stand-up variety comedians, which had been a huge success. It ran for 10 years, there were over 150 shows and they are all still exist in the ITC library. We felt, this is jumping back knowing that already I'd started to The Goon Show, I'd done Hancock's Half Hour, I'd done the first all girls show, The Rag Trade which was about trade unions. I'd done some wild shows, all experimental so far and this is going to be the big one. And we'd decided a) that Homo sapiens is a load of lazy rubbish, give God full marks for trying but he won't be promoted next week. In that it appeared to us that homo sapiens was a liar, a cheat, a bigot, a liar, a materialistic greedy bastard and really wasn't worth two penneth of cold water, especially if you're British, and especially if you're Cockney. So we invented Alf Garnett.
We did a flight over Wapping in a chopper. To save money we hopped aboard some body else's, Shell UK paid for it not us.
NS: This is you and Johnny Speight
DMW: This is me and Johnny. Looking for an area which would encompass all the location sequences, the area as we were going to describe. And it had to have a bit of a playing field, a pub round the comer, a church not too far away. It had got to be near the docks, got to be near the river. It had to be in Wapping High Street if possible. So we did that. And we then persuaded them to let us go back to opposite Big Ben, and I said to the pilot when I say go split us from opposite Big Ben to the end of Wapping High Street, where it becomes a dog leg and becomes Garnett Street, where the cement Silo is. He got that and we did it in one minute 23 seconds which is brilliant because it's one minute 43 for Big Ben to strike the hour and chime 11, and that was the opening titles if you remember. That was that.
So we'd established the area and then I called in my set designer to discuss what kind of house they lived in. And it was to be a 12 ft square front room with a scullery out the back, with an earthenware sink, a bath in the scullery with a lid on where you keep all the crockery, a copper where you heat up all the hot water to hand bale the water into the bath and run the cold tap, and a bog out the back, and a tiny garden, and a front door that opened into a hall and the stairs go straight up and you turn left into the front room. In the front room there's got to be a two-seater settee, two armchairs, a piano, a dining table, four chairs and a sideboard, in a 12 ft square room. Which as you know, that became our trademark, that was it. That in fact was the exact floor plan and the furniture arrangement of my mum and dad's house, and they never have spotted it. And they thought the Garnett family lived in the most dreadful circumstances.
NS: I hope they liked the series
DMW: They loved this he series, except my mother didn't like the language.
2. Shooting dialogue
Till Death Us Do Part was a weekly turnaround and a Johnny Speight script is written in a convoluted pre-war, old fashioned Cockney and it's a pig to learn. We did one a week, Warren Mitchell by the end of the series was exhausted, you know, and I always worked, obviously we did a lot of the series, but early on, you know the set is only 12 ft square for Christ sake, which makes it even more difficult actually. Imagine a set that is only 12 ft wide and you've got five cameras, 3 dollies, you've taken up your 12 ft. So your middle cameras can come out or they can go wide which immediately makes a 12 ft set look 18 ft which is exactly what you don't want. So we ended up with 5 studio dollies, like knitting with the tripods interlocked, but I don't think we ever once made the set look any bigger.
Because Johnny Speight never did dialogue A to B, it was A to B, two shot, D would interfere, back to A and then there was 3 shot with B and C because it was an argument or you stay out long and you'd shoot it like a film but in so doing you would have slowed down the aggression, the claustrophobia, in that room. It had to be aggressive in order to make the show work. That was enormous fun, but we never told anybody to stand there or sit there, but about day 3 afternoon when the cast had felt their way around the words and the rhythms, you move on that word on Monday, round about Tuesday hold on, you've gone round the settee because there's an easier flow of rhythm whatever, or a cadence goes up in tone, you want to f**ing shout at somebody, upstage with them in foreground, and you've got him jeer in foreground, and they're are cringing without him seeing it. Or even, one thing which Warren Mitchell said to me once you can't do that, I had him downstage where on the 4th wall, where the fireplace would be, knocking his pipe out below the camera, into camera, mantlepiece, and does about four minutes straight into camera with his back to the kids and their reactions, turned and did two more minutes with his back to the camera.
3. The pilot
Our mistake was and I'm not quite sure, I know where it went wrong, I cast it too well. My original casting was Peter Sellers to play Alf except Peter was in a down period, this is when he disappeared and lived in Ireland with his lady. And my second choice Leo McKern with whom I'd done a couple of wild shows with Eric Sykes. And this man, part of a great actor, he knows more about comedy than most people I know and great to work with. Leo had just come back from Hollywood and made a fortune and bought himself a triple screw luxury diesel yacht. And was cruising up and down the Channel trying it out. We tried come in number 19 but it wouldn't work. And my third choice was Warren, Warren Mitchell, who had done a myriad of small parts in radio and television but never any big one. But good and of course the man is world class, little was Warren to know how good. And rather than the nation taking it seriously and laughing at Alf Garnett, they took him to their hearts, sort of they identified with him, and laughed with him, so we became an enormous success but for the wrong reason. We eventually hit, our peak figure I think was just under 24 and-a-half million. And thereby hangs a story. Because when we made the pilot which we knew was good, we had great confidence, Johnny and I went drinking in the White Elephant in Curzon St that night, all our friends had seen it and hooray, champagne. And in the Elephant you get next morning's paper round about half past 11in the evening. The crits were super, so we decided not to leave the Elephant, and we stayed there and drank champagne all night and then had breakfast. Turned up at the BBC Club bar at lunchtime still on champagne and all our friends came up and said wow, follow that. It was aggressive, within the first three pages we'd destroyed Harold Wilson, we'd destroyed Ted Heath, anybody in charge in Britain, wild, wild.
And another thing Big Ben is slow by his watch. And that Harold Wilson, last time I wrote he never even answered my letter and I put a stamp on it, mate and all. But it was wild. It was a breath of total fresh air. It had never been done before and it was flat out. [...] And audience didn't know what had hit them. So we are back, it's now lunchtime-ish, in the BBC Club bar, on a Wednesday. And Wednesday as you know is programme board meeting, to review last week's output by all the bosses of BBC Television. And our mates were buying us drinks, and in came Tom Sloan who was the head of my department, entertainment. Johnny Speight who had this stutter, bless him, it's not so bad these days but when he was younger and excited, a-a-a-a-a, and he went up to Tom and he said a-a-a-a what about that for a bloody series mate, eh? Tom froze and actually said over our corporate dead body do we make series out of subversive murk like that. And my heart sank. The man was a Scottish Presbyterian, I think his father had been a lay minister in a kirk up there or something. [...] but typical, British timorous middle-class, with a set of rules to follow which belong somewhere round about Enid Blyton 1924. And you can't run business Iike that.
Luckily down from the same board meeting came the controller of programmes BBC 1, Michael Peacock and the controller of BBC2 David Attenborough. And David giggled and nudged Peacock and said if you don't want it on 1, I'll have it on BBC2.
4. Annoying a BBC executive
Round about the third series of Till Death, Johnny wrote for me one of the funniest scenes ever. We open up and Garnett is already in mid-flight, he's fortissimo to start with, and he's going to go higher. Somewhere he's got the idea that the son-in-law, Tony Booth, had had it off with it his virgin, beautiful little rose of a daughter before they married, because if you did I'm going to bloody kill you, I'll.... And they chase him round, he's going to break his neck. We didn't, we didn't we didn't
Una Stubbs is nearly in tears, all calm down, all calm down, but an enormous argument, dreadful, smash faces and things. It all calms down and Garnett apologises, unusually for him. This is Speight, good writer, hit big, and then leave it, and great comedy construction. Let it lay flat. And the longer your nerve holds out, you can keep it flat when you come to the tag, yes the longer the pause the bigger the laugh, does that make sense? He apologises, it's him getting old, you know and there is a lovely pencil sketch of him and Dandy Nichols when they were young. Of course when your mum and I were courting, I never. You wouldn't dare, she said, I'd have hit you. So all accurate stuff. And they clear up the tea things, tea for two, sorry tea for four. Four cups four saucers, four spoons. And they put them on a tray and they take them out into the scullery out back, leaving the kids on the sofa who collapse in giggles and Una says, God if only they knew, hoots. We couldn't get much of a laugh, because it's so normal. I don't know about you two, but certainly my wife and I had sex before marriage. Anyway we'd go into the scullery, and this is comedy, and this is relationship, actor, writer and director, and Dandy and I had worked at it and out. She said we can't miss can we, and I said no. Because they know you are going to have the final tag, they'll sense it. She washed four cups in total silence, quite slowly and four saucers in total silence, with Garnett drying them on a tea towel, and three spoons in total silence. And on the last spoon she said, you did you know. And the audience fell out of their seats. Now it's not clever comedy, it's confidence in, well it's innate
NW: And timing of course
DW: Can I tell you, the next morning, I was on Tom Sloan's carpet, you two-faced bastard, you've let me down. I said what was that? You promised me you'd never get up mixed up in sex and rude scurrilous stuff. I said we didn't. I mean, the Dandy thing last night. No where the daughter laughs and says if only they knew. How dare you let me down. I've a damn good mind to take you off the show.