Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Mitchell, Warren (1926-)


Main image of Mitchell, Warren (1926-)

It says much for Warren Mitchell's versatility as a character actor that he has not spent much of his career being irrecoverably typecast as his most famous creation, the shaven-headed, toothbrush-moustached, narrow-minded, openly racist Cockney bigot Alf Garnett, which he played for four decades (a one-off Comedy Playhouse in 1965; Till Death Us Do Part, 1966-74; In Sickness and In Health, 1985-92, all for the BBC; various late-1990s spin-offs for LWT and Carlton such as An Audience with Alf Garnett and The Thoughts of Chairman Alf; two feature films: 1969's Till Death Us Do Part, d. Norman Cohen, and 1972's The Alf Garnett Saga, d. Bob Kellett; several stage shows).

Although he was behind Peter Sellers, Lionel Jeffries and Leo McKern in the casting queue, it is now impossible to imagine anyone else in the role, not least because Alf would transcend his origins more effectively than almost any comic creation until Minder's Arthur Daley many years later, his very name becoming shorthand for an all too familiar character type. Although Mitchell and writer Johnny Speight's original intention was to ridicule Garnett, the sheer richness of his characterisation (almost unprecedented in a culture notorious for stereotyping and simplifying the working classes) made him something of an unofficial national hero, which led to some soul-searching on Mitchell's part.

However, it helped that Mitchell's own personality and background were quite different from his alter ego's. A North London (Stoke Newington)-born Spurs supporter of Russian Jewish descent, with strongly left-wing political leanings, he was born Warren Misell on 14 January 1926. Attracted to acting from an early age, he attended Gladys Gordon's Academy of Dramatic Arts in Walthamstow at just seven, though football was a greater distraction back then. While reading physical chemistry at Oxford University, he met and subsequently served in the same Royal Air Force unit as Richard Burton, who encouraged him to develop his acting skills. After the war Mitchell enrolled at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, in the evening performing with London's left-wing Unity Theatre, where he met his wife.

Despite an early reputation for versatility (premature baldness granted him a wide age range), it took him some time to break into television, his debut being broadcast in 1955 after a stint on the BBC's popular radio show Educating Archie (1948-60). His comic talents quickly came to the fore when he appeared in four episodes of Hancock's Half-Hour (BBC, 1956-60). By the late 1950s he was appearing regularly on television, alternating between straight, sometimes live, drama (he was the young Sean Connery's trainer in boxing drama Requiem for a Heavyweight, 1957) and sitcom, his first such effort being Charlie Drake vehicle Drake's Progress (BBC, 1957) shortly before he was offered his first title role in Three 'Tough' Guys (ITV, 1957) in which he played a bungling criminal. He also appeared frequently in popular ITV drama series: William Tell, The Four Just Men, Sir Francis Drake, The Avengers, Danger Man and a recurring character in The Saint.

His cinema debut was in Manuela (d. Guy Hamilton, 1957), though despite roles in such high-profile titles as The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone (UK/US, d. José Quintero, 1961), and the Beatles vehicle Help! (d. Richard Lester, 1965), he tended to be cast in minor parts, his Russian Jewish roots and facility with accents making him a natural as a comic or sinister foreigner hailing from a wide range of destinations typically from somewhere along an arc curving through Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean. That said, he played leads in All The Way Up (d. James MacTaggart, 1970), the likeable ensemble piece The Chain (d. Jack Gold, 1984) and the embarrassing Foreign Body (d. Ronald Neame, 1986).

Unsurprisingly, Alf Garnett dominated Mitchell's television output from the mid-1960s, though other sitcom work included Men of Affairs (ITV, 1973), in which he starred as a philandering MP, and Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran's courageous attempt at turning the Northern Ireland situation into comedy with So You Think You've Got Troubles (BBC, 1991), in which Mitchell's factory manager naively assumes that his Jewish background will prevent him from having to take sides. He also had two collaborations with Monty Python team members: the TV play Secrets (BBC, 1973), written by Terry Jones and Michael Palin, and Terry Gilliam's solo feature directing debut Jabberwocky (1977).

The late 1970s saw him broadening his range, tackling Shylock in the BBC Television Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice (1980) and exploring a longstanding personal interest in the philosophy of G.I.Gurdjieff by playing his father in Peter Brook's film Meetings With Remarkable Men (US, 1979). He also won an Olivier award for a memorable 1979 stage performance as Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. By then, he was spending much time in Australia, securing heavyweight stage roles such as King Lear on the back of his fame and notoriety (Till Death Us Do Part had been a big hit down under), ultimately adopting dual British-Australian citizenship.

He continued to work regularly in Britain, playing an uncharacteristically serious role in Wall of Silence (BBC, 1993), a murder mystery set in the close-knit community of London's Stamford Hill; drawing on personal experience for Ain't Misbehavin' (ITV, 1997), about struggling actors in the aftermath of World War II; the officious Barquentine in the BBC's ambitious adaptation of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast (2000). More recently, he hit the headlines thanks to a long-running public feud with concert promoters at Kenwood House in North London, well within earshot of Mitchell's Highgate home - and picked up a second Olivier award for his stage performance as a nonagenarian furniture dealer in Arthur Miller's The Price (2004).

Michael Brooke

More information


From the BFI's filmographic database

Related media

Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Unearthly Stranger (1963)Unearthly Stranger (1963)

Intelligent, understated sci-fi about a race of female alien invaders

Thumbnail image of Avengers, The (1961-69)Avengers, The (1961-69)

Ultra-stylish '60s spy drama that all but invented cult TV

Thumbnail image of Danger Man (1960-67)Danger Man (1960-67)

TV spy thriller series with Patrick McGoohan as agent John Drake

Thumbnail image of Hancock's Half Hour (1956-60)Hancock's Half Hour (1956-60)

The original British sitcom - and still one of the best

Thumbnail image of Till Death Us Do Part (1966-75)Till Death Us Do Part (1966-75)

Controversial comedy with Warren Mitchell as the bigoted Alf Garnett

Related collections

Related people and organisations

Thumbnail image of Speight, Johnny (1920-1998)Speight, Johnny (1920-1998)