Comedy can be an excellent weapon against racism and clearly writer Johnny Speight and the BBC believed they had the right vehicle for tackling the thorny subject with Till Death Us Do Part (BBC, 1966-74), which aimed to take narrow-minded, racist views and hold them up to ridicule.
The programme started life as a single play in the Comedy Playhouse slot (tx. 22/7/65) but was considered strong enough to be developed into a full series. The original double-hander featured Warren Mitchell and Gretchen Franklin as the bigoted Alf Ramsey and his put-upon wife Elsie. For the series, Mitchell returned as Alf, (with a new surname, Garnett), while Dandy Nichols took the role of Elsie. The new additions were Alf's 'voice of reason' daughter Rita (Una Stubbs) and her lazy, work-shy husband Mike (Tony Booth).
It soon became clear that a part of the audience was laughing along to Alf's rants about blacks, immigration and the welfare state. Rather than being a figure of fun, he was increasingly being seen as a voice of reason. Both Speight and Mitchell defended the show against allegations of racism, claiming that their intention was to belittle Alf's views. Unfortunately, the satire was lost on the part of the audience that the show aimed to challenge.
Sadly, Speight's defence was far from watertight - having a white actor, Spike Milligan, black up and don a turban in one episode is clearly questionable, doubly so as Speight obviously thought the idea so good he developed a series around Kevin O'Grady, aka 'Paki Paddy', the half-Irish, half-Indian factory worker. Curry and Chips (ITV, 1969) lasted just six episodes before dying under a torrent of complaints about its content, but it reinforced the notion that Speight had little understanding of how best to confront racism. In Till Death Us Do Part, Alf's lengthy rants go largely unchallenged; his wife does little more than raise an eyebrow, while the responses from daughter Rita and the wholly unsympathetic Mike are often little more than impotent quips or frustrated laughter.
The series temporarily transferred to ITV in 1981, retitled simply Till Death..., before sadly returning to the BBC in 1985 as In Sickness and In Health. There were two feature film spinoffs - Till Death Us Do Part (1969) and The Alf Garnett Saga (1972). The programme was remade for US TV as All In The Family.