21 OCTOBER 1972, Page 22


In defence of Alf

Clive Gammon

When 1984 was adapted for television, so the BBC reminded us last week, there was a national outcry. The producer of the programme was threatened with physical assault. A motion condemning this evil piece of work was tabled in the Commons. I can scarcely recall the adaptation, antedating as it did Coronation Street and possibly even Dixon of Dock Green. But I vividly remember the fuss: it was about on a par with the current one over Till Death Us Do Part. It is inconceivable that in 1972 1984 could generate such feelings. Probably lit would slide past unnoticed in the Out of the Unknown series. These days we have supped full enough with political and scientific horrors not to be bothered by Orwell's fantasy. But the Virgin Birth, to judge by the extraordinary spectacle of the BBC rubbing its hands like a shortchanging grocer who has been found out, still has a powerful hold on a lot of people besides Mrs Mary Whitehouse.

Let us hope that Johnny Speight doesn't take umbrage to the extent he's promised to and write no more Alf Garnett pieces. Perhaps the present series isn't quite up to the first — too many contrived set pieces to allow Alf his outbursts, a certain predictability in the way an episode is going to go — but it is still funnier and richer than any other programme on the box with pretensions to comedy and it still has its moments of near-genius — such as the creation of the Commodore Hotel, Bournemouth, the other week. (Let us here and now hasten to make the point, as the BBC did, that the seedily-genteel programme wasn't intended to be the real Commodore Hotel. Incidentally you'd have thought that the BBC would have checked, wouldn't you? But checking on things doesn't seem one of its main strengths.

But back to Awful Alf. There has been some development in recent weeks, I think. Alf is now a more sympathetic figure than ever: last week's programme (I have to write about last week rather than this week because I'm presently staying in this Mick hotel, as Alf would put it, where you can't see BBC 1) showed him to be unmistakeably more honest and upright than his fellow-dockers. Alf didn't wrench open a case of tomatoes like the others even though the half-witted wife he has to Put up with had forgotten to pack his lunch. No one could pretend that Alf is stoical but he has other Roman virtues, of a decadent Rome, maybe, with the Visigoths closing in, but clearly ones Which have a considerable appeal to many in this country, principally a crude, ill-informed loyalty to the institutions that shadowed his early years. By comparison, delightful and sweet Una Stubbs, indicating rather than voicing current received opinion, usually looks even sillier than her mother. Alf may be wrong-headed and even vicious now and enen but at least he is alive and giving notable offence in East London.

There's not all that much showing on television of which you could say that real life exists in it. I wouldn't mind the BBC apologising every week for the fatuousness of some of its arts programmes or the halfbaked pontificating of Panorama in its lesser moments. I'm disappointed, though, When it folds up like a well-oiled jack-knife at a whiff of disapproval from the COME Dancing set. I thought those days were over.