From the December 1994 issue of the Socialist Standard
An East End geezer with bad attitudes - so goes the prevailing view of Alf Garnett, working class bigot. Attempting to correct this characterisation on Channel Four's Without Walls (October 25, 9pm) was Garry Bushell, bad lad from the Sun and fellow East Ender with questionable attitudes. Bushell claimed that Alf Garnett represented not a stigma on society but was instead something akin to a cultural icon, saying that it was a tragedy that Garnett had been taken off the air by the BBC.
Whether it was his intention or not, Bushell only succeeded in demonstrating that he was a far more worrying feature of society than Garnett himself, if only because he is real and Garnett was a sitcom creation. It is not that Alf Garnett has no place on our television screens - far from it. Till Death Us Do Part, In Sickness And In Health, et all were invariably well-written vignettes of social commentary. All the characters, from Garnett himself to his "scouse git" of a son-in-law fiercely believed they were right on the issues that mattered this demonstrating that they were fully human, unlike the opinionless automatons that inhabit most other sitcoms. Furthermore, the programme was always structured in such a way that Garnett's idiocies were all too apparent to most viewers.
If Bushell was merely railing against a perverse political correctness which sweeps all unpleasant subjects under the carpet, he would have had a point. But his agenda was wider than this. Bushell's argument was that Alf Garnett, albeit in caricatured form, represented all that is Best of British. Patriotism, loyalty, sparkling wit, salt-of-the-earth characters and a knees-up down at the pub. The real world of Alf Garnett, claimed Bushell, was a world where families stayed together, where you didn't have to lock your door at night, and where you could walk the streets in safety. The verbal brawls between Alf and the "Scouse git" were indicative of a wider battle for the heart of British society, between good old traditional values and liberal permissiveness, between Land of Hope and Glory and the hippies and the dropouts. But it is a battle which now appears to be over, with Bushell wearily intoning that "the spiritual heirs of the Scouse git have won".
With this the working class has been subsumed by a "culterati" who knows everything about every culture except their own. If Bushell is to be believed, the working class is now only to be found in traditional men's clubs in pockets of the East End of London, eating their jellied eels and swigging pints of lager.
This is ironic indeed, for it is precisely the false and stereotypical view of the working class that has been so tirelessly promoted by what Bushell terms the "culterati" of metropolitan society.
Tattoos out for the lads!
In truth, this image of the working class is as much of a caricature as Alf Garnett himself was. But it is a caricature which Bushell needs. Without it, there will be no Garry Bushell with a column in the Sun. Bushell needs his good guys and his bad guys, his icons and his hate figures to survive. Bushell's good guys are working class lads with the union jack tattoos, and Alf is their patriotic guru.
Perversely, he claims that genuine patriotism "is not based on hatred but on hope and pride", but where was the hope and pride in Alf? Buried under a very large mountain of hatred. Hatred of blacks, "poofs", long-haired layabouts. Northerners, foreigners, trade unionists, republicans and communists.
In support of his argument Bushell called up fellow journalist Paul Johnson who claimed that "the working class are always patriotic and think Britain is a great country", but what irks Bushell, Johnson and used to irk Garnett is precisely that so many workers - and they are working class in the proper sense of the term even if they don't correspond to Bushell's image of it - aren't patriotic and think society in countries like Britain is going down the chute, Plenty of workers see that they have nothing in common with the ruling class and the laugh-a-minute Royals. How many would now volunteer to give their lives in defence of them as they did in 1914?
It is hard to believe, but Bushell seems unaware that patriotism, and its bedfellow nationalism, have brought hatred and violence on a horrendous scale to the world and that British patriotism has been one of the worst offenders. That hatred is often lurking behind the agenda of nationalists and patriots was demonstrated by Johnson, who stated that because of the all-pervasive hegemony of the culterati, "the whole question of race in this country is not debated . . . it is taboo". What question, we might ask, does he have in mind? We can only wonder, especially as he also commented that race-baiter-in-chief Alf was a veritable "fount of working class wisdom", and did so without a hint of irony in his voice.
To a large extent, Bushell and Johnson actually undermine their own case. With the likes of them around, on TV and in print, there is no need for a fictional Alf Garnett at all. His spirit is alive and well, and Bushell and Johnson - both, to compound the irony, members of the despised "culterati" - are his heirs. But there is a problem with this. Black TV presenter Darcus Howe commented during the programme that Alf Garnett "made me smile on a cold and and miserable night when I had no money". Who could reasonably say the same of Bushell?
The last word though must go to Alf's creator Johnny Speight who described his creation as not the "Best of British" - whatever that may mean - but as "a loutish, ignorant, raucous peabrain". Are you listening Garry? Are you listening Paul? And have you ever felt you've been had?