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Network Sitcom Movie Double Bill: Till Death Us Do Part and Man About the House on Blu-ray

  The British sitcom film was a phenomenon that never went away, as while some slipped through the cracks, so there were no It Ain't Half Hot, Mum or Yes, Minister movies, plenty more were adapted as the industry grew increasingly desperate to secure a hit at the box office. That tradition, basically begun in 1968 with Till Death Us Do Part, though looser examples from before may count for some, has lasted into the twenty-first century with the likes of The Inbetweeners and Absolutely Fabulous, and quite often do very well, proving those producers from the late sixties and seventies were pretty savvy in their intuition that audiences wanted to watch the familiar.

The main reason Johnny Speight, creator of the Alf Garnett character played by Warren Mitchell, decided to make his series Till Death Us Do Part into a film was because the television version had gone on hiatus, and as the four principals were keen to do more, this project was dreamt up instead, though it would return to the small screen in a year or two. Not wishing to simply recreate an episode or make it as a longer form version of what he had done before, Speight wrote a biography of Alf, starting from the Second World War years he lived through, had plenty of opinions on which he broadcast to anyone in earshot, but did nothing to assist with.

That was the essence of Garnett, a know-nothing whose entire worldview was fuelled by his small-minded bigotry born of a misplaced patriotism. Though the end of the British Empire was barely mentioned, a drawn-out event that should have put his sort in their place, it was significant the War was where we learned most about his background, since the likes of him obsessed over the winning of the conflict and not the ethos and morality that came with it. The conflict was intended to save the world from fascism, not to have the reactionary opine many decades after the fact that Adolf Hitler "had his faults" and wasn't "blameless" but wasn't all bad.

Resonantly, this is precisely what Speight had Mitchell say in the contemporary scenes of the film, a brave move since Mitchell was Jewish, and one in the eye for anyone who would attest that Garnett was a mouthpiece for the prejudice those who did not see past the satire to embrace. It was impossible to argue that Speight and Mitchell didn't know what they were doing and were not on the side of the liberal youth, embodied by Una Stubbs as Alf's daughter Rita, and Anthony Booth as her husband, known as the randy Scouse git by his father-in-law (and inspiring Mickey Dolenz to write a song with that name for his group The Monkees, retitled Alternate Title in the U.K.).

Whatever foolishness Alf came out with, there were always circumstances and other characters to take him down a peg or two. We never find out why he doesn't go to war when he is called up, other than his cowardice, but the knowledge deflates every example of his patriotism from then on. It would be difficult to find such a pathetic hypocrite funny, but British comedy does like its losers, even if there was always a large amount of the audience who failed to see the irony in Alf Garnett's persona, a fact readily accepted by his creators. Nevertheless, this film was a fairly innovative try at opening out the sitcom, not something every one that followed in its wake would do.

Man About the House, on the other hand, was as seventies as they come, and its film version, made the year after the series debut on ITV in 1973, similarly restricted itself to the locations its source would have used - many a sitcom movie will transplant its characters to a holiday destination, but not these two. If Till Death Us Do Part (which was still running on the BBC) was a sixties effort that somehow endured past that decade, this could only have hailed from the following era, penned by Johnnie Mortimer and Brian Cooke as a project they could concentrate on now their hit Father, Dear Father was over (and yes, that had a film version as well).

Possibly because Man About the House was regarded as saucy with its flatsharing between one man, Robin Tripp (Richard O'Sullivan), and two women, Chrissy (Paula Wilcox) and Jo (Sally Thomsett), it has stayed in the popular consciousness longer, not least because as with the Speight programme it spawned a hugely successful American remake in Three's Company (Till Death Us Do Part was the original of All in the Family). But the humour here was a lot less political, a lot less spiky, it was happier to use innuendo and nudge, nudge, wink, wink jokes which made it come across as highly modern to the seventies audience, and a relic to the twenty-first century one.

The trio of flatmates had a landlord and landlady in the shape of the Ropers, George (Brian Murphy) and Mildred (Yootha Joyce), who as with Robin, enjoyed their own spin-off when Man About the House ended (Robin's Nest and George and Mildred, respectively). On the first show, the chemistry between these five performers was some of best ever seen in sitcomland, from Robin and Chrissy's sexual tension to the Ropers' complete lack of sexual tension, much to Mildred's disgust, and Mortimer and Cooke did their best to translate that to the movie incarnation, buoyed by a cast who obviously, thoroughly enjoyed working with one another.

Even so, the '74 Man About the House is regarded as inferior, as many sitcom films are, in comparison, but if you do not have the box set of every series to hand, or you're not around for the repeats on the nostalgia channels, it's a very serviceable stand-in. They didn't ramp up the rudeness, it was already pretty rude on TV, but there were a collection of excellent guest stars (Spike Milligan, The Lovely Aimi MacDonald, Arthur Lowe, Rudolph Walker and Jack Smethurst from rival sitcom Love Thy Neighbour) all involved with a plot to save their street from developers that would not be out of place in a Children's Film Foundation effort. It culminated in a dash around Thames Studios where the programme was recorded, giving us a chance to see behind the scenes and a recreation of the Today current affairs programme with Bill Grundy as himself, two years before the Sex Pistols swore him out of a job. Call it a pleasant reminder of a very fine show.

[Both these titles have been released on Blu-ray by Network as part of The British Film line. On the Till Death Us Do Part disc there is a rediscovered episode of the original BBC series and a trailer as extras, and on the Man About the House disc there is a trailer and image gallery as extras.

Click here to buy from the Network website.]
Author: Graeme Clark.


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