Firstly, the boring bits: we’ve compiled this post from information available to us at the time and therefore it may not contain as much detail as we might like. If and when more detailed information becomes available we’ll update the post.
Perhaps best known for his Alf Garnett creation Johnny Speight was a prolific script writer responsible for a good many of our most controversial sitcoms. In fact many of his shows examined the theme of racism or sexism through comedy and despite their controversy today many are regarded as all time classics.
John Speight was born into an Irish Catholic family in Canning Town, West Ham, Essex (now Greater London) on 2nd June 1920.
He left school at 14, and after a series of odd jobs, tried his hand at writing, looking to famous playwright George Bernard Shaw as inspiration.
Married to Connie Barrett in 1956 they had 3 children. Sadly on July 5th 1998 Speight died from pancreatic cancer.
Speight began contributing scripts to comedy shows as early as 1955, starting with Great Scott – It’s Maynard!. Throughout the 1950’s he would continue his script writing for radio comics of the time such as Frankie Howerd, Vic Oliver, Arthur Askey, and Cyril Fletcher. It wasn’t just radio he began to contribute to television comics such as Arthur Haynes (Speight created Arthur Haynes’ iconic working class tramp character),
Morecambe and Wise and Peter Sellers.
During the 1960’s Johnny Speight was one of the writing team behind “Sykes And A…” credited on Sykes And A..Telephone, A Burglary, A New Car, An Uncle and A Lodger. Sadly the entire series is missing from the BBC archives.
However it was 1965 and a pilot episode for BBC TV that he would always be best remembered for.
In 1966 that pilot became a full series “Till Death Us Do Part” and with it the character of Alf Garnett who became part of British culture.
Legend has it that during the production of Till Death Us Do Part that a BBC bureaucrat, attempted to talk Speight into ameliorating his script by bargaining the number of occurrences of “damn”, “bloody” and other words held to be offensive.
This incident is believed to have become the basis for a satirical sketch performed by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, with Cook as the bureaucrat and Moore as a scriptwriter named “Johnny”.
Many people found Till Death Us Do part controversial, but Speight’s later series Curry and Chips (1969), raised the bar even higher, far more controversial than Till Death it was produced by LWT for the ITV channel, it was cancelled after just one series, on the instructions of the Independent Broadcasting Authority.
Despite the apparent racial insensitivity, Speight’s intention, as in Till Death Us Do Part, was to highlight discrimination, not promote it. It was a cast of stereotypes, featuring a blacked-up Spike Milligan as Kevin O’Grady (who was supposed to be half Irish, half Pakistani), Eric Sykes as a liberal, Kenny Lynch as a black man who was prejudiced against Asians, and Norman Rossington and Geoffrey Hughes as racist Liverpudlians.
The credits just kept on coming, controversy never very far away 1975 saw Harry H. Corbett of Steptoe fame played a left wing version of Alf Garnet in For Richer…For Poorer. There was more from Alf in Till Death the ITV version of Till Death Us Do Part: Till Death
and back with bite to the BBC with In Sickness and In Health that ran until 1992 from 1985.
Speight’s most famous creation Alf Garnett would return in Speight’s later years with an appearance on the celebrated LWT An Audience With Alf Garnett.
Other works included: If There Weren’t Any Blacks You’d Have To Invent Them,
Spooner’s Patch with Ray Galton, Marty Back Together Again (Marty Feldman), scripts for Frankie Howerd and Jasper Carrott.
His final work with Alf was a series of programs featuring Alf Garnett giving his thoughts on a number of subjects. These programs were shelved by then ITV controller David Liddiment. Upon Speight’s death Warren Mitchell decided to call time on his most famous character Alf Garnett.