Mark Ward's 'A Family At War - the Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to Till Death Us Do Part' goes straight to into the British comedy history book Hall Of Fame, alongside Roger Wilmut's 'Tony Hancock - Artiste' (1980), and Robert Ross's 'Benny Hill - the Complete Companion' (1999).
As its author notes, despite the fact the TDUDP (1965-1975) could boast all the cred that a cult TV show could, it rarely rates highly on the lists of favourite of influential Britcoms, and you don't get many contemporary comics and comedy writers citing it as a major influence. Yet in its day TDUDP was probably the most notorious and controversial program on TV, regularly pulling audiences of over 13 million. Its writer Johnny Speight's brilliant mixture of family character-led comedy and biting social satire has not matched by any sitcom since. Its chief protagonist, the ranting, bigoted Alf Garnett, became a national icon, and Speight's fractious relationship with BBC bosses over swearing and censorship, became the stuff of broadcast comedy legend. Its abusive catchphrases caught on like wildfire in every working class household that watched it, and the TDUDP format was successfully copied by TV producers outside the UK.
But, as 'A Family At War' reveals, there was a huge amount more to the TDUDP phenomenon than the viewing public was aware of, and Ward's book charts its 1960s rise, flowering, fall, and its 1970s resurrection with a comprehensiveness and meticulous attention to detail, that many an academic historian would struggle to match. He places TDUDP both within its social milieu, and within the dynamics that were shaping the changing nature of British broadcasting in particular, and the BBC-TV in particular. He examines TDUDP part's impact on everything from Parliament to popsters The Monkees, and narrates the backstage tensions and off-screen infighting that contributed to its demise with commendable balance.
We learn about the professional and personal profiles of the show's principal performers - Warren Mitchell (Alf), Dandy Nichols (Else), Mike (Anthony Booth - aka dad of Cherie Blair), and Una Stubbs (Rita), the brilliant array of supporting players like Joan Sims (Gran), Bill Maynard (Bert), and Roy Kinnear (Sid), its maverick producer the legendary Dennis Main Wilson, along with other figures credited with the production of this landmark TV venture, with portraits of BBC managers as revealed by Speight's dealings with them. And of course we hear plenty of and from TDUDP's main opponent Mary Whitehouse.
'A Family At War' contains a series-by-series, episode-by-episode exegesis of TDUDP in each of its runs on BBC and LWT (As `Till Death...'), the two big-screen movies, but not the 1980s BBC-Tv reprise as 'In Sickness And In Health', and delivers the kind of detail that true comedy aficionados crave - i.e., the actual address of the flat where the opening shots that formed the backdrop of the opening and closing titles of the 1970s series were filmed from, and how much the householder paid was for the privilege. Other arcania includes information about deleted scenes, performers' fee differentials, rehearsal issues, and script changes - Ward's researches are exhaustive, authoritative, and totally 'text book'.
I also salute the way in which Ward's analysis of the TV episodes is presented, with footnotes that detail the topical issues that are argued over (alcoholism, racism, religion, royalty, sex, sport, television, war), and that also emphasises the fact that Johnny Speight was also a top-drawer COMEDY writer, who interspersed the acerbic social commentary with superb verbal and sight gags, and other comic `business' that easily stand comparison with any other leading comedy writers of the 1960s and 1970s, like yer Clement and La Frenais, Croft and Perry, Esmonde and Larbey, Wolfe and Chesney, Eric Chappell, and Speight's mates Eric Sykes and Galton and Simpson.
Most of the TDUDP's 26 episodes from series 1 to 3 were wiped during the mid-1970s. Currently, most material from twelve episodes survive as telerecordings, with one episode on the original 405-lines videotape. (A DVD release of these materials - restored by the Dr Who Restoration Team, perhaps? - would be much desired if one could only be sure that BBC DVD wouldn't botch it.) A lot of soundtrack-only recordings also survive. In 1997 another thought-lost episode, 'Alf's Dilemma' (series 2), was found in a private collection; and in August 2009, two more Series 2 episodes, 'In Sickness and in Health' and 'State Visit', were recovered from a private collector. The subsequent colour series seem to remain intact, and Series 4 and 5 have been released on BBC Video DVD sets.
'A Family At War' is an important book, and I'd say that its presentation deserved better than its publisher Telos seemed able to manage: so much has been squeezed into a 340-page 20cm x 14cm format paperback that typographically, it can be a bit demanding on the eyes. 'A Family At War' deserves to be re-issued in a lavish hardback edition, complete with an extensive picture section, but one doubts if that would financially viable.
So to sum up: Mark Ward's 'A Family At War' is a major contribution to the history of television - brilliantly conceived, superbly researched, masterfully written. Anyone passionate about comedy should buy this book; and even if you aren't, you should still read it: you might bleedin' learn somefink...