The double life of Warren Mitchell

Warren Mitchell is coming to Yorkshire in an Arthur Miller play with a performance which has won him the second Olivier award of his career. Arts reporter Nick Ahad met the man better known as Alf Garnett.

Warren Mitchell is not what he seems. He is still best remembered as the bad-tempered, racist, sexist, homophobic West Ham fan Alf Garnett – yet is an Oxford-educated and Rada-trained actor with strong Left-wing political beliefs.

Back in 1965, Mitchell was approached to play the lead in what was expected to be a one-off TV play for the BBC, Till Death Us Do Part.

From that moment and for the past four decades, the lives of character and actor have interweaved – so much so to that next year he is planning to take the show based on his many anecdotes, Alf Mitchell and Warren Garnett, to Australia.

It is not surprising, it is virtually impossible to imagine the one without the other.

Which means it is something of a surprise to find out that Mitchell was not the automatic choice to play the Johnnie Speight-created character. He was, in fact, fourth choice.

"They wanted Peter Sellers to do it, but he messed the BBC around an awful lot," says Mitchell in a virtually cut glass accent.

"So they asked Leo McKern, but he was off sailing somewhere and they were unable to get him, then they approached Lionel Jeffries and he didn't want to do it."

So the producers went to number four on the list and the rest was television comedy gold.

"I leapt at the chance to play such an awful man and I've been playing him on and off ever since," says Mitchell.

When he arrives at the arranged interview rendezvous in Milton Keynes Theatre, where he is performing the role of Solomon in Arthur Miller's The Price, Mitchell is 15 minutes late.

The traffic is to blame – he commuted for the first two days of the run from his north London home – yet when he comes into the room it is impossible to feel any kind of resentment.

At 78, he may still be going, still winning awards for his mastery of stagecraft, yet there is no disguising that in front of you is quite a frail old figure.

Not quite bent double, he shuffles into the caf bar with the gait and uneasy movement of a man every year his age.

Yet it becomes quickly apparent that, while his body is experiencing the ravages of time, his mind is not.

At one point he stops the interview to rebuke the photographer for using a flash on the camera, "My eyes are... the retina retains the flash you see... would you mind not."

As he sits down, large white moustache fully occupying a square from the base of the nose to the top of the lip and eyebrows that must have been unruly for some years previously and have now declared complete anarchy, stretching out from his forehead any which way they please, he looks ready for mischief.

His strong sense of fun will lead him, over the next half-hour to say things such as: "I'm not a humble person. I'm not. I'm a b*****d" and remarking that he regrets not spending more time mastering a musical instrument (he played as a youngster). "I was too busy chasing girls – I don't chase them any longer though," and most hilariously of all, referring to William Shakespeare as "Billy Waggledagger".

Born Warren Missell to an orthodox Jewish family in 1926, he grew up over his grandmother's fish-and-chip shop in the East End.

When he was four, he found out all about the fickleness of the business in which he would eventually ply his trade: "I told a dirty joke to my family – my father laughed, clipped me round the ear and sent me to bed. I learned then that showbiz is quite tricky."

In 1944, he joined the RAF along with someone who would become a firm friend, Richard Burton, and was convinced after demob that it would be more fun to enter the theatre than return to Oxford to carry on his studies in nuclear physics.

After training at Rada, he played bit parts before landing a role in Hancock's Half Hour and becoming something of a permanent fixture on the television, but it was with Till Death Us Do Part that he captivated the nation in a way he could not have dreamt.

He and Alf Garnett were inextricably linked. It became a source of frustration that people could not separate the actor and the part and also that they were unable to recognise Garnett as a satirical figure.

He tells a story of when he was in Leeds fulfiling a dream and playing King Lear under the directorship of Jude Kelly. He went to watch a Leeds game. A black player scored and a United fan made a racist comment to Mitchell.

Filled with venom and expletives, Mitchell is clearly incensed that the man felt he would share his racist views because of his on-screen character.

One wonders if he has grown tired of the fact that he is a classic stage actor, Rada-trained, in the twilight of his career, yet still he cannot escape the ghost of Garnett.

"I think of myself as very lucky, most people in our profession never earn a living, never get any kind of recognition at all," says Mitchell.

"As Alf I got to say some amazingly brilliant lines. I would not dream of distancing myself from the role."

Here Mitchell slips into Garnett as easily as one would a warm bed on a winter night and says: "Bloody Gandhi wouldn't eat his dinner to give them India."

For all the love of Garnett – despite the fact that he does not hold his views – Mitchell is so very much more.

Twenty-five years ago, he won theatre's most prestigious award, the Olivier, for his role as Willy Loman in Miller's Death of a Salesman.

Last year, he won the award for best supporting role in the show heading for Bradford's Alhambra early next month, The Price.

"Like most actors, they pretend it doesn't matter, but it is very nice really," says Mitchell.

"I was given a lovely bust of Larry (Laurence Olivier) as Henry V, which is very nice – it wasn't like that last time."

Having won such acclaim, one wonders if Mitchell feels fulfilled – he says that when he played Lear at the West Yorkshire Playhouse it was a dream come true. "I would wake up every morning and think, 'Wow, I am playing Lear tonight'." So why does he keep going?

"I wonder what other roles I could do – I'm too old for Hamlet, certainly Romeo and Juliet," he says, and is suddenly struck with an idea. "How about a geriatric Romeo? I could go up to the balcony on a Stannah!"

Jokes aside, is he not yet ready to take a rest?

"We get paid for going to a party every day, doing what we love," says Mitchell.

"I remember doing the first Morecambe and Wise film and I woke up at some incredibly early time every day and thought,

'I'm going to Ernie and Eric's party today' – and they pay me for that."

The Price is at Bradford Alhambra Theatre from November 8 to 13. For tickets, ring 01274 432000.