Spate of Speight

Spate of Speight

1969 - United Kingdom

"comedy can shock fools out of their complacency. I want to make people laugh and leave them uncomfortable at the same time.”

One of the most outspoken comedy writers on British television in the 1960s, and arguably still unrivalled by today’s standards, Johhny Speight walked the fine line between controversy and the mainstream, with many of his critics claiming that he strayed into the contentious far too often, whilst others applauded him for sticking to his principles in trying to educate the masses on social injustices. His favourite comedian was W.C. Fields. “He wouldn't conform," Speight told writer Robert Ottaway in 1969. "He was out to destroy respectability. You see, comedy can shock fools out of their complacency. I want to make people laugh and leave them uncomfortable at the same time.”

With his invention of the Alf Garnett character, he certainly did that. Till Death Us Do Part was both criticised and lauded for its use of racist and sexist language. But by addressing such previously sacrosanct subjects as race, class, politics and royalty, he expanded the boundaries of what was possible in British television comedy. And through that, he hoped to expose to ridicule right-wing prejudices.

Johnny Speight
Johnny Speight

Speight had been writing television comedy since the 1950s when he created another iconic but far less controversial character – the Tramp for Arthur Haynes. And in that invention, one can see the seeds of Chairman Alf being laid. His inspiration for that character came from a real-life tramp who was thumbing a lift by the roadside. Speight stopped and gave him a ride. As the tramp settled into the comfort of the Bentley Continental, he told Speight: "I prefer Bentleys. I was waiting for one to come along. A little Anglia offered me a ride, but I wouldn't take it. I mean, you meet a better class of person in a car like this."

Realising the comedic possibilities of the encounter, Speight went to work and created Haynes’ most celebrated character. The belligerent, heavily decorated tramp was fond of recounting his tales of patriotic bravery with an overtly aggressive quality and was forever railing against society. Speight went on to write around 500 sketches for The Arthur Haynes Show and was still writing them when Haynes passed away in 1966 from a heart attack at the age of 52.

Following the third series of Till Death Us Do Part, Speight was approached by Thames Television to write a 50-minute sketch show. The inference in the TV Times from May 1969 is that this might have been one of a series of specials, although no further programmes were made. Spate of Speight was, according to producer Alan Tarrant “something old, something new, something bizarre and something blue!” which would be “going "full Speight" with as much aplomb as Alf Garnett and Arthur Haynes ever had.”

Branded as a Speight look-at-life with a mixture of different styles, including sketches and quickies - some visual, some dialogue - the show was closer in style to Haynes' show than anything Speight had done for a number of years. "Apart from the odd play and film work, I was working in Till Death for two years, and this new format is something I have been wanting to do for some time", said the writer.

Spate of Speight
Anna Quayle, Alfred Marks, Miriam Karlin and Eric Sykes

Illustrating the many facets of Speight's particular brand of humour was a cast headed by Eric Sykes, who appeared as both a burglar and a psychiatrist, and Alfred Marks as a brash salesman. More silver was dug from the veins of humour by Joe Baker, Kenny Lynch, Miriam Karlin and Cardew Robinson whilst Anna Quayle and The Scaffold performed self-penned songs.

Spate of Speight
Kenny Lynch and Joe Baker

Unfortunately, there is no indication of whether or not this recording still exists in the archives and (at the time of writing) it is significantly absent from IMDb, despite finishing 6th in the television ratings for the month of May 1969.

Published on June 29th, 2023. Written by Marc Saul for Television Heaven.

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