Magazine article The Spectator

Old Gold

Magazine article The Spectator

Old Gold

Article excerpt

Warren Mitchell is lying on an air mattress in rehearsals. He's 81 and in constant pain, made worse by a recent operation. He looks very tired, very old and I wondered, hauling him up off the floor by his wrists, whether he'd make it through our interview, let alone a ten-week tour. Why on earth isn't he at home with his feet up instead of rehearsing all day long? Doesn't his wife object? He says, slowly and with effort, 'Yes, my wife does object; she says, "You're not fit enough, you should retire, you're mad!" ' I didn't get the impression that the theatre management has got anyone else lined up in case he seizes up on the road.

'They have been very tolerant with me. They should have sent for Harry Taub ages ago, ' he jokes, referring to another actor who'd be good casting. Mitchell is one of those actors who when they first come on stage always get a round of applause. Is that ripple of affectionate recognition something he still can't live without? 'No. It's very embarrassing. I hate it. I think, "Oh, f*** off." ' Jeff Baron's amazingly durable two-hander, Visiting Mr Green, has been done over 300 times in 37 countries. Mitchell plays an ancient widower who is hit by a car; as restitution the young motorist is made to visit him once a week, catering and cleaning his way into Mr Green's crusted heart. 'It's a very simple, moving and unpretentious play, ' he says, 'which is why Lyn Gardner [a theatre critic] in the Guardian will undoubtedly attack it. She's accused me in the past of overacting.'

Oddly enough, I saw Mitchell in this charming play a few years ago in Leeds and remember him overacting too, but in exactly the way that you would want him to. Mitchell does a terrific line in geriatric Jews. He was a nonogenarian furniture dealer in Arthur Miller's The Price a few years ago -- shrugging, palms up, caterpillar eyebrows bristling -- and got a much deserved Olivier award for his fruity performance.

It's rather surprising to discover that the East-ender 'Mick' Misell (he now regrets changing his Russian Jewish name to Mitchell) went to Oxford University, where he read physical chemistry and became a friend of Richard Burton. Burton once introduced Elizabeth Taylor to Warren's father.

'Have you met my little Jewish girlfriend, Mr Misell?' They sank a lot of pints and later joined the RAF together. He watched Burton set aflutter the Canadian Air Force girls with his manly airbase Shakespearean recitals. 'That great wonderful sonorous voice rang out and all these women stood there goggled-eyed and I thought I wouldn't mind having a bit of that.' He never finished his degree and acting became his career. Fame came with the notorious Sixties telly sitcom Till Death Us Do Part, in which he played Alf Garnett, the Tory-voting royal-worshipping West Hamsupporting bigot. Mitchell was quite magnificent, as was Dandy Nichols as his silly moo of a wife, who would sit there occasionally saying 'pig'. The magnificent show, written by the late Johnny Speight, has never since been matched for political incorrectness.

I reminded him of Alf's lovely line about Hitler ('granted, he had his faults') but Mitchell has his own favourite. 'The line I've always cherished is "bloody Gandhi wouldn't eat his dinner, so they gave him India." ' Mitchell off-stage was a progressive leftie and veteran of the socialist Unity Theatre. …

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