He may be 81, but Warren Mitchell is busier than ever. Now he is playing his favourite role – and no, it isn’t Alf Garnett. Karen Price speaks to him
WARREN Mitchell may be best known for playing the bigoted and cantankerous Alf Garnett, but it is not his favourite role. Instead, it is the part of a Jewish widower in the stage show Visiting Mr Green which has given him the most pleasure.
And he enjoys playing the pensioner so much that he is now touring with the production for the third time.
He may be 81 and therefore slowing down a little – the first thing Mitchell requests is that I “speak up” as he’s a little hard of hearing these days – but he’s clearly still relishing working.
“It’s a big part – I’m never off the stage,” he tells me. “It’s well written and if you pick up a script and it plays while you are reading it then you know you have got a winner.”
Jeff Baron’s multi-award winning play Visiting Mr Green is a two-hander in which a Jewish widower is almost hit by a speeding car. It is driven by corporate executive Ross Gardiner, played by up-and-coming actor David Sturzaker.
Found guilty of reckless driving, Ross is ordered to spend the next six months making weekly visits to Mr Green. What starts off as a well crafted comedy about two people who resent being in the same room together develops into a gripping and poignant drama. Mitchell is full of praise for his young co-star.
“He’s a splendid fellow – he works wonderfully for a young actor. He’s going to be a big film star.”
Mitchell took the play to Australia, where he says it was “well received” and he’s been pleased to tour in the UK too.
“It’s the duty of an actor to take shows to the provinces – you can’t just stick to London.”
I wonder how a man who is well above the official retirement age manages to be so energetic.
“I don’t know if I have got much energy – I try to stay vertical most of the time,” he quips.
As far as retirement is concerned, he says he has no work lined up once his current tour comes to an end.
“I have considered retiring but rejected it, one of the reasons being my wife would go mad if I was around the house.”
Londoner Mitchell, who is of Russian Jewish descent, was last seen on stage in the 2004 UK tour of Arthur Miller’s The Price, for which he won a coveted Olivier Award.
But he is best known as the mean-spirited Alf Garnett in the TV series Till Death Us Do Part and later In Sickness And In Health.
“I don’t mind people talking about it,” he says of playing Garnett. “But I can’t really say anything I haven’t already said 100 times.”
Although Mitchell had a passion for entertaining from a young age, he preferred to play football on Saturday mornings and watch his beloved Spurs in the afternoon – a habit he’s never been able to break.
But he had a change of heart about acting when, in 1944, he met Richard Burton and they both joined the RAF together.
“His account of the profession convinced me that the theatre might be more in my line than nuclear physics back at Oxford – and so it turned out,” he says.
Although Mitchell says he and Welsh star Burton were “not close buddies” he says they would often have a drink together after Burton had played rugby.
“If he had not been a star actor I think he would have been a rugby player for Wales.”
After being inspired by Burton, Mitchell attended RADA for two years, performing in the evening with the Unity Theatre.
His first broadcast was as a regular on the radio show Educating Archie, and this led to appearances on Hancock’s Half Hour.
His cinema début came in 1956, when he played the part of a British prisoner aboard the German pocket battleship Graf Spee in The Battle of the River Plate. As far as TV is concerned, as well as his success with Garnett, he has also appeared in series like The Sweeney, Lovejoy, Waking the Dead, Kavanagh QC and Gormenghast.
Although he has no work lined up for the New Year, he and his wife Connie, a retired actress, are moving house in January.
“That will take up quite a bit of time,” he says.
Visiting Mr Green on tour at UK
New Theatre, Cardiff, from Tuesday to December 8. The box office number is 029 2087 8889
21st January Theatre Royal Plymouth
28th January Theatre Royal Bath
4th February Palace Theatre Westcliffe
11th February Rose Theatre Kingston
18th February TBC
25th February Arts Theatre Cambridge
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