JOHNNY Speight, the creator of Britain's most infamous television bigot, Alf Garnett, has died after a short illness, writes Chris Starrs.

The 78-year-old comedy writer and life-long socialist was surrounded by his family at his home in Chorleywood, Hertfordshire, when he died shortly after 8.30am yesterday. He had been suffering from cancer of the pancreas.

Speight was best known for his series Till Death Us Do Part, featuring arch-reactionary Alf Garnett. The series, which first appeared on television in 1964, and its sequel, In Sickness and in Health, became comedy classics.

The shows, which made Warren Mitchell a household name, helped launch the careers of other stars including Una Stubbs, who played Alf Garnett's daughter, Rita. Her husband was played by Tony Booth, father of the Prime Minister's wife Cherie Blair.

The BBC finally pulled the plug on Alf's reactionary rantings six years ago after a wave of complaints about his outspoken views on lesbianism, Aids, and ''sending 'ome the foreigners''.

Francis Speight, 38, a golf professional and Speight's second son, said of his father: ''He only found out about the cancer two months ago. He knew he didn't have a lot of time. But the illness only stopped him writing in the last three or four weeks - he was a strong character.''

Speight also leaves his wife Connie, his eldest son Richard, 41, and daughter Samantha, 31.

Paul Jackson, Controller of Entertainment for the BBC, said: ''There are very few writers who can claim to have created a character who embodied a spirit of a generation. He will always be remembered as the man who created a comic icon for the age.''

Speight left school at 14 and spent his teenage years as a factory worker before realising he wanted to break into showbusiness. He said in 1995: ''I didn't invent Alf. He was created by society. I just grassed on him. I observed him, and unfortunately the world is full of Alf Garnetts. You can't encourage racists to be any worse than they are. And the fact that you raise these points of view and make fun of them makes people inclined to think about them. If you never mention them they just go on.''

Actress Una Stubbs, who played Rita in Till Death Us Do Part, said: ''I am very sad and very sorry too for Connie and the children.

''He was wonderful company with a brilliant view and always had something to say on any given subject - an absolute dear. What a loss.''