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Not a black and white issue...

Matthew Coniam on Love Thy Neighbour

There may be an old joke that runs; there are only three great ITV sitcoms: Rising Damp series one, Rising Damp series two and Rising Damp series three. Thames, ITV’s most prolific purveyor of comic fare, is now much better remembered for being where Morecambe and Wise went to die than for anything they may have contributed to sitcom history. This is unfair. Though remembered only for their kitsch value, shows like Man About The House, George & Mildred and Bless This House are, if nothing else, much better than Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em, The Liver Birds or Last Of The Summer Wine.

Love Thy Neighbour is therefore an intriguing anomaly: a middling Seventies ITV sitcom that everybody knows about, that everybody could identify from a 30 second clip and that everybody has an opinion about. The same opinion, what’s more.

There is a simple reason for this: those evening-long programmes with titles like I Remember The Seventies, TV’s Worst Shows or TV’s Most Shameful Moments. There it is, every time, with clips wrenched out of context, the poor beleaguered writers and stars offering their justifications for the crime of ever being involved with it, and usually some grotesque nonentity from the current comedy scene recalling how, aged two, they watched it every week and thought it was the most offensive thing they had ever seen.

We all know why this is, and you really do not need me to remind you. In fact, my original idea had been to write without touching on race at all, mainly because I’ve always accepted the traditional defence of writers Vince Powell and Barry Driver that the show merely reflected the climate of its times and did not actually engage with the issues raised at all.

But when I decided to actually watch it (a surprisingly easy job, since three series’ worth are inexplicably available in deluxe DVD box sets) I discovered that among its many surprises is a real and serious attempt to deal with just those issues.

Whatever your view, there are few sights more painful than its star Jack Smethurst apologising yet again for making a TV show that dared to treat race relations as a subject for comedy. He didn’t even turn up to co-star Rudolph Walker’s This Is Your Life, even though the programme was, for once, presented in a positive light.

Neither is there much to be savoured in watching Powell justifying the use of racial slang by a character who is supposed to be a fool and a bigot, and always emerges the loser from his encounters with his neighbour. His wife Joan constantly bollocks him for his attitudes, and he rarely sees out an episode without being made to look an ass in public.

Yet even I was taken aback by the plot of one episode, in which black neighbours Bill and Barbie have a housewarming party, and Eddie calls the police. It’s the sort of thing he does all the time, but suddenly, this time, the scene cuts to Barbie in tears, and Bill, trying to comfort her, deciding that they can only fight intolerance so long and perhaps they should cut their losses and move somewhere else.

Cut to next day, and Eddie is crowing his triumph in the local pub, and hypocritically collecting for their leaving present. At the leaving party, Bill listens politely to Eddie’s speech before declaring that he has ‘never heard a bigger load of white rubbish’ and concluding triumphantly: ‘Here I am and here I stay!’ Whereupon the entire supporting cast slap him on the back, the audience breaks into applause and the episode ends.

One could, I suppose, argue that this is an exercise in both having and eating one’s cake, and it’s true that the moment occurs just where you might expect it: episode one of series two. All the same, as messages go, the word ‘unequivocal’ really does spring to mind.

It’s really just the ITV factor that shoots the programme in its foot. Alf Garnett is (more or less) accepted as satirical because the BBC is (more or less) accepted as a responsible broadcaster. The trouble with Love Thy Neighbour, by contrast, is that it’s just too silly, too undisciplined, and too scattershot in its comic aim. Content to satirise bigotry one moment and then have its protagonists go on the pull together the next, it never quite knows how realistic it is meant to be. (They double date but both girls want Bill, further proof that Eddie’s views are not those of the programme makers nor, in their minds, of the world in which it takes place.)

Characterisation is all over the place. The week after the pivotal Barbie-in-tears episode, for instance, we see Eddie nailing a voodoo doll to his neighbours’ door. A far more provocative act, you might think, but this time Barbie’s only response is to assist Bill in his jokey plan to frighten Eddie by pretending he is really cursed and dying.

Similarly, when Eddie turns up at Bill’s favourite watering hole, the Caribbean Club, leading to an altercation that sees them both kicked out, they immediately team up and go off the best of friends. And again, while Eddie’s workmates frequently admonish him for his prejudices, when he declares a gang-fight for sole drinking rights at the pub they instantly join his team.

When it does get by it is purely because of the assured and likeable performances. Smethurst actually gives a fascinating performance. He’s nothing like Alf Garnet: for one thing he’s a socialist, for another he’s not loud and common but speaks in an odd, quiet and refined way.

Yes, it’s a good team, but my God, do they have their work cut out at times. If the characters are to work at all, they have to be consistent. But one jaw-dropping episode begins with Eddie being annoyed by the presence of a Salvation Army band outside his window. Then, without us even getting to see how, he is instantly converted and becomes a ridiculously over-the-top pious Christian. Then, for the most trivial of reasons, is instantly unconverted and back to his normal self.

It’s breathtakingly childish, and I honestly can’t think of another moment in any other pre-Nineties sitcom that quite so nakedly advertises the sheer lack of care that went into the writing of it. This is the most extreme example, but the show constantly plays fast and loose with the characterisation, plotting and general tone in this weird, disorienting way.

Love Thy Neighbour is certainly a crude, brash, superficial and not really all that good a series. But then, that’s the thing with ITV, isn’t it? It doesn’t want a place in history; it just wants to keep 17 million viewers happy. And it did, it really did.

Did I laugh when I rewatched it all? Yep, sorry, I did. Bits of it are very funny indeed. And the biggest irony is just how innocent it seems: virtually any comedy programme of today is infinitely meaner-spirited.

A fuller version of this article appears in the new edition of Kettering, the fanzine for ‘elderly’comedy.

Issue 5 also includes articles about George Formby, Ever Decreasing Circles, Ronnie Barker, Graham Chapman, The City Gent, Rambling Syd Rumpo, Robert Fripp and more.

To order a copy for for £3 plus post and packing (50p UK, £1.00 overseas), click here

First published: April 2006

Posted: 22 Mar 2009

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