By Aaron Brown (comedy historian and fan, and Editor of British Comedy Guide, promoting British comedy of all varieties to audiences across the globe)
Love Thy Neighbour (Thames, 1972-76) is now often cited as one of Britain’s worst sitcoms. Lazy, poor quality, racist – all these labels, and many more, have been attributed to it in the last couple of decades. But, having run for eight series over five years, spawned a feature film and an Australian sequel, does that really ring true?
Well, partly. Comedy is of course subjective, but Love Thy Neighbour is, in style and tone, very much in keeping with other sitcoms of the mid-70s. Its humour is broad and bawdy, both depicting and appealing to a very mainstream working-class section of Britain, and its lifespan – not to mention the fact we are still discussing it fifty years later – is testament to its huge contemporary success and popularity.
Accusations of racism ring slightly truer but often miss the point, with epithets flying to and fro, but – like its more critically lauded BBC cousin, Till Death Us Do Part – it is also true that ignorant attitudes (and particularly the hostility of lead white character Eddie toward his black neighbour, Bill) never go un-mocked or un-punished. The viewer is never left in any doubt that bigoted attitudes are not a positive, and those who hold them will always end up losing out.
Whilst racial conflict is the obvious backbone to Love Thy Neighbour’s premise, it is by no means its only cause of contention. As the eight series progress, we see the men establish a firm, if unspoken friendship – never more so than after their wives fall pregnant and make them fathers at the same time. Indeed, Eddie and Bill’s political differences become a deeper topic of argument between them; a subject over which one feels each man holds a genuine grudge of sorts against the other, whilst they are united in those age-old domestic disputes with their wives, and in various quarrels with their bosses and authorities.
By the end of its run, one finds the series far more a study (perhaps unintentionally, but a study all the same) of male friendship – particularly of working-class male friendship, against the backdrop of the changing society and racial tensions of the 1970s.
In the round, it is hard not to conclude that the opprobrium that Love Thy Neighbour attracts is rooted far more in a dislike of its style of comedy, than an assessment of the sitcom’s racial content. There is no question that white socialist Eddie is depicted as the more ignorant of the two, more the loser, whilst the black Conservative Bill the wiser, less judgemental, and more mild-mannered. But each each love their families. And, crucially, each are thoroughly human.
If I’ve managed to pique your interest in this classic comedy series, then I do hope you’ll dip your toe in and discover its working-class charm for yourself – for if you can get past the language that undeniably grates to a modern ear, there is much to delight in.