Monday, 17 August 2015

No.37. British Sitcom Films: LOVE THY NEIGHBOUR (1973)


In 1973, Hammer followed up its astounding success with the trilogy of sitcom spin-off films of ON THE BUSES to do the same for the similarly high-toned LOVE THY NEIGHBOUR series.As expected, just like the series it’s a one-trick pony and a lame one at that. Eddie and his wife Joan (Jack Smethurst and Kate Williams) live next door to West-Indian neighbours Bill and Barbie (Rudolph Walker and Nina Baden-Semper). The wives get on well but the husbands are continually at racist logger-heads, fuelled mostly by Eddie’s ignorance; that’s unless you count that of the writers Driver and Powell.

The opening pre-credits sequence is the only one that shows any attempt at wit above the IQ of a hat-stand. The narrator intones Shakespeare’s John of Gaunt and his lyrical tribute to ‘This sceptre’d isle’ from RICHARD II over stock images of traditional solid English values. On the line ‘Where all men are created equal’ we cut to a tracking shot down the suburban street of the show’s families, depicting couples of both races having at each other with water bowls, soot, bricks and buryings of axes rather than hatchets to the jaunty tune of the title song.

From there though, the script and plot is a joyless merciless Hammer-ing of the same endless racial needling. Within the first ten minutes, Eddie has called Bill ‘sambo’ and ‘nig-nog’, a black bus driver a ‘choc-ice’ and the blatantly white Asian conductor ‘Gunga Din’ and ‘Ali-Baba’. Even the real Asian actor who plays one of the factory workers is required to behave like a stereotyped immigrant dimwit from MIND YOUR LANGUAGE. At least the writers could argue that they were taking equal opportunity pot-shots at every target (without er…discrimination?), including regional ones. When Eddie’s battle-axe mother Patricia Hayes comes to stay, she is not impressed by Joan’s high-falutin’ talk of protein and calories, boasting “Yes, well up north we don’t have them. Up north we have proper food”.

Eddie is not just a narrow-minded bigot. He’s also a conniving chiseller, getting caught by his boss, the familiar puffing stream-train of seething frustration Bill Fraser, attempting to turn back the time-clock hands. Eddie, Bill and their mutual white and black friends all work in the same factory. This is the boxing-ring of the plot as racial tension leads to the separately raced workers fracturing over union differences and going on strike. This at least was topical as strike action in Britain (especially from power companies) was hugely common in the early 1970s. Another bid for social comment is made by having Bill be a supporter of Edward Heath, which causes Eddie to later ask him for twice the union dues as a ‘Tory’.

It’s bad enough hearing the constant unimaginative racist insults of Eddie, met with the feeble reaction of ‘Honky’ by Bill, but the desperate shoe-horning of them into every scene is tiresomely lame. “A white lie, or in your case a black lie” says Jacko at one point just to spread the manure of ignorance as wide as possible amongst the cast even if in his case it's meant as a shared joke rather than an insult. Of course, the strike aspect is a golden (or leaden) chance to crow-bar ‘blackleg’ into the dialogue. Having Bill sing ‘Day-o’ in his bathroom in the morning surely does the film-makers no credit at all in answering accusations of black stereotyping, nor does the ‘hilarious’  fake cooking of Eddie in a cannibal stew by the black workers in tribal costume make it clear who the joke is really upon. Are these portrayals really only high-lighting Eddie’s ignorance?

Nina Baden-Semper’s delivery of her lines is awkward and Kate Williams is sadly simply called on to respond with knee-jerk sour sarcasm most of the time. There’s a host of other well-known sitcom faces in LOVE THY NEIGHBOUR like Arthur English, Melvin Hayes and Bill Pertwee and depending on your take, they’re either welcome relief or playing the expected type-casting.
The only relationship in the film that has any charm is that of the romance between Hayes and Charles Hyatt as Joe, Bill’s father. It has a quaint appeal even if Hayes nearly blows it with the acidic burp of “I’ve never been to a blackie wedding before”. Ultimately though, the warring Eddie becomes assimilated into a now multi-racial family by his brother marrying Barbie’s sister; so harmony wins out – perhaps.

The most offensive element of LOVE THY NEIGHBOUR to me isn't even the incessant hate-crime racism that’s accepted as part of a more innocent time - (arguably more guilty?). Worse still is the relentlessly dumbed-down humour in general in shows like this that was considered ‘good enough’ back then for audiences. Here, its lazy pandering to ignoramuses is defended as “ Ah-hah, but we’re actually mocking the bigoted white instigators of racism”, yet in order to enjoy this low-frequency pap, you would have to turn off all the brain activity that would distinguish this from something to inspire imitators of racism.

Fun for all the (Manson) family indeed. Speaking of which, how can it be family entertainment when there aren't any families in it. None of them down that street seem to have anu kids? Have they been sterilised due to hate-crime prosecution? Or have they all been fostered to the reverse-peculiar area of MR BENN's Festive Road where it's all children but no adults except his bowler-hatted eccentricity?

Laugh? I nearly examined my motives...

No comments:

Post a Comment