Life after Love Thy Neighbour

The racially insensitive Seventies sitcom is proving a surprise hit in Nigeria and the Caribbean. Meanwhile, work prospects for black actors here are worsening. Ian Burrell reports
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The sight of a bigot trying to win a limbo-dancing competition against a West Indian neighbour whom he habitually refers to as "nignog" may not sound like everyone's idea of a rib-tickling storyline for a television situation comedy. But the racially charged humour of the Seventies series Love Thy Neighbour still brings the house down in Nigeria, parts of the Caribbean and Australia, where a newly released DVD is selling strongly.

What's more, the actor who played the West Indian neighbour feels that it's a great shame that broadcasters wouldn't dare screen the show any more in Britain. Rudolph Walker, now best known as Patrick Trueman in EastEnders, says that the joke was always on the racist, Eddie Booth (played by Jack Smethurst), and his own narrow-minded character, Bill Reynolds.

"These days, we can't take the piss out of each other and laugh," says Walker. "The whole climate in this country has changed. We have become very politically correct." He says that, rather than castigate him for subjecting himself to the racial abuse his character suffered in Love Thy Neighbour, older black people in Britain often approach him to ask: "Why can't they bring it back?"

The actor says: "Obviously, we know they can't bring it back in this climate. The classic example is that in black countries such as the West Indies and Nigeria, they play the series and people still kill themselves with laughter when they see it." Walker says that the success of Love Thy Neighbour with such audiences is "testimony to the fact that it was a funny series".

"It was never done to solve the racial problem; it was done purely for entertainment," he says. "If you are going to solve a racial problem in a half-hour comedy series, then you don't have a problem at all. You should not intellectualise something like that. The fact is that those two guys were silly - both the black guy and the white guy."

Through Love Thy Neighbour, Walker, who came to Britain from Trinidad in 1960, became the first black actor to have a major part on prime-time television. Although he is an accomplished theatrical actor, he acknowledges that if it had not been for the role of Bill Reynolds, he would not be a celebrity today.

Depressingly, he says, roles for black actors in British television have become less substantial than they were a generation ago in seemingly less-enlightened times. In the Sixties and Seventies, television plays frequently dealt with the global issues of the day, such as the emergence of new states in Africa and the Caribbean. "We have many black actors around," Walker says, "but I can chronicle a lot of the good things that I did in the Seventies and Sixties, and I don't seem to get that opportunity now."

It is a view that is shared by another of Britain's great black comic actors, Don Warrington, who is best known for his part as the well-heeled student Philip Smith in Rising Damp. "I think there's a higher visibility of black actors and actresses on television, but I'm really concerned about the quality of that visibility," Warrington says. "Very rarely do you get a rounded black character. They are never the central, driving force of the piece.

"For things to change ultimately in this country, you do have to have stories about their lives. You need to know that it's a human being, a person."

Warrington, 50, a seasoned theatre actor who appeared in Kenneth Branagh's film version of Hamlet, recalls that he was so confident in working as a serious actor in the Seventies that he felt able to turn down a number of television offers that followed his appearances in Rising Damp. "I can remember, in the Seventies, doing [television] plays where I was playing the central character. I don't see that happening so much now."

That could change from this month, when, for the first time, BBC1 will show a situation comedy that revolves around the lives of the Crouches, a black British family living in Walworth, south London. Walker and Warrington both star in the show.

The creator of the series is a white, Scottish writer, Ian Pattison, the man behind the Glaswegian character Rab C Nesbitt. Warrington praises Pattinson as "a brave man" for having the vision to get the show on Britain's most-watched channel.

But the actor warns that, unlike in America, where there is a huge black audience to support programmes with black casts, The Crouches depends on a white audience. He thinks the BBC should give the series time to be accepted. "You have to say to yourself: 'What will the man in Lincolnshire think?'" Warrington says.

"Whoever at the BBC makes these decisions will have to bear in mind that, given the novelty value in this, a certain amount of educating will have to take place." He believes that Fawlty Towers is the only British sitcom that has worked immediately. "With Rising Damp, I remember, when we first did it, the lambasting we got from the press. I remember clearly the Evening Standard saying: 'Rising Damp? Rising gorge, more like.' Nowadays, it's hailed as a classic."

Walker agrees that the BBC must be patient with The Crouches, noting that even EastEnders was poorly received in its early days.

Warrington concurs but says that he fears that the cast have been giving themselves an "unnecessarily hard time" because of the responsibility they felt on their shoulders. "I think there comes, with things that are given the 'black' label, an invisible pressure to be good and right and representative," he says. "As black actors, you can feel that pressure, and it can inform what you do as a performer. But we are nobody's ambassadors. We are actors. That's it."

'The Crouches' begins next Tuesday, 10.35pm on BBC1