Jack Smethurst, who has died aged 89, starred in the controversial and politically incorrect 1970s sitcom Love Thy Neighbour (ITV, 1972-76), an early prime time television excursion into modern multiculturalism which explored tensions between a black and a white family living next door to each other.
Smethurst played the white racist union shop steward Eddie Booth, married to Joan (Kate Williams) whose domestic equilibrium is upended when the black dyed-in-the-wool Tory Bill Reynolds (Rudolph Walker) and his wife Barbie (Nina Baden-Semper) move into the house next to theirs. Eddie is worried that his wife might be raped by the Jamaican newcomer and only the peacemaking efforts of the long-suffering Joan and the fact that Barbie, who wears hot pants, is sexually alluring, prevent him from moving out on the spot.
During their weekly bickering sessions, usually at the Jubilee social club, Eddie and Bill traded racist insults, white Eddie calling black Bill “S---o” and “n--n--”, and Bill countering with “Honky”and “white trash”. As Eddie, a diminished Alf Garnett figure, Smethurst had to contend with lines that would now be considered beyond the pale, as when the character telephoned the Race Relations Board: “Am I coloured? Yes, white all over and proud of it. I wish to make a complaint against a n--n--. What’s he done? He’s only moved next door. You’ll soon change your tune when the tom-toms start.”
A headmaster in Scotland complained that a black staff member had been denigrated as “c--n” and “S----”, terms picked up by children watching Love Thy Neighbour. But who could really take offence, wondered a Daily Express writer in 1975, “if kids in school playgrounds nowadays copy the epithets of Eddie and Bill and call each other ‘Choc ice’ and ‘Snowflake’? It’s got to be an improvement on ‘n----r’.”
The Telegraph noted that the show had been advertised as a contribution towards racial understanding, although without any claim that it might be funny, and while declaring it “quite bland” concluded that it lunged heavily but faint-heartedly at the comic possibilities of black and white neighbours. The Guardian’s Nancy Banks-Smith, watching episode one, found it “funny in jerks” but wondered why it had taken ITV so long to try such an obvious formula. The Race Relations Board, meanwhile, was outraged, their spokeswoman complaining that she had not “met a single black person who isn’t offended to hell by it”.
While research identified black viewers who hated it, others considered it the funniest thing on television. The show regularly topped the weekly TV ratings with audiences of up to 16 million, and along with the Christmas Morecambe and Wise Show of 1977, one episode of Love Thy Neighbour in April 1974 was one of the most-watched programmes of the decade. Smethurst recognised that Eddie Booth was a potent character, but was proud that the show moved race into mainstream debate, and that for the first time black people were seen on television in central roles.
Made by Thames Television, the series was intended to “take the heat out of race relations”. But like The Black and White Minstrel Show on the BBC, Love Thy Neighbour came to be regarded as an embarrassment, and as one television historian observed, although it ran for eight series, the bluntness of the ITV sitcom style just did not seem up to the job.
One of five children of a factory packer, John Smethurst was born on April 9 1932 in Collyhurst, a working-class district of Manchester, and evacuated to Blackpool when the family home was destroyed in the wartime Blitz. He was always known as Jack after his uncle, Jackie Brown, a 1930s British and world flyweight boxing champion. He left St Clare’s RC elementary school, Blackley, aged 14 to work as a grocer’s delivery boy.
His interest in theatre was kindled watching Gilbert and Sullivan staged by the Carl Rosa Opera Company in Manchester. After National Service with the RAF, he enrolled at the London Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1954, making his stage debut at Hornchurch rep in 1956. In his first film he was a rookie recruit in Carry On Sergeant (1958) and joined the English Stage Company in John Arden’s anti-war play Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance (Royal Court, 1959) alongside Ian Bannen and Frank Finlay and directed by Lindsay Anderson.
Smethurst appeared in New Wave film productions of kitchen-sink dramas like Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) opposite Albert Finney and John Schlesinger’s A Kind Of Loving (1962) alongside Alan Bates. After a film version of Please Sir! (1971), he starred in a big-screen spin-off of Love Thy Neighbour in 1973, and had a brief cameo in the Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire in 1981.
On television, he made multiple appearances in Coronation Street, starting in 1961 as a brewery drayman. In 1967 he was Percy Bridge, a chancer who tricked Elsie Tanner into bed, and in the early 1980s appeared occasionally as Johnny Webb, one of the men on Eddie Yeats’s bin round, mischievously accused by Vera Duckworth of sleeping with Hilda Ogden.
In 2001 he returned as Stan Wagstaff, a friend of Jimmy Kelly who had left his allotment to Jack Duckworth. It was Stan who told Jack that his benefactor had used his shed as an illegal still to make poteen.
Smethurst also featured in the short-lived ITV sitcom For The Love Of Ada (1970–71), starring Wilfred Pickles and Irene Handl, and reprised the role of Leslie Pollitt in a feature film version in 1972. The series was written by Vince Powell and Harry Driver, who also created Love Thy Neighbour. He returned as Eddie Booth for the 1979 revamp Love Thy Neighbour in Australia, and starred in a Radio 2 sitcom A Proper Charlie in 1985. In 1997 Smethurst appeared as Davenport in the BBC television sitcom Last of the Summer Wine. His final television role was in Casualty (2005-07).
He toured Australia and Asia with Alan Ayckbourn Season’s Greetings and Ray Cooney’s farce Run for Your Wife (1987-88). Later in his career he appeared in productions of Chekhov’s The Seagull, and J B Priestley’s When We Are Married and An Inspector Calls (Birmingham Rep).
Smethurst’s role in Love Thy Neighbour earned him the 1972 Variety Club of Great Britain Television Personality of the Year Award. In 2015 he received a lifetime achievement award from the Heritage Foundation for his outstanding contribution to the arts and entertainment.
Jack Smethurst married, in 1957, Julie Nicholls, whom he met at drama school. She survives him with their son, the actor and film-maker Adam Smethurst, and three daughters.
Jack Smethurst, born April 9 1932, died February 16 2022