Jack Smethurst, who has died aged 89, achieved national fame in Love Thy Neighbour, a television sitcom that ran for a phenomenally successful eight series during the 1970s – but was looked back on as racist and, even for its time, anachronistic. He starred as Eddie Booth, the white, Labour-voting, union-supporting factory worker outraged when Bill Reynolds (played by Rudolph Walker), a Conservative-voting black man, not only gets a job in his workplace but also moves in next door to him.
The programme’s creators, Vince Powell and Harry Driver, insisted accusations of bigotry were unwarranted because Bill’s views were presented as ignorance and there was prejudice on both sides. Smethurst also said he took the role on the assurance that Eddie would be seen as the one in the wrong.
Meanwhile, the pair’s wives, Joan Booth (Kate Williams) and Barbie Reynolds (Nina Baden-Semper), got along swimmingly and such was the sitcom’s popularity, with viewing figures sometimes exceeding 20 million over a five-year run (1972-76), that it spawned a 1973 film and a 1975 stage tour.
The on-screen, off-screen demarcations were seemingly spelled out when Smethurst and Walker played themselves, laughing and joking as they share a drink together at a TV studio, in the 1974 film Man About the House.
Despite the criticisms, Love Thy Neighbour was screened around the world and a new version was made for Australian television in 1979, with just Smethurst going with it in a story line that finds Eddie settling in Australia, treated as the “foreigner” and facing conflict.
Other television offers went quiet for a while and Smethurst briefly found a job in a flower shop. He later blamed typecasting. “I don’t think it was the racial content,” he said in a 2016 BBC Radio 4 documentary, Still Loving Thy Neighbour? “I think it’s the fact that your face is so familiar. I think people are a lot more adaptable now.”
Smethurst was born in the Collyhurst area of Manchester, the third of five children of Kitty (nee Brown), a department store worker, and Bill Smethurst, a packer in a factory. After the family’s home was destroyed by German bombs during the second world war, Jack was evacuated to Blackpool and the family eventually moved to Blackley, Manchester. From an early age, rather than using his given name, John, he was known as Jack, after his maternal uncle, Jackie Brown, a boxing champion.
On leaving St Clare’s school, Blackley, at the age of 14 with no qualifications, Jack delivered groceries, then had a job as an apprentice cutter in a raincoat factory and did seasonal agricultural work in Lincolnshire. During national service with the RAF as a corporal in the cookhouse at Cosford, Shropshire, he spent leave time watching plays at Birmingham repertory theatre. It reinforced in him the desire to perform he had felt after seeing the Carl Rosa opera company at Manchester Opera House in his teens.
The RAF and Manchester city council then jointly funded him through drama school training, at the London Academy of Dramatic Arts (1954-56). While in Hornchurch for his first repertory theatre work, Smethurst was heard on BBC radio with the Queen’s Players company, under the director Stuart Burge, in a 1956 production of the George Farquhar play The Recruiting Officer, with Smethurst playing the police constable.
He was in at the beginning of the revolution giving a voice to the working classes when he played a collier in Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance, John Arden’s drama about army deserters, at the Royal Court theatre (1959). Then came bit parts in the social-realist “kitchen sink” films Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) and A Kind of Loving (1962).
Smethurst followed those with character roles in television plays and popular series, including multiple parts in the police dramas No Hiding Place (five, from 1961 to 1965) and Z Cars (seven, 1962 to 1969). Although he appeared as an army recruit in the film Carry on Sergeant (1958), he was in few TV comedies until the end of the 1960s.
He was a regular in the sitcom For the Love of Ada (1970-71) as Leslie Pollitt, son-in-law and neighbour of a widow (Irene Handl) enjoying a relationship with the gravedigger (Wilfred Pickles) who buried her husband. Smethurst also appeared in the 1972 spin-off film.
Either side of Love Thy Neighbour, Smethurst had four roles in Coronation Street: Fred Clark, a crooked brewery worker delivering short orders (1961); Percy Bridge, accepting money from Elsie Tanner after he falsely claimed to have saved her grandson’s life (1967); Johnny Webb, Eddie Yeats’s fellow refuse collector who briefly lodged at the Ogdens’ (1980 and 1983); and Stan Wagstaff, an allotment holder alongside Jack Duckworth (2001).
Returning to sitcom, Smethurst played the boss of a TV chat-show researcher (Marti Caine) in Hilary (1984-86) and had a cameo in Last of the Summer Wine as Davenport, a lost guidebook writer (1997).
Powell also wrote the BBC Radio 2 sitcom A Proper Charlie (1984-85) for Smethurst. He starred as Charlie Garside, a trade unionist who works in a factory but spends most of his time in the pub.
In 1957, Smethurst married Julie Nicholls, an actor. She and their four children, Perdita, Merry, Jane and Adam, an actor, survive him.
• Jack (John) Smethurst, actor, born 9 April 1932; died 16 February 2022