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A Brief History of Britain's Racist Sitcoms

From Alf Garnett to Ricky Gervais, British comedy has always told us to pity bewildered old xenophobes.

by Angus Harrison
21 July 2017, 8:15am

Love Thy Neighbour (ITV)

The "British sense of humour" – that sacrosanct, 20th-century myth which our strange nation, riddled as it is by self-doubt and insecurity, is still so beholden to. Veins throbbing, coked-up on nostalgia, we'll tell anyone who'll listen: "We understand sarcasm!" "Monty Python was actually really culturally important and not just six public school boys doing impressions of their mums!" "John Oliver is popular in America!"

Sadly, however, as with pretty much everything we celebrate about our collective history, the reality of our comedic heritage is more problematic than we often care to remember. Put simply, for every "fork handles", there's a sketch like Spike Milligan's "Pakistani Daleks".

Britain's history of racist sitcoms is not much of a secret. In recent years, they've matured into a sort of quaint artefact to be scoffed at by a more enlightened generation – popping up on Oh My God Can You Believe It Was the 70s Once-type shows, where former Loaded editors and stand-up comedians giggle incredulously at clips, while Barry Cryer blinks slowly and assures us "it was a different time."

But if we've learnt anything from the spiritual exhumation of Brexit, it's just how much prejudices we thought we had buried are in fact alive and well. Old anxieties about our once-great nation resurfaced, proving "political correctness" to be little more than a dodgy paint-job over Britain's deep-seated ethnic self-importance. Our questionable history of racist sitcoms are more than the embarrassing echo of distant history – they are a reminder of the stories we tell ourselves about our history, and of just how recently the British population thought the term "nig-nog" was pretty funny, actually.

Till Death Us Do Part first aired on BBC1 in 1965, introducing the UK population to Alf Garnett – a sort of nightmarish proto-Daily Express reader in round glasses, and the godfather of the on-screen slur. Spending every episode spouting vitriol about "wogs" and extolling the glories of Empire, the show's creator Johnny Speight always claimed his character was a satirical swipe at white, working-class bigotry. Watching it back now, the show exists in a strange hinterland between a studio sitcom and bleak kitchen-sink drama – the ugly prejudices of its central character are matched by the rotting wallpaper and stale period furniture.

The defence that the show was "making fun of the racists" is a complex one. One man's caricature is another's champion, and it's worth noting that when polled a high proportion of the programme's audience found what Alf Garnett had to say "quite reasonable". A subsequent poll discovered his audience were more likely to think black people were inferior to white.

The satire defence comes up a lot in relation to Britain's problematic comedies, yet it's one that consistently fails to recognise the importance of the audience. Whatever the author's intentions, Alf Garnett quickly took on a life of his own as a prophet of monarchy, military and Euroscepticism.

ITV's Love Thy Neighbour, the only racist sitcom that came close to TDUDP in terms of popularity, was surrounded by similar claims of satirical intention. In fact, its creators, Vince Powell and Harry Driver, even went as far as to argue their comedy was written to "poke fun at the English" and actually assist with ongoing assimilation – a claim about as credible as suggesting Boris Johnson's "quick wit and subtle diplomacy" make him an ideal foreign secretary.

The premise of Love Thy Neighbour was pretty straightforward: West-Indian couple moves next door to white English couple, white man is reduced to quivering, chubby mess of postcolonial anxiety…. big belly-laughs follow. The white man in this case was Eddie Booth, played by Jack Smethurst.

Highlights of this charming suburban romp include regular scenes featuring cannibal rituals, jovial accusations of rape and delightful quips such as, "You can't reason with a Sambo, they haven't got the intellect!" Watching Love Thy Neighbour for too long is genuinely exhausting, especially given the proposition it was somehow created in the pursuit of social betterment.

Other notable xenophobic smash-hits of this period include Mind Your Language, a laugh-a-minute show set inside an English as a Foreign Language class. MYL is impressive down to just how many stereotypes the format manages to cram into each episode – the head-bobbing Ranjeet from Punjab, the Little Red Book-quoting Chung Su-Lee from China and the saucy French au pair are all literally falling over each other for screen-time.

Mind Your Language does doubly well by 1970s sitcom standards by managing to balance the distinct flavours of lazy xenophobia and smut-heavy misogyny so delicately. And as ever, in the middle of the scrum, there's a white man – in this case, Mr Brown, the English teacher – doing his best to stay sane in a world of crazy foreigners!

Comedy legend Spike Milligan – the bloke who regularly tops Funniest British Comedians Ever polls – also got involved in the racist sitcom scene, with the utterly hilarious, and brilliantly titled, Curry and Chips, which ran on ITV for one series in 1969. Milligan blacked up to play a Pakistani immigrant with a tenuous Irish connection, hence his cheeky nickname: "Paki-Paddy". Check out the catchy theme tune below, in which Milligan wails "Pakistan, the poppadoms are calling" over a tabla drum.

The story here is very much the same. Despite purporting to be a parody of racist attitudes, the show – basically a vehicle for Milligan's dodgy accent – appealed to the very bigots it set out to skewer. Interestingly, Milligan's co-writer on the series was Johnny Speight of Til Death Us Do Part, back at it again with his "actually this is satire" line. Yet Curry and Chips lacked even the pretence of social commentary. It remains one of the most embarrassing chapters of British television, made all the worse by its creators' misguided claim they were doing good. After six episodes it was pulled off the air by the Independent Television Authority.

The story, of course, doesn't end there. There's It Ain't Half Hot Mum, the wartime comedy set in India and Burma; the 1968 released feature-film Carry on Up the Khyber; even firm family favourite Fawlty Towers got involved with a joke about "niggers and wogs". British comedy in the 1960s and 1970s had an unseemly obsession with people of colour. Under the guise of political satire, they spent decades recirculating racial slurs and making heroes of bigots. Yet people are still defending and praising them, Cleese and Milligan still held as the forefathers of British comedy – all because they claim they were laughing at, not with, the racists.

The idea that sitcoms allow us to "laugh at the bigot" is still a defence used today, with similar if admittedly less gratuitous results. Whether it's David Brent singing "Equality Street" or Matt Lucas dressing up as a Thai bride on Little Britain, we're constantly told that this is OK, because we are laughing at the absurdity of the stereotype, not at the minority group. Yet we rarely reflect on the implicit connotations of jokes which rely on long-suffering white Brits, who are struggling to adapt to a changing world.

For at the centre of every racially driven sitcom of the 1960s and 70s was a man – a white man. A confused, bewildered, but, crucially, "relatable" white man. The Alf Garnetts and Eddie Booths around whom the fortunes of Britain were shifting at an unmanageable pace. This new stock character may have been intended as a comment on the bigotry of "little Englanders", but instead he provided them a mascot – a cultural embodiment of domestic emasculation in postcolonial Britain. Someone who was, at last, "saying what we were all thinking". However ridiculous we are supposed to find their reactionary behaviour, British sitcoms have spent decades validating and enshrining their experience in modern folklore.

More than cheap Chinese accents, black face-paint or gags about curry, this is the most damaging stereotype to emerge from Britain's racist comedies, and the one that still won't go away. The poor old English bloke, the victim of history, once the king of the castle, now the butt of the joke – a work of fiction that feels more real today than ever before.

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