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DESMOND'S


 

Desmond’s, Britain’s most successful and long-running black sitcom, was created in 1988 by Humphrey Barclay Productions in response to a specific request from Channel Four Multi-Cultural Commissioning Editor Farrukh Dhondy. Farrukh had been one of the writers of Humphrey’s LWT/Black Theatre Cooperative 1982 breakthrough Caribbean sitcom No Problem!, and feeling that that ‘no one had picked up the torch since then’, asked Humphrey ‘to do it again’. Starting with a search for a black writer, Humphrey approached St. Lucian-born Londoner Trix Worrell, winner of a Channel 4 Playwriting Competition. Trix alleges that he set off for his interview “without an idea in his head” but en route passed Lloyd’s Barbershop in Peckham … and presented Humphrey with a fully formed scenario by the time he arrived.

Desmond’s, as Mark Lewisohn wrote in the Radio Times Guide to TV Comedy, “finally established – hopefully once and for all – the black British sitcom. It was not the first, but – to date – it has been the best.”

Trix told Humphrey there were two things he wanted to do: firstly to let the UK audience know that not all black people come from Jamaica, and secondly to have fun with the longstanding antagonism between West Indians and Africans. The first led to precision in deciding the backstory and birthplace of Desmond, his wife Shirley and their old friend Porkpie – confirmed as Guyana when real-life Guyanese actors Norman Beaton, Carmen Monroe and Ram John Holder were cast – and the second to the creation of an instantly popular double act pairing Porkpie with Matthew, the supercilious eternal ‘student’ from the Gambia.


When it came to casting Matthew, the director’s choice fell on Christopher Asante. Christopher was a Ghanaian, but he volunteered the thought that the British audience might be hard put to hear the difference between Guyana and Ghana, and suggested that therefore Matthew might come from the Gambia instead (only sometime later he did confess that he partly wanted to guard against disgracing his own country if the show turned out to be a flop), but in fact, Christopher’s own culture provided a rich seam of comedy in his Ghanaian ‘old African sayings’, and for Series 2 he had enough confidence to change his name to Gyearbuor (‘unconquerable except by stone’), the Kwahu name he had grown up with. Nobody in the UK knew that because of the ‘y’ the ‘G’ is soft, and he endured many years of “Gear-boor” and variations.

Desmond’s ran for six series, reaching 5 million viewers for one peak episode, until Norman Beaton’s failing health led to its premature demise. Its producers were justly proud of the rollcall of black talent nurtured during its 70 episodes, both on screen and off, and its great achievement was that it felt authentic to its target audience while simultaneously appealing right across the nation, and indeed overseas. In fact a newspaper in Toronto said that in comparison The Cosby Show was like a slice of white bread – which didn’t stop Bill Cosby being an admirer and inviting Norman Beaton to guest on one of his episodes.

After Desmond’s finished Gyearbuor retired to Accra, where he was also famous through the series’ exposure, and was appointed by the President of Ghana as his country’s Cultural Ambassador for Services to Acting.

Norman Beaton returned to Guyana and died shortly after Desmond’s came to an end, but his fame lives on, and the series continues to be regarded as a beacon of black-talent comedy achievement. Desmond’s won The British Comedy Awards Best Channel 4 Sitcom Award in 1993, and in 1994 was honoured by the Royal Television Society with a Silver Medal for outstanding contribution to Multicultural Television.

It is a matter of regret and some surprise among its admirers that nothing has yet seemed to take its place on the UK sitcom scene.

 

Norman Beaton OBE, Trix Worrell and Carmen Munroe OBE outside the

original Barbershop that inspired the series, renamed when used as a location.

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