Frederick Christopher Kwabena (‘born on Tuesday’) Gyearbuor (pronounced Djear-bwor, meaning ‘unconquerable except by stone’) Asante was born in 1941 and educated at the Presbyterian School in Nkawkaw, a town near Kwahu Tafo. In defiance of his businessman father he moved to the UK in 1967, attended Mountview Academy of Performing Arts (where he was a prize-winning student) and became an actor, appearing in stage plays, films such as Dogs of War and Local Hero, and many television series.
The most famous of the last was a Channel 4 comedy series set in a West Indian barbershop in London entitled Desmond’s, in which he played the regular part of an African student called Matthew. This series ran for six years, enabling him to build houses in Ghana, and led to him being honoured as Ghana’s Cultural Ambassador for Services to Acting. When he died (from clogged arteries) in Accra in August 2000, aged 58, the Chief of his ancestral town afforded him the honour of being laid to rest in the Presbyterian Burial Ground at Kwahu Tafo; and afterwards his UK friends, including many famous stars, subscribed to a Memorial Fund which on the one hand established The Gyearbuor Asante Prize for Acting at Mountview – the only major award in the UK that is named after a black actor – and on the other provided the principal contribution to the building of the Kwahu Tafo Community Library, which is dedicated to his memory. A plaque outside the building says in Twi Se onipa ye ade a, wose ayeyi, which means “When a man has done well, he deserves to be remembered.”
Acting was a very unusual aspiration for a young man from Kwahu, a country region four hours to the north of Accra, whose family expected him to pursue a more predictable career and follow his father into business. Born into a local royal family, however, he had already indicated his unconventionality by ruling himself out as a potential future chief (by undergoing circumcision at the age of 18), and on a whim had answered an advertisement in a Ghanaian newspaper for London’s Corona Stage School. The welcoming response he received decided him, and, defying his father, he set off for Liverpool by ship in December 1967.
On arrival, for reasons that aren’t altogether clear, he didn’t go to Corona, but scraped a living for a year or two and then eventually made up his mind about acting and became a student at Mountview, emerging three years later to begin a professional career.
His first theatre engagement was in Peter Coe’s Black Macbeth at The Roundhouse, playing Donalbain and the First Murderer. Subsequent stage credits included repertory work at Nottingham Playhouse, The Sheffield Crucible, and Newcastle University Theatre, where he played God in a musical which featured the then unknown Sting in the band. He acted in Yemi Ajibade’s Parcel Post at The Royal Court, and twice played the title role in Adrian Mitchell’s Man Friday, first with the 7:84 Theatre Company in 1973, and then again in 1984 at the Half Moon Theatre. At Watford he played Princess Grace in The Hostage, and toured England and Scotland in Toby Robertson’s production of the musical Pilgrim. He played the Prince of Morocco in The Merchant of Venice with the Old Vic led by Timothy West and Prunella Scales on the company’s final world tour, and at the Tricycle Theatre played Easy in Snoo Wilson’s Space Ache opposite the young Frances Barber. His last theatre appearance was playing the Manager at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Feydeau’s A Little Hotel On The Side.
Film credits included Dogs of War opposite Christopher Walken, and the Reverend McPherson in Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero.
His frequent work for TV began with Adam Smith, and went on to include Crown Court and Strangers for Granada, Hazell and Rumpole Of The Bailey for Thames, Bless Me Father, Mind Your Language, Mixed Blessings and The Strange Case of The End of Civilisation As We Know It (with John Cleese and Arthur Lowe) for LWT. Numerous plays included Drums Along Balmoral Drive, Visitors for Anderson, Wipe Out and a live broadcast of Cargo Kings for the BBC.
He eventually earned national and international recognition for portraying the African student Matthew in Desmond’s, Trix Worrell’s hugely popular and successful barbershop sitcom for Channel Four, made by Humphrey Barclay Productions of which he was a co-founder. Desmond’s began in 1989 and ran for six years.
Gyearbuor, who for much of his acting career and to many of his friends was better known as Christopher (he changed to his Ghanaian name for the second series of Desmond’s, feeling a new-found confidence in his African identity on the British acting scene), was an immensely popular man. He was literate, high-spirited, wickedly funny, and outstandingly good company. As an actor his versatility showed in his ability to play farce as effectively as danger, and as a leading member of the British black acting community he set an example of professionalism and achievement which was inspirational to contemporaries and young alike and, on his death, earned him tributes from some of the best known actors of his generation and a generous obituary in The Independent. One of his friends, Sir Richard Eyre, was moved to say that ‘Christopher was full of grace’. This unusual comment seems inspired in view of the fact that Christopher was called ‘Kwabena’, which means born on a Tuesday, and English tradition has it that “Tuesday’s child is full of grace”.
By one of life’s most remarkable coincidences, one of his eventual co-directors in Humphrey Barclay Productions, Al Mitchell, turned out to be the same Corona Stage School officer who had invited him to the UK in 1967.
In 2004, in tribute to him, his friends and colleagues in the black acting community put on a fundraising comedy and music gala at the Hackney Empire in London’s East End, called ‘The Empire Strikes Black’. It was such an enjoyable and financial success that it was staged annually thereafter for another 10 years (latterly as ‘Strictly Come Laughing’), and became a mainstay of finance for development work in Kwahu-Tafo.
When Gyearbuor retired to Accra, he decided for fun to try his hand as an author, and with great computer assistance from his friend Richard Andoh wrote a book. He finished it the weekend before he died. In a foreword he wrote: “I would like to stress that All An Act is not an autobiography. Richard, the hero, is a made-up character, but I have drawn on my own experiences … especially jobbing in the provinces, and the meetings with Hollywood bosses.”
Those who knew him will recognise many of his hilarious stories and hear his unique voice telling them: they may also be surprised to read of emotional crises and less happy periods which, if they too are based on his own life, reveal times of doubt and even despair which are common to many actors (and perhaps particularly black actors) but which he kept well hidden from his friends.
To them, and to his many thousands of television fans, he was indeed a wonderful ambassador for his country, with a pride in being Ghanaian that was impossible not to enjoy with him. His sense of cultural history laced with good humour was epitomised by one of his best lines in Desmond’s:
Matthew: Well, Desmond, there’s an old African saying:
you can choose your friends, but you can’t
choose your relatives.
Ricky: That’s not an old African saying.
Lee: No, everyone says that.
Matthew: Well, I think we may safely assume
that an African said it first.
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