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Abbensetts, Michael (1938-)


Main image of Abbensetts, Michael (1938-)

Michael Abbensetts began his career writing short stories, but decided to turn to playwriting after seeing a performance of John Osborne's Look Back In Anger. He was further inspired when he came to England and visited the Royal Court Theatre. He became resident playwright at the theatre in 1974 and his first play, Sweet Talk, was performed there in 1973 for which he received the George Devine Award. In 1973, The Museum Attendant, his first television play, was broadcast on BBC2. It was based on his own early experiences as a security guard at the Tower of London in the mid 1960s. In 1974, he took British citizenship.

After these early successes Abbensetts, unlike most black writers in Britain at the time, was offered more work and opportunities. His drama Black Christmas (BBC, 1977), directed by Stephen Frears and featuring Carmen Munroe and Norman Beaton, was, like The Museum Attendant, based on actual experience, and set family disputes against a background of longing for a distant home.

During the 1970s and 1980s, a number of Abbensetts' plays were produced for the London theatre. These included Alterations (1978), Samba (1980), In The Mood (1981), Outlaw (1983) and Eldorado (1984). Crime and Passion (1976) and Roadrunner (ITV, 1977) was among his writing for television.

Abbensetts' success led to his involvement in British television's first Black soap opera Empire Road (1978-79) for which he wrote two series. Horace Ové was brought in to direct the second series, establishing a unique production unit with a black director, writer and actors. Empire Road broke ground not only as the first soap opera to be conceived and written by a black writer for a black cast, but also with its specific focus on the British-Caribbean experience. Abbensetts himself had migrated to Britain from British Guiana (now Guyana), where he was born on 8 June 1938. In spite of such advances, Empire Road only managed to survive two series before it was axed. The late Norman Beaton called it "perhaps the best TV series I have been in."

Norman Beaton (also born in Georgetown, Guyana) continued to star in many of Abbensetts' television productions, including Easy Money (BBC, 1981), Big George Is Dead (Channel 4, 1987) and Little Napoleons (Channel 4, 1994). The last was a four-part comic-drama depicting the rivalry between two solicitors (played by Beaton and Saeed Jaffrey) who become Labour councillors. Its themes included the price of power, the relationship between West Indian and Asian communities in Britain and the internal workings of political institutions.

Much of Abbensetts' drama has touched on issues of race and power, but he has always been reluctant to be restricted to issue-based drama. His writing reveals a concern with the development and growth of character and a fundamental awareness of the methods and contexts for his actors. He has always actively involved himself in the production process and his dramatisations have provided outstanding roles for established black actors in Britain - Carmen Munroe, Rudolph Walker and, of course, Beaton - giving them the chance to play interesting and realistic characters as well as creating stories about the everyday experiences of black people.

His work thrived at a time when very little drama on television was representing the lives of black British people, and his television plays have created new perspectives for all his viewers. Since Beaton's' death in 1994, Abbensetts has suggested that black British theatre is in "regression".

Although he has since written for radio and television, he has also taken on more instructive roles teaching Caribbean film and literature. Now based in London, he was visiting professor of drama at the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh in 1981. He has been a fellow at British universities and at the City and Guilds of London School of Art. He is still considered one of the best black playwrights of his generation, and books of his plays are promoted with the tagline, "From the writer who gave Caribbeans a real voice in Britain".

Sarita Malik

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Big George Is Dead (1987)Big George Is Dead (1987)

Two old friends - or are they? - go for a nostalgic night on the town

Thumbnail image of Black Christmas (1977)Black Christmas (1977)

Understated drama about a West Indian family Christmas

Thumbnail image of Empire Road (1978-79)Empire Road (1978-79)

Drama series set within Birmingham's West Indian community

Thumbnail image of Museum Attendant, The (1973)Museum Attendant, The (1973)

Michael Abbensetts' first TV play, about a troubled black museum attendant

Thumbnail image of Roadrunner (1977)Roadrunner (1977)

A rich young West Indian is forced to return to his North London family

Related collections

Thumbnail image of Black TV WritersBlack TV Writers

Small-screen pioneers

Related people and organisations

Thumbnail image of Beaton, Norman (1934-1994)Beaton, Norman (1934-1994)