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Beaton, Norman (1934-1994)


Main image of Beaton, Norman (1934-1994)

The most familiar of the handful of black actors able to sustain a career in British television from the 1960s to the 1990s, Norman Beaton became particularly associated with spirited patriarch roles, most famously as the eponymous barber of Desmond's (Channel 4, 1989-94), but was a much more versatile actor than his popular image acknowledged. A highly expressive performer who was equally at ease with weighty parts and light comedy, he won great respect on stage and screen but, like many black actors of the time, frequently found consistent television or film roles, particularly ones worthy of his talents, thin on the ground.

Born 31 October 1934 in Georgetown, Guyana (then British Guiana), he did some amateur acting while training as a teacher, and developed a parallel career as a Calypso singer, scoring a no. 1 hit in Trinidad and Tobego with 'Come Back Melvina' in 1959. Arriving in Britain in 1960, he became Liverpool's first black teacher, but the experience was not an entirely happy one, and he was soon back making music, hanging out with the likes of Adrian Henri, Roger McGough and the other 'Liverpool poets' and watching from the sidelines as his peers found success.

He entered the theatre in 1965 with the musical drama Jack of Spades, for which he wrote both the scenario - inspired by his own experiences as a young West Indian in Liverpool - and the music. With a flurry of successes as a stage composer, narrator and, increasingly, actor, it looked like his career was beginning to take off. His television debut in Charles Woods' 'Drums Along the Avon' (The Wednesday Play, BBC, tx. 24/5/1967) was followed by a brief stint as presenter on BBC Bristol's local news programme, Points West. But the first of many brushes with the law, in the form of an unjust disturbance charge and a two-week prison sentence, put paid to an offer of a 26-week BBC series on education and black youth.

This was to be the unhappy pattern of the first half of his career: stage and screen triumphs interrupted by frequent bouts of unemployment, poverty and frustration, further complicated by a chaotic personal life. High points included his stage performances in Jonathan Miller's 1970 production of The Tempest (as Ariel) and in the energetic and innovative Gilbert and Sullivan adaptation, The Black Mikado (1975). With the Black Theatre of Brixton (BTB), he was instrumental in bringing the work of young black playwrights such as Mustapha Matura to wider attention, and although the venture eventually collapsed, it laid the foundations for black theatre in the decades that followed.

On television, he was forced to make do with occasional character roles, and didn't escape the kind of ghetto parts (a drug dealer in Barlow at Large, BBC, 1971-73) which were all too often the lot of black actors of the late 1960s and early '70s. But a relatively small part in Pressure (d. Horace Ové, 1975), Britain's first black feature, was followed by his first series role, as father to Lenny Henry's feckless teenager in LWT's all-black sitcom, The Fosters (ITV, 1976-77). The show drew criticism for its perceived lack of realism - a lot to ask of a sitcom - but it represented a breakthrough of sorts.

His BTB association with Jamal Ali led to the dominant role in Anthony Simmons' energetic feature Black Joy (1977), from Ali's stage play Dark Days Light Nights, about an innocent Gunayan adrift in Brixton. Although he shared Ali's concerns about the film's blunting of some of the play's political edge, for Beaton Black Joy marked a career high point. The film was picked as one of Britain's two competition entries at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival, and won highly favourable reviews at home and abroad, many singling out his performance. The icing on the cake came when he was named the Variety Club's Film Actor of 1977, an achievement he described as "the most wonderful moment in my life". Posterity has been less kind to the film, but not to Beaton's role in it.

The play Black Christmas (BBC, tx. 20/12/1977), directed by Stephen Frears, reunited him with another BTB associate, Michael Abbensetts, leading directly to Empire Road (1977-78). Billed as Britain's first black soap opera, the Birmingham-set series afforded Beaton what was perhaps his best TV role, as decent but wily local businessman and landlord Everton Bennett. He enjoyed a fruitful collaboration with Abbensetts in the years that followed, on 'Easy Money' (Playhouse, BBC, tx. 28/5/1982), the similarly tough Big George is Dead (Channel 4, tx. 1/10/1987), and, near the end of his career, on the wry political comedy Little Napoleons (Channel 4, 1994).

He was the lynchpin of Horace Ové's surprisingly jovial racial comedy Playing Away (1987), and played Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe - not yet the international hate-figure he later became - in Channel 4's drama documentary 'No, Prime Minister' (Dispatches, tx. 18/10/1989), criticising the Thatcher government's stance on South Africa. But overshadowing these - and much of the rest of his career - was his title role in Desmond's, by some margin Britain's most successful and popular black sitcom. Created by the youthful Trix Worrell, Desmond's overcame the problems faced by predecessors like Mixed Blessings (1978-80), The Fosters and No Problem! (ITV, 1983-85), comfortably transcending the usual black/white racial agenda and concerning itself with more satisfyingly complex issues, notably the very different aspirations and experiences of recent African immigrants and more established Caribbeans. Fundamental to its success was Beaton's delightful turn as the avuncular but mischievous barber, and his untimely death in 1994 inevitably brought Desmond's to a close after six series.

The widespread shock and sadness that greeted the news of his death revealed just how fondly he was regarded, as did the inauguration, in 1995, of the Norman Beaton Award at the Birmingham Film and TV Festival to reward outstanding multicultural work and, in 2003, of the BBC's Norman Beaton Fellowship for new radio acting talent.

Mark Duguid

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Black Joy (1977)Black Joy (1977)

Lively, idiosyncratic Black comedy, starring Norman Beaton

Thumbnail image of Playing Away (1986)Playing Away (1986)

A Brixton vs Suffolk cricket match leads to a social and cultural clash

Thumbnail image of Pressure (1975)Pressure (1975)

Britain's first black feature: a powerful portrait of inter-generational tensions

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 Desmond's (1988-94)Desmond's (1988-94)

Comedy series set in a Peckham barber's shop

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

Drama series set within Birmingham's West Indian community

Thumbnail image of Fosters, The (1976-77)Fosters, The (1976-77)

Sitcom about the life of a South London black family

Thumbnail image of Hammer House of Horror (1980)Hammer House of Horror (1980)

Horror series about supernatural goings-on in the present day

Thumbnail image of When Love Dies (1990)When Love Dies (1990)

Poignant drama about a disastrous marriage

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Thumbnail image of Race and the SitcomRace and the Sitcom

How the sitcom has tackled one of society's must difficult subjects

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