Peter York On Ads: Dark brew of race and class

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The Rising Damp roster of characters was practically perfect; viewers tend to remember all four, 30 years later. One was a smartly spoken, public-school-seeming young black man who said his father was an African chief.

Young Africans like that certainly existed then. When Ann Barr and I were researching Sloane Rangers back in the Eighties, most Sloane Boy pub and club gangs seemed to have one tweeded-up and pink-shirted Radleian or Harrovian with a non-PC pet name such as Chalkie.

However, you did wonder what the Rising Damp character Philip Smith was doing in a boarding house quite so subfusc as Leonard Rossiter's while the real-life ones were sharing flats in Earls Court and the OK bits of Clapham. In the 1980 film of Rising Damp (it's 28 years since the TV series finished; Rossiter and Beckinsale are dead but Frances de la Tour seems practically unchanged), an alternative back story for Philip Smith emerged.

Far from being from the heart of darkness he was born and bred in Croydon. And of course here was another reality; by the Seventies there was a second generation of born-and-bred black Brits, urban and suburban, many of whom presented as very True Brit indeed. The idea of the Cool Britannia black cockney had emerged in the Sixties and the key exponent was the exotically-careered Kenny Lynch.

George Alagiah describes in his book A Home from Home: From Immigrant Boy to English Man how prejudices against his brownness (he's from Sri Lanka) seemed to evaporate when he started talking in his public-school RP. He concluded that class trumps race. Everyone wants clever, top networked Trevor Phillips or hyper-articulate, funny Oxford-educated Diane Abbott, including all those worthy souls who cross the road when they see a couple of brothers in hoodies or complain about the boys in old BMWs with the window-shattering beat-boxes.

Don Warrington, who played Philip Smith in Rising Damp seemed to have cornered the market in socially smart Africans in the Seventies, but in the Eighties and Nineties we saw less of him until Manchild, that under-rated comedy drama series about the male mid-life crisis idea. It was a reminder of an interesting actor and an interesting archetype.

Then Warrington became a Grump on the BBC's Grumpy Old Men. He was good at it and they used him a lot. Up there with Arthur Smith and Rick Wakeman. (I was a total failure as a Grump, incidentally; they filmed me for hours on end trying to be demotically, sympathetically, identifiably ratty but obviously coming across as just another self-important hack. They've only used about 30 seconds of me so far.)

Joining the Grumps gave Warrington his tipping-point moment and now he's in a Kenco commercial. The commercial's full of that race/class trade-off that Warrington specialises in. There we are in somewhere green and delicious, a coffee plantation. Deep green with a nice estate house in the background. I'm assuming it's meant to be Kenya. And there's Warrington looking out of the window as the plantation owner or manager. Outside there's an argument between two white men, an old bloke and a ginger student type around an open truck piled with sacks of coffee beans.

Young ginger, the clever-clogs little sneak, is accusing the older man of planning to send high quality Arabica to Kenco for their instant coffee.

Warrington separates them. "Kenco use the same beans in their Instant as in their Roast and Ground." He starts bantering with the young man. "I commend your enthusiasm. Remind me, who are you?" He's a gap-year boy. "Gap between the ears, if you ask me."

The whole thing's made to a formula that hasn't changed for 40 years; you can just see it plotted out on storyboards: "We open on a picturesque coffee plantation in Kenya..." The Kenco positioning is dogged and literal-minded - that Kenco instant is more like "real" coffee because it comes from a proper coffee brand. But instant and ground are two different drinks.

People who only drink instant don't care much about poncey claims about better beans and people who care for proper coffee don't believe that instant will ever taste remotely like it.

Still, Warrington's character, reversing our status expectations with a black authority figure and his lovely louche voice jacks it up several notches.