Cy Grant: Pioneer for black British actors

Cy Grant has died after a brief illness at the age of 90. He was the first black person to appear regularly on British factual television.

He sang regular Calypso current affairs updates on the BBC's Tonight programme which was launched in 1957 and presented by Cliff Michelmore. The lyrics were written by Bernard Levin and Grant became a well-known face in British homes. He tired of what he later described as being typecast as a one-dimensional troubadour with his popular refrain: "We bring you the news that you ought to know/In Tonight's topical calypso". He was a direct contemporary of Harry Belafonte, and pictures show he had just as commanding a presence at 6ft 2in – it is little surprise he went on to feature in films and television productions.

Grant was the great-grandson of a slave, born in November 1919 into an upper middle-class family in the village of Beterverwagting in British Guiana (now Guyana) on the South American mainland. One of seven children of a Moravian minister and a music teacher, he was 11 when the family moved to New Amsterdam in the Berbice region.

Grant later wrote of the profound influence of his father, who was was born in Victorian times but had a very modern understanding of the dilemmas facing colonial society. His father nurtured in Grant a love of books, but also a sense of the importance of black figures in the development of western civilisation: his father impressed upon, for example, him that Alexander Pushkin and Alexandre Dumas were black, and that Toussaint l'Ouverture who led the revolution in Haiti, was a great leader. This informed Grant's worldview throughout his life.

Grant was one of over 440 young men from the Caribbean recruited as RAF aircrew from 1941 onwards. After navigator training Grant was commissioned as a Flight Lieutenant, one of the few black officers in the services. Following the huge losses at the Battle of Britain, Commonwealth volunteers became a lifeline for a country almost on its knees. Assigned to 103 Squadron of Bomber Command based at Elsham Wolds, Lincolnshire, he had flown three missions to the Ruhr valley as navigator when his Lancaster was attacked over the Netherlands.

Grant recalled the desperate efforts to evacuate the plane, but before the crew could get out of the poorly designed escape hatch, the aircraft exploded. Grant described the sensation of coming to, falling through space and seeing a dark shadow getting ready to swallow him up. Just in time he realised it was Dutch soil. He was picked up by the Dutch police and handed over to the Gestapo, who packed him off to Stalag Luft III.

After the war Grant trained as a barrister at Middle Temple, qualifying in 1950. Being black made it difficult to find clients and he turned to acting. A successful audition for Laurence Olivier and his Festival of Britain Company led to appearances in the West End and at the Zeigfeld Theatre in New York. The absence of roles for black actors made Grant develop all round talents which saw him performing as singer, and accomplished guitarist. He appeared in a number of films, including Sea Wife, alongside Richard Burton and Joan Collins, Shaft in Africa (1973) and television dramas such as Blake's Seven (1979).

In 1965 he played Othello at the Phoenix Theatre, Leicester, the first black man to do so since Paul Robeson, and theatre became a new passion. In 1974 he co-founded the Drum Arts Centre, Britain's first black arts venue, which provided a showcase for black actors and challenged the mainstream arts sector to recognise the paucity of opportunities for the vibrant offerings of new communities. During the 1980s he was director of the Concord multicultural festivals which sought to foster improved race relations.

In 2008 I persuaded a fit 88-year-old Grant to return for the first time to the village in the Netherlands where he was found. On that trip he recalled the absurdity of thinking he could escape through Europe to Spain; a black man in occupied Europe had no means of disguise. I wanted to capture the emotions of the Dutch, who revere allied aircrews as their liberators. The farm where he was taken to have a head wound treated still existed. Cy remembered the farmer's pregnant mother; the farmer had been the unborn baby.

As an 11-year-old, one local man, Joost Klootwijk, rushed to the scene of the crash. In later years he was so determined to flesh out that childhood memory and find out what happened to the crew that he spent his early retirement reconstructing the events of Flight W4827 and made contact with Grant. When they finally met during BBC filming, Joost was overcome with emotion several times just being in the presence of a man he had pictured in his mind as a real life hero since he was a boy. The tears flowed freely. I know Grant was humbled by the esteem in which RAF aircrew are held by the Dutch and rather regretted that RAF personnel had not been recognised in this way at home.

Part of his enduring desire was to see proper recognition for the RAF aircrews who lost their lives over Europe. He remained a firm supporter of the Bomber Command Memorial Appeal which still seeks to raise a monument to aircrew somewhere in London. He told me that in his view it would be a memorial for peace, for that is what his comrades died for.

Never one to rest on his laurels, on returning from the Netherlands Cy Grant wanted to see if it was possible to use the internet to gather information on Caribbean aircrews.

With the help of Joost Klootwijk's son Hans, he began to compile a permanent online archive of Caribbean aircrew in the RAF. It occupied much of the last 18 months of Grant's life. Hans Klootwijk told me the site is regularly updated and that through this the contribution of Cy Grant's generation will never be overlooked again.

One of the curious by-products of Grant's RAF experience was the 1960s ITV marionette series, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. The series' creator, Gerry Anderson, had lost his own brother over Holland during the war and he drew on Grant's personal qualities to develop one of the first positive black fictional characters in children's television. Grant's melliflous tones gave Lieutenant Green, the black defender of Planet Earth alongside Captain Scarlet, a serene and heroic quality. Grant looked back on that series – essentially an allegory of the battle between good and evil – with great fondness. Ever practical, he told me that Lieutenant Green had kept him well fed into retirement.

Grant wrote a memoir, Blackness and the Dreaming Soul (2007) which shed light on some of his frustration as a West Indian in Britain. He long believed that his colour had limited his ability to reach his full potential. He was torn between being raised in Empire but perceived as a perpetual outsider, and never tired of trying to resolve this inner conflict. His intellectual inspiration increasingly derived from his admiration for the great French Caribbean scholar and politician, Aimé Césaire.

Grant saw Césaire's Cahier d'un Retour au Pays Natal (Notebook of a Return to my Native Land) as a blueprint for enlightened action for minorities in Western societies. In essence they have to know where they are from in order to make peace with the society in which they exist. This interest in Césaire dovetailed with an interest since the 1970s in the Tao Te Ching, which offered Grant a way to reconcile his feelings of being a perpetual outsider. He described it as offering him a path to spiritual wholeness.

Grant impressed upon me several times that a broadcaster with a different coloured skin has specific responsibilities to make Britain more inclusive. An event sponsored by the Attorney General, the Rt Hon Patricia Scotland, had been organised to honour Grant and Caribbean aircrews at the House of Lords on 4 March. He will be sadly missed there, but to the end he was issuing instructions on how best to help remind younger generations of that Caribbean contribution. It should be a fitting memorial.

Cy Grant, actor: born 8 November 1919; married 1956 Dorith (four children); died 13 February 2010.

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