Jeillo Edwards

Good-humoured cast matriarch on television and BBC radio
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The Independent Online

Jeillo Edwards was an important figure in the history of black actors in Britain. She was the first woman of African descent to study drama at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London and one of the first black actresses to be cast in a mainstream television drama series - Dixon of Dock Green.

Jeillo Edwards, actress: born Freetown, Sierra Leone 23 September 1942; married Edmund Clottey (two sons, one daughter); died London 2 July 2004.

Jeillo Edwards was an important figure in the history of black actors in Britain. She was the first woman of African descent to study drama at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London and one of the first black actresses to be cast in a mainstream television drama series - Dixon of Dock Green.

She was not a star, but rather a foot-soldier in the battle to entertain, of over 40 years' standing. That she did not have the profile of Mona Hammond or Norman Beaton was in part owing to her African origins (limiting the number parts offered to her) and in part to an endearing shyness about her professional career.

As a young radio drama producer working for the BBC, I met Edwards for the first time in 1986. Preparing for my maiden production, I nervously ran through the cast list with a fellow producer. "Oh if you've got Jeillo in the play you'll be fine," he said. Edwards was short, pleasingly plump and gap-toothed - a Sierra Leonean Wife of Bath. Her voice was loud and imperious, her phrasing almost military in its precision. Her eyes were huge and beautiful. And my friend was right. Angry young men with bruised ambitions became cheery lads in her presence, brittle, glamorous and insecure actresses turned into the willing daughters you always wanted.

Any cast was transformed into a family with Edwards in its midst as the matriarch. She brought good timing, common sense, patience and delicious food to the drama studio. A fantastic cook, she would show up for the initial read-through with provisions of pepper sauce, chicken and akara (small doughnuts) - always on time, usually a little early. Her good-humour was the more remarkable because she uncomplainingly endured periods of bad health and for six years was on dialysis.

One of six children, Jeillo Edwards was born in Freetown in 1942. She came from a Krio family who valued education, hard work and English manners. Her father was employed by the mighty United Africa Company as a buyer of commodities - cocoa beans, cotton and palm kernels. Jeillo followed in her mother's footsteps and was sent to the Annie Walsh Memorial School, one of the oldest girls' schools in sub-Saharan Africa.

Her earliest memory of performance was as a child of four. Stepping in to replace a nervous cousin in a church fund-raising concert, she read word perfect from St Mark's Gospel, "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's . . ."

She came to England as a teenager in the late 1950s, staying first with her sister in Leeds then moving down to London to study drama at the Guildhall. Her parents were not happy with her acting ambitions. Treading the boards was not considered a respectable job in newly independent Sierra Leone, although her mother had been a skilled storyteller, and the capital, Freetown, had a considerable tradition of entertainment. It was in London in the early Seventies that Jeillo met and married Edmund Clottey, a telecommunications engineer from Ghana. Theirs was a long and happy marriage.

Jeillo Edwards Clottey was a realist but never a cynic. Being a black actor in Britain is hard. Arguably attitudes and story-lines have improved a great deal in the past 10 years, but in the 1970s and 1980s black actors faced a relentless grind of often fruitless auditions, accepting small walk-ons or badly written parts, where one's skin colour seemed to be the only point to one's existence.

Edwards knew the score but never got grumpy. She gave up on having an agent and took the line that, if they wanted her, she was free; and if they didn't - well, her life was full of other interesting things to do. She was a devoted wife, mother - of Victoria, Edmund Junior and Andrew, and to her nephew Alfred - and grandmother; she was an active school governor, a keen church-goer and, in her latter years, the highly acclaimed proprietor and chief chef of Auntie J's in Brixton, a favourite eating place for young actors in between auditions. She learnt to make wine and became so proficient she taught others.

She often found herself playing Caribbean women. One of the few outlets for playing African roles was the BBC African Service's annual drama season. Plays by writers as diverse as Wole Soyinka, Zakes Mda, Osman Nusairi, Bode Sowande and Ben Ateku were performed with what amounted to a small informal rep of African actors, including Willie Jonah, Yemi Ajibade, John Sorbah-Green. At the centre was Jeillo Edwards.

Outside the cosy confines of Bush House's N41 drama studio, Edwards accumulated a host of small and not-so-small roles in film and television. She appeared in drama series including The Bill and Casualty. She was memorable as the mother of the out-of-work dictator in Channel 4's In Exile (1998) and the freed slave Mary Prince in the 1992 BBC2 drama documentary A Skirt Through History (The Two Marys).

Her comic timing ensured her parts in a number of cult comedies including Black Books, Red Dwarf, Absolutely Fabulous, The League of Gentlemen and, recently, Little Britain. Her film credits embrace a number of low- profile British films including Memoirs of a Survivor (1981) with Julie Christie and Beautiful Thing (1996) with Meera Syal. Her most recent film role was as a hospital cleaner in Dirty Pretty Things (2002).

Her secret wish was to play a romantic lead, she said. She came close to it. In Yusuf Audu Joe's Another Life, a radio play about the hardship of being an actor in Nigeria, Edwards shocked and delighted with her portrayal of an unscrupulous and outrageously sexy sugar-mummy. On the commercial front she was a sweet old granny for the Royal Mail, while cinema-goers all over Britain gloried in her shapely body in 1990 when Pepe Jeans imaginatively chose her over the usual stick-thin models to promote their product.

Fiona Ledger