Johnny Sekka

'Britain's Sidney Poitier'
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The Independent Online

Lamine ("Johnny") Sekka, actor: born Dakar, French West Africa 21 July 1934; married 1964 Cecilia Enger (one adopted son); died Agua Dulce, California 14 September 2006.

When the West African actor Johnny Sekka was interviewed in The Times in 1969, he summarised the plight of black actors in Britain who found themselves unable to sustain their careers:

Sean Connery, Terry Stamp, Michael Caine, Tom Courtenay, John Hurt. I started out with these people. Today they are stars. I'm not jealous. But why the hell not me? I have the same talent and ability - at least I've had the same kind of notices.

Sekka made an impact in UK in the 1960s - his roles included Sylvia Syms's Jamaican boyfriend in the 1961 film Flame in the Streets - but by the early 1970s work was scarce and, like several other black actors in Britain, he moved to Hollywood, hoping to break through there.

He was born Lamine Sekka in the city of Dakar, then in French West Africa, in 1934. He was the youngest of five but, shortly after he was born, his father died: "From then on it was up to me. I was soon discovered to be the strongest and wiliest of the family, even though I was the youngest." He was sent to live with relations in Gambia but they treated him as a servant; Sekka ran away and lived on the streets, earning a living shining shoes, and teaching himself English. During the Second World War things looked up when he managed to get a job as an interpreter at a nearby American air-base.

When Sekka first came to Britain in 1952 he served in the RAF for two years, and then trained at Rada for a year, paying his fees by working in coffee bars in the evenings. After writing to George Devine, the Artistic Director of the English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre, he was hired as a stagehand. He made early stage appearances at the Royal Court in Errol John's Moon on a Rainbow Shawl (1958) and Barry Reckord's Flesh to a Tiger (1958), starring Cleo Laine. The latter was directed by Tony Richardson, who also gave Sekka his first film role, as an extra in Look Back in Anger (1958).

His best screen opportunity came early: Flame in the Streets, adapted from Ted Willis's controversial stage play Hot Summer Night, starred John Mills as a working-class trade unionist whose "liberal" beliefs are put to the test when his daughter (Sylvia Syms) falls in love with a Jamaican (Johnny Sekka).

There were featured roles in The Wild and the Willing (1962), East of Sudan (1964), Woman of Straw (1964), Khartoum (1965), The Last Safari (1967) and The Southern Star (1969); but it must have been very frustrating for Sekka to find himself being "sold" as Britain's answer to Hollywood's Sidney Poitier. This did not secure him starring roles in British films like To Sir, With Love (1967), for which, ironically, Poitier was imported.

On stage he played a leading role in Mister Johnson (1960) and joined the short-lived New Negro Theatre Company at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East for such productions as No Count Boy (1960). His best stage role was Bakke in John McGrath's Bakke's Night of Fame (Hampstead Theatre Club, 1968), directed by Ronald Eyre. This was a rare occasion when a black actor was cast in a role written for a white actor.

Some of Sekka's best work was in television and at least two of his performances have survived in the archives. In ITV's compelling psychological drama The Big Pride (1961), written by Jan Carew and Sylvia Wynter, Sekka was cast opposite William Marshall. They played a couple of prison escapees who try to escape, not only from their past, but the harsh reality of their lives.

Three years later Sekka gave a memorable performance in "A Place of Safety" (1964), a gripping and gritty episode in BBC1's popular Z Cars series. John Hopkins described this as "the most completely realised episode that I wrote" and he did not shy away from exposing the racist attitudes of the police. Sekka brilliantly conveyed the anger and frustration of the tormented Sadik who loses control, attacks a bailiff and, to protect himself from the police, barricades himself into a room with his wife and children.

Other television appearances from this time included ATV's Armchair Theatre: Big Brain Man (1961), The Grass is Singing (1962) and The Human Jungle (1964); as well as episodes of various cult drama series such as Danger Man (1965) and The Avengers (1968).

In 1973 Sidney Poitier cast Sekka in his British-based romantic drama A Warm December (1973) and the following year he offered him another supporting role in Uptown Saturday Night. Sekka moved to Hollywood but he still faced casting difficulties. In 1977, when the television series Roots was being cast, Sekka seemed ideal for a role as an African slave or one of their descendants, but it was decided that he was not American enough for home audiences to identify with. In the sequel, Roots: The Next Generations (1979), he managed to secure a small role as an African interpreter. At the time he complained:

Most of the black roles in America are still ghetto characters, pimps or gangsters, or drug addicts, and so I'm as foreign in America as I was in England.

Sekka's final appearances were on television in 1993 in the science-fiction pilot Babylon 5: The Gathering and the British documentary Hollywood UK, in which he recalled his appearance in Flame in the Streets.

Stephen Bourne