When a young Felix Dexter arrived in London from St Kitts at the age of seven it would have been a scary and daunting prospect. What did a young black kid make of England in 1968, the year Enoch Powell made his “Rivers of Blood” speech?
Dexter was a young, impressionable Caribbean lad with, supposedly, the world his oyster, trying to make London his new home. As he grows up does he choose the academic and studious route or travel the creative artistic road in the true spirit of his Jamaican brethren? Felix Dexter didn't choose; he did both. He trained as a barrister and was a member of Gray's Inn, but gave it up for a greater love – comedy. It's typical of Felix to be able to do both and apply his craft in a courtroom and on stage. I always got the sense that he would not be dictated to, that life would be on his terms. I really admired him for that.
Suffering from cancer, he continued this fight to the end, with vigour. He refused to let go, holding on with laughs and dignity, and he didn't want to be told when it was his curtain call. This bravery and dedication was something friends and colleagues would have always known about Dexter. On set he was a real pro.
He first came on to our screens in 1991 in the sketch show The Real McCoy, which ran until 1996. A showcase for black and Asian comedy talent, the show gave birth to many a comedy career, including Curtis Walker's and Meera Syal's. It was a landmark show that has inspired many of us working today to give this comedy lark a go.
Felix was a real star in the line-up. I remember watching as a boy and being disappointed that his character of the Nigerian accountant, Nathaniel, was never on for long enough. I recall being gobsmacked at the courage it must have taken to play the outspoken pastor, Brother Jeffers. The “mash up Lucifer” routine is one of the Real McCoy sketches doing the rounds on YouTube. It's outrageous – and not forgetting the sheer brilliance of the posh patois-speaking lawyer, Douglas.
Dexter almost immediately took ownership of this heightened, edgy black character comedy. While Lenny Henry had become the BBC1 housewives' choice, Felix was the more dangerous mistresses' choice. Like many others of the McCoy cast, he was not afraid to play the stereotype, and play with the stereotype. The show tapped into a long-awaited desire by some members of the ethnic communities to laugh at themselves, in front of the nation.
Dexter may have faced some criticism for labouring the stereotype or promoting negative portrayals, but I know it would not have irked him one bit. He had no reservations and no rules, apart from one – is it funny? In the time we worked together, and even recently, during the filming of the comedy series Citizen Khan, not once did we discuss the possible negative impact of any of our characters. Felix just wanted it to be funny.
One of his special gifts was his voice. To be able to flip between Jamaican, Nigerian, posh gent and rudeboy was no mean feat. Doing ethnic accents for any performer could become quite uncomfortable ground but with Felix we always knew it would be funny. When writing Citizen Khan, we knew that Felix, who played the Somalian mosque-goer Omar, would find the funny out of anything we gave him. I have never heard anyone say “Asalaam Alaikum” as funnily as Felix, except the numerous young kids who try to mimic Omar's greeting when I now meet them.
He won us over with humour, with tremendous warmth and the vulnerability he brought to his performances, whether on the BBC sketch shows The Fast Show, Bellamy's People or the Radio 4 spoof phone-in Down The Line (with Paul Whitehouse and Charlie Higson), one instantly loved his characters. That's not easy when some of the characters are menacing gangsta-types, chauvinists and verging-on-bigots. He made sure, I don't think consciously, that we were laughing at the right bits. That is one heck of a responsibility.
Dexter's career was probably more varied than some might think – he also appeared on television in Jonathan Creek, Knowing Me Knowing You, Absolutely Fabulous, Have I Got News For You, The Bill and Casualty, and in theatre at the RSC as well in the West End production of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest with Christian Slater.
I first worked with him on BBC2's Bellamy's People. This was my first TV comedy gig and I was in the company of legends: Whitehouse, Higson, Simon Day and Dexter, to name a few. Meeting Felix was the more daunting, all 6ft 2in of him. I made the terrible mistake of trying to do the black brother fist “touch”. Bad move. Our first sketch together was Felix playing a music promoter and gangsta, Early D, while I played, a wannabe black Asian rapper, MC Raa – the kingpin against the upstart.
In fact this is not too dissimilar to our own relationship. Each time we met, my insistence on saying “Waam rasta” rather than a “Hello” would be faced with a sly laugh, some teeth-kissing and, I think, general disappointment. I never stopped doing it and I think he loved me for it in the end. Well, at least I think so, as you never really knew with Felix. He was a private man and never gave away too much, apart from comedy advice.
He was a gentle, charming giant whose comedy was infectious, but on set I knew there were buttons not to press. Felix was truly dedicated to his work and too much tomfoolery would sometimes lead him into an extraordinary four-letter patois tirade in the character he could never have done on TV. It was hilarious and also quite frightening. I think that's how he liked it. Was he playing with us or scaring us? Only he knew, ensuring he had the last laugh. As many of us try to evaluate his life and try to examine who the real Felix Dexter was I'd like to think he is looking down on us and having the last laugh once again.
Felix Dexter, barrister, actor, comedian and writer: born Saint Kitts 26 July 1961; died 18 October 2013.