OBITUARIES / Norman Beaton

Thursday 15 December 1994 01:02
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As the elder statesman of black actors in Britain, Norman Beaton was a lifelong champion of their rights and opportunities in theatre, film and television. Beaton himself was involved in many ``firsts'' in all those media, although it was as the P eckhambarber in the Channel 4 situation comedy Desmond's that he gained international fame.

Born in Georgetown, Guyana (then British Guiana), the son of a postmaster who became the country's chief postmaster and won the Imperial Service Medal, Beaton went to public school and teacher-training college before teaching there, rising to the post ofdeputy headmaster at a school in Demerara. At the same time, he followed his love of calypso music by forming the Four Bees vocal group and making 20 singles. The group toured Surinam and French Guyana with the revue Caribbean Cavalcade and Beaton himself was named Calypso Champion of Guyana.

In 1960, at the age of 26, he sailed for Britain, studied at London University and taught in two Liverpool schools. While in the city, he played guitar for Adrian Henri, Brian Patten and Roger McGough - who became the Liverpool Poets - including appearances at the famous Cavern Club. He also wrote his first musical, Jack of Spades, which was a hit at the Everyman Theatre, Liverpool.

On leaving teaching, he was invited to join the Bristol Old Vic as musical director and composer, and then ventured into television as a presenter on the BBC regional magazine programme Points West (1966). In 1966, he wrote a musical called Sit Down Banna for the Connaught Theatre in Worthing and made his acting debut by taking the lead role.

Beaton was soon in demand on stage and made his mark as Ariel in Jonathan Miller's production of The Tempest (1969), working with Laurence Olivier at the National Theatre, took the lead role in Sergeant Ola and His Followers at the Royal Court (1979) andplayed Angelo in Measure for Measure, the first all-black production at the National Theatre (1981).

He was frequently seen as a character actor in television dramas and comedies, although often cast in stereotypical black roles, such as that of a London Transport guard in Thirty Minutes Worth (with Harry Worth, 1973), a chauffeur in The Protectors (1974), a drug dealer in Barlow at Large (1974) and a West Indian in Sykes (with Eric Sykes, 1978).

But television proved to be the medium that made him a star, first as Sam Foster in two series of The Fosters (1976-77), alongside Lenny Henry in Britain's first all-black situation comedy. ``Sam Foster is a good character,'' he said at the time. ``He isa kind of father- figure to a lot of black kids. He's an image to strive for.'' Beaton followed it with the role of the West Indian "Godfather" Everton Bennett in two series of Empire Road (1978-79), Britain's first all-black soap opera dubbed the blackCoronation Street.

More character roles followed, including that of Lenny Henry's father in The Lenny Henry Show (1984) before Beaton found his greatest success as barber Desmond Ambrose in Desmond's, which ran for six series (1987-94). It proved to be Channel 4's most popular situation comedy, won international appeal and brought Beaton to the attention of black American star Bill Cosby, who invited him to make a guest appearance in The Cosby Show (1992).

Desmond's was set in a South London hairdressing salon, which acted as a meeting-place for philosophising West Indians. ``The public respects Desmond's,'' said Beaton. ``It's part of the whole fabric of people's lives - not just a flash in the pan. `Respect' is the word most often thrown at me when I'm in the black community.'' Shortly before his death, he recorded a Christmas special to be screened later this month and finished making a second series of Little Napoleons for Channel 4, playing the solicitor and newly elected councillor N.K. Edwards, alongside Saeed Jaffrey as a rival lawyer.

Beaton make his mark in cinema as a Brixton con man in Black Joy (1977), the first British film with an all black cast. His performance won him the Variety Club of Great Britain film Actor of the Year award. His other films included Eureka (alongside Gene Hackman, 1982), Mighty Quinn (with Denzel Washington, 1989) and Playing Away (1986), in which he acted a peace-loving cricketer captaining a black team from Briston challenged to a match by a Suffolk team as part of an Aid to Africa Week.

Beaton recalled his troubled life in his 1987 autobiography Beaton But Unbowed. Married and divorced three times, he went bankrupt with debts of £21,000 in 1982, was jailed for nine months in 1965 for a cheque fraud and received suspended sentences for several other crimes. He once described himself as a "jailbird and hustler" who had "mixed with villains, pimps, prostitutes and con-artists". But, as an actor, he was a leading light of the black community in Britain. "It really upsets me that British films do not incorporate niggers," he said at the time of Black Joy's release. "And television's not much better. It's scandalous."

Norman Lugard Beaton, teacher, musician, composer and actor: born Georgetown, Guyana 31 October 1934; died Guyana 13 December 1994.

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