It is not often as a writer you meet someone you are keen to speak to and have such a sense of warmth you hug impulsively. The wonderful Carmen Munroe hugged me right back with such genuineness and I wonder if it is being Caribbean that allows her to have no airs and graces despite being an award-winning actress, the focus of BFI’s Black Star Season, and the reason why an audience have come to BFI Southbank on a Sunday evening!
Carmen Munroe OBE is a face which has filled our television screens for many years in the role of ‘Shirley’ the witty wife and mother in, Desmond’s – the much loved situation comedy set in a barbershop in Peckham. Desmond’s revolved around the Ambrose family with Norman Beaton as ‘Desmond’, Kimberly Walker as daughter ‘Gloria’ and sons ‘Michael’ and ‘Sean’ played by Geff Francis and Justin Pickett respectively. Not forgetting friends of the barbershop notably ‘Porkpie’ Grant (Ram John Holder), ‘Matthew’ (Gyearbuor Asante), ‘Lee “The Peckham Prince” Stanley’ (Robbie Gee), ‘Louise Dixon’ (Lisa Geoghan) and ‘Beverley’ (Joan Ann Maynard).
After more than two decades on our screens, Desmond’s remains Channel 4’s longest running sitcom. Airing between 1989 and 1994, with a total of 71 episodes Desmond’s was filmed live in front of a studio audience of three hundred. The show captured the hearts and minds of the nation, even gaining recognition overseas with Norman Beaton even being invited to guest on, its American equivalent, The Cosby Show.
On Sunday, December 11th we gathered at the BFI for a very special event and certainly one of the highlights of their BLACK STAR season; the Desmond’s Reunion, which featured a panel of the much-loved Ram John Holder, Robbie Gee, Desmond’s creator-writer Trix Worrell and of course Carmen Munroe. The event began with the pilot episode of the show and as soon as the theme tune begins you could see the audience, which included celebrities, a politician and a myriad of people of all ages and races, smile and mouth the lyrics with a nostalgic gratitude. Amplified by the knowledge that Norman Beaton who is no longer with us, is the voice singing the words:
“From the long warm nights with an ocean breeze, to the damp and to the rain of London city. We come from the sun to live in the cold, I miss me rum, I want my coconut tree. Don’t scratch my Soca… ’til the party’s over.”
Along with the catchy theme tune, the opening credits of Desmond’s are accompanied by images of patterned high-tops, a ghetto-blaster, ladies in their Sunday best, a man in a cricket uniform, flashback shots of the Windrush arrivals; classic red Routemaster buses, Peckham Rye train station, and a stylised version of the ‘Black man’s handshake’ . The montage sets the mood transporting us back decades, before the episode opens with Shirley organising the household and us being introduced to the family as she does so (apart from Michael, the eldest; a bank manager who has left home). Aside from the comedy, it was the joy of seeing a black family on television who were universal and authentic characters which made Desmond’s such a groundbreaking show for British TV.
In the Q&A that followed, Munroe touches on this and her role.
“I’m not sure I was a comedy actress I’d seen myself as a real drama queen [laughter] and I still don’t see myself as a comedy actress… I felt I could honestly play this woman… doing something as important as the portrayal of Black people in society… we were often put in plays as the token. There is nothing that represents tokenism in this piece… he [pointing to Trix] wrote it because of who we are and knowing, all the characters were born out of truth”
Shirley was such an important part of Munroe’s career and all the contributors talked much of the fact that they were as much a family off set as on. But there were many things before and after, Desmond’s which both Munroe and Beaton were cast and as part of the BFI’s BLACK STAR season there is a close up focus on the works of them both aptly described as ‘the Guyana born duo who forged remarkable careers and became household names in Britain’.
The films being screened are a rare opportunity to see Munroe and Beaton in works which span the 60’s. 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. From the series Fable depicting a world in which black people are the ruling elite, to the TV play A Song at Twilight where Munroe is cast as Paul Robeson’s wife and Black Christmas where we see her side by side with Norman Beaton. Last but not least, there will be an opportunity to hear her talk about representation on UK television over the decades, at Black Stars of British TV alongside actors Don Warrington, Zawe Ashton and Ashley Walters, director Isaac Julien and Pat Younge, co-founder of Sugar Films.
It’s set to be a great week of double bills.
See the BFI Black Star events below:
- Fable + A Song at Twilight – Friday 16 December 2016 18:00 Book Here
- Black and White in Colour: Television – Sunday 18 December 2016 18:00 Book Here
- Black Stars of British TV: a discussion with actors – Sunday 18 December 2016 20.15 Book Here
- Black Christmas + Big George Is Dead – Monday 19 December 2016 18:10 Book Here