Beaton at his own game

Guyanese actor Norman Beaton has conquered the British stage, worked with Laurence Olivier and become a household name as Desmond Ambrose, the exasperated Peckham barber in the TV sitcom. But what he really wants to do is play King Lear

–Beaton stars in the TV show Desmond’s where Carmen Munroe (left) plays his long-suffering wifePhotograph by David RossPhotograph by David RossPhotograph by David RossReady for the chop: Beaton as demon barber Desmond Ambrose. Photograph by Channel 4 TelevisionThe cast of Desmond’s. Photograph by Humphrey Barclay Productions for Channel 4

Norman Beaton arrived home to be interviewed precisely at the appointed time in a stately white 1940s Bentley. His man of business, who was driving, proceeded to gain entrance to the actor’s home by climbing a tall ladder, borrowed from an adjacent building site, and squeezing through an unlocked window. Mr Beaton had lost his keys.

“I am always losing my keys,” he confessed. The voice was big, deeply smoke-cured, and seemed out of proportion to the small, wiry frame. He was completely charming, stylishly dressed, and sporting his gold jewellery. He had bought flowers and a bottle of wine after stopping off for his obligatory pint of lager on the way back from a rehearsal for Desmond’s.

To describe Norman Beaton as an actor is like calling Vivian Richards a cricketer. He is Britain’s premier black stage and television actor, whose gamut ranges from Ariel in Shakespeare’s The Tempest through The Black Mikado and Derek Walcott’s Remembrance to Desmond Ambrose in the TV situation comedy which has made him a household name in the Caribbean and Britain.

In 1978 he was named Film Actor of the Year by the Variety Club of Great Britain for his role in Black Joy; in 1990 he won a British Academy Award for Best Comedy Actor. He has starred in three major television series and has worked with many of the great British directors, actresses and actors, including Laurence Olivier at the National Theatre.

There has never been anyone quite like Norman Lugard Beaton. You feel you are in the presence of an erudite uncle who demands respect, but who is possessed of a wicked sense of fun. A particular confluence of middle-class colonial upbringing in Guyana and the swinging sixties in Britain, a prodigious talent, a highly individualistic streak and a rebellious nature, has created this enigma.

Desmond Ambrose, the irascible South London barber dreaming of going back to Guyana, hovering always between laughter and exasperation, could be Norman Beaton’s clone.

“Desmond is recognisable to 90 percent of Caribbean people everywhere. He’s not lovely and bland. He’s a serious guy who’s considered the boss, the headmaster, but he likes a laugh. He’s like me, he likes his booze. I like my booze. My boss says to me, For Christ’s sake, Norman, Anthony Hopkins has given up the drink, everybody has given up the drink, you ought to’. But I’m not going to give up the drink. I like to drink. I come from Guyana. What do we have there? Sugar. Rum comes from sugar. We don’t scuba-dive in Guyana, we don’t have tennis courts. We play cricket but we don’t seem able to get anywhere with football. And there’s no TV. So what do we do? Drink, talk politics and rap. Desmond’s is a rap shop.”

The drink could have been Beaton’s undoing. As a boy he turned up for his O level exams the worse for wear, disappointing his father’s ambition for him to become a lawyer or a doctor. In London once, he was arrested for drunken driving, one of several brushes with the law. The jacket of his 1985 autobiography, Beaton but Unbowed, depicts; tiny Beaton threatened and overshadowed by the mighty arm of the Law.

Now, at 58, he says soberly: “It is possible for someone who has been tainted to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and have a go at living a normal, productive life.”

Desmond’s, currently in its fourth 13-part series, has provided an upward lift. ‘Now one is a household name, one is being paid the sort of money that can keep one out of trouble.”

But money doesn’t stick to him. “I can’t save. When I have money, I have to spend it on something tactile, like the Bentley outside. I have spent a lot on women, but that is a business of diminishing returns. I like expensive holidays. I like to look nice while I’m still alive. You can’t take it with you.”

But others can take it off you. “Since the success of Desmond’s, everyone comes around with a begging bowl. I have been very poor myself, and now cannot resist reaching for my pen and cheque book. My wife couldn’t deal with it.”  Jean, his third wife, is filing for divorce.

Did Norman Beaton ever have to be poor? Probably not. The truth is he chose to live an eccentric, Puckish life. After the exams disaster he trained as a teacher and graduated at 19 with the highest marks in his college. He became Guyana’s youngest ever headmaster–only then did his Postmaster General father speak to him again.

But Norman was suddenly earning lots of money and only interested in partying and drinking. “I joined a calypso band and decided to go touring in Suriname, but I got thrown out for not having a visa.” Unbowed, he became Calypso Monarch of Guyana in 1956. Four years later, at 26, he tried unsuccessfully to sing for his supper on the sidewalks of London. He did better in Liverpool. There he taught in a  primary school and his wife and two children joined him. They had two more children before the marriage broke up.

“I wrote a play in Liverpool, Jack of Spades, which was staged, and later I was invited to join the Bristol Old Vic theatre–not as an actor but as their musical director. I played the guitar behind the actors and learned acting by watching what to do and what not to do on stage. Then in 1968 wrote a play and the lead actor pulled out at the last moment. The director said to me, ‘Why don’t you play the lead?’ So I did, and to my astonishment I was given rave reviews in the press.”

Beaton won many parts after that, but work dried up completely in the 1970s. “I was accused by my fellow black men of being a fallen star, because they couldn’t understand the vagaries of my profession. And neither did I”

The theatre is notorious for its precariousness. For a black actor, life is many times more precarious still. Beaton describes himself as a heroic figure, “but you are looking at a society that does not regard black people as heroic. I’d have loved to have had, at an earlier stage of my career, parts that Albert Finney and Anthony Hopkins had, but hardly anyone thought black actors merited a crack at the classics or so-called white roles.”

Nor did they get paid properly, according to Beaton. Part of the problem was that he was on the cutting edge. There was virtually no black theatre in Britain until 20 years ago. There was no pool or fraternity of black actors. In the mid-1970s there were only ten black actors in all the major drama schools, and few playwrights from the Caribbean.

Ever resilient, Beaton and a Guyanese friend, Jamal Ali, started producing plays by Caribbean writers, regardless of their merit. “That triggered a great response and spawned an era of fresh black writers who are now servicing over 2,000 actors. I like to think my efforts with Jamal were the vanguard of the new wave.

He remembers those days of community work with affection, but just below the surface is anger and bitterness at the great British theatre. He rails against the “dross” that tourists crowd to see in London’s West End. His face puckers up, he holds his white-speckled head high. “Desmond’s has got us known all around the world. But I don’t want to be just a sitcom artist. I belonged to the National Theatre for many years. I’ve played extraordinary parts there and on TV. I can play comedy and serious work. I’ve done both on film and stage, so in a sense while I might envy Hopkins and Finney they have never had a chance to do what I’ve done.”

Last year Beaton strode the National Theatre stage again as the deposed president in Trinidadian playwright Mustapha Matura’s play The Coup. To play King Lear in Britain is his main ambition. Two years ago he was a celebrity guest on the Cosby Show but plans to work with Cosby have been temporarily shelved because of Desmond’s, which may run into several more series.

Meanwhile the teacher in him is itching to get out again. He’s hoping to be able to lecture on theatre and Caribbean writers at the University of the West Indies. A recent visit to Jamaica was a revelation. “I was known in virtually every parish. The popularity of Desmond’s stems from the standards of family life it upholds. The respect and dignity instilled in us, with which we were brought up in the Caribbean, are here on the screen. It is true to life.”

As the putative professor drew to his natural close the doorbell rang. The minicab driver who had earlier delivered two packs of cigarettes was back with a takeaway lunch of callaloo, rice and chicken. Scarcely finished, my host sought my permission to retire to the sofa. In five seconds he was fast asleep, exhausted by the business of being Norman Beaten.