HAPPY DESMOND’S IS BACK ON TV: Geff Francis
ASK ANYONE in the UK over the age of 30 if they remember Desmond’s, the 90s sitcom based in a barbershop in Peckham, and the answer will invariably be yes.
A comedy of cult status that featured Norman Beaton as Desmond Ambrose alongside his on screen wife Shirley Ambrose (Carmen Munroe), Desmond’s hit our screens January 1989. After introducing us to the Ambrose family, Pork Pie and Matthew’s ‘old African sayings’ the programme came to an untimely end in 1994 after the death of Norman Beaton, but not before winning a British Comedy Award and two BAFTA nominations for Best comedy.
Now, 18 years later Desmond’s will be back on British television via The Africa Channel, which has bought all four series of the show. Reruns of the sitcom have been aired in the US since the early 1990s on Black Entertainment Television (BET), Paramount Comedy and the government sponsored access channel NYCTV up until 2007. During the same year series one and two of the show were released on DVD in the UK. Up until then it was impossible for anyone on this side of the Atlantic to watch the show.
For Geff Francis, who played the eldest son in the Ambrose family, Michael, it has taken too long for Desmond’s to be shown again on television. In fact, the actor believes that Channel 4, the show’s original broadcaster, should have re-aired the programme years ago.
“It’s a good thing that Desmond’s is on TV again; if anything it should have been shown a lot sooner, we shouldn’t have had to wait until the Africa channel bought it,” said the 48-year-old.
“Look at how many repeats came on over the Christmas period; you can still see The Upper Hand and On the Buses for goodness sake, so why not bring back Desmond’s? The generation of people that enjoyed the show are still around, so there’s no reason why we shouldn’t have it back on our screens. Desmond’s was most popular in Northern Ireland, why does it have to only be on the Africa channel? It’s a perfect match, but it started on Channel 4, why didn’t they repeat it?”
Whatever the reluctance may have been on the part of Channel 4 to rerun the show, Francis had to admit that unlike many other black British sitcoms, which have mainly disappeared into television storage obscurity, the recordings of Desmond’s have been looked after.
“Desmond’s was a very important show for anyone who enjoyed it, and I think it was just as important show for Channel 4 itself - they looked after a show that looked after them. We won a British Comedy Award, which was no mean feat when you are up against shows like Drop the Dead Donkey and other mainstream programmes. At one point ITV wanted to purchase Desmond’s but Channel 4 refused, they felt that this show was one that they wanted to keep and fair play to them.”
It is safe to say that since Desmond’s came off air in 1994, there hasn’t been another black British sitcom to rival the programme’s popularity. The reason for this, according to Francis, is because the television industry refuses to make programmes that relate to the African-Caribbean community.
“I started Desmond’s when I was 23-years-old, I’m now a middle aged man and I have to say there have been advances in this country. I’ve seen the younger generation get on in society, it is very different from when I was younger, but the one thing that hasn’t changed, which is a real shame, is the fact that we are still saying there is nothing out there that represents us.”
“A lot of people used to say to me; ‘why don’t you write something, then?’ but I know that the writing is not the issue. There are loads of people writing from our community about our community and there always were, it’s just getting it onto TV. And because of that we are losing so much of our talents to America. The British television and film industry are blindly letting it happen, because at the moment the topics they are dealing with do not concern a certain demographic.”
Francis also says that the community is losing out on the battle for the audience because when a predominantly black programme is put together, it is not given the support it needs to be successful or the scripts are written by white writers.
“After Desmond’s there was Pork Pie, which was hastily put together and so it didn’t quite work and after that The Crouches came. I turned down The Crouches because I could see that the script wasn’t that strong,” he argued, adding that “it was a fair attempt, but it didn’t have the right ingredients, the writer was a lovely guy, but what he did, unfortunately was create a black comedy based on European sensibilities. People were talking to older members of the family in way that never would have happened in an African or Caribbean household. It just didn’t ring true and that’s why I don’t think it did very well. But I know Rudolph Walker and most of the people involved and they worked really hard to get it into shape, but unfortunately it wasn’t meant to be.”
According to the Ashes to Ashes star, it was precisely the realness and accuracy of Desmond’s that made it a worldwide hit.
“Everybody had a dad that behaved like Desmond, once in a while. Everybody had an uncle or a family friend that was like Pork Pie, there where characters that resonated to a whole generation of people,” he explained.
Sadly, Desmond’s came to an end in 1994 after the death of Norman Beaton. Speaking about the weeks leading up to the end, the actor admitted that neither he nor the rest of the cast were aware of actually how ill Beaton was.
“Leading up to his death we knew that Norman was sick, and to be honest with you I think most of us put aside thoughts of what was going to happen after the show. We were just thinking about Norman, because he was very ill and we had to work with him whilst he was ill, by that time in rehearsals he had to have a stand in.”
“It was a big blow for everybody when Norman died because he was such a character, I suppose we knew that he could have been a little healthier but we didn’t expect it to come down so quickly. It was a tremendous blow and a sad time for everybody,” Francis recalled.
Desmond’s is on the Africa Channel 209 and Virgin Media 828 every weeknight at 7pm.