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Desmond's star leaves a lasting legacy in Ghana

LEGACY: Gyearbuor Asante [PIC CREDIT: Carole Latimer]

HE SHOT to fame in the late 1980s playing Gambian long term mature student Matthew in the hit Channel 4 comedy series Desmond’s.

And when the series ended in 1994, Ghanaian actor Gyearbuor Asante left a lasting legacy for black British comedy alongside co stars Norman Beaton, Carmen Munroe and Ram John Holder.

However Asante, who died in 2000, left another legacy, one that was a landmark for the people of his home town in Kwahu Tafo in Ghana’s Eastern Region.

Growing up in Ghana in the 1950s and 60s Asante was destined to be a chief of the town, given that he came from a long line of chiefs.

But the aspiring thespian rejected the role ruling himself out of inheriting the title.

PASSION

The young Asante’s real passion was the stage. Bitten by the acting bug Asante headed for the UK in 1967 to study at Mountview Academy Theatre of Arts.

He went on to star in hit films such as Dogs Of War and Local Hero before landing the role in the Channel 4 show Desmond’s that would make him a household name.

However in an unusual twist, his close friend Humphrey Barclay, the executive producer of Desmond’s became a chief of Asante’s ancestral village.

After his return to his native country in 1995, the actor was named Ghana's Cultural Ambassador for Services to Acting.

Barclay, who was also the producer behind Channel 4’s No Problem, the first original black sitcom on British TV in 1983, had stayed with Asante in his home in the Ghanaian capital, Accra, during previous visits to west Africa.

He had never visited Tafo, which is a three-hour drive north-west of the capital Accra.

But Asante’s death saw him travel there for the first time for the much loved comedy star’s funeral.

It turned out to be an extravagant, three-day affair, in keeping with local custom.

Afterwards, the Tafohene (the Tafo king) - Nana Ameyaw Gyensiama III – came up with the idea of asking Barclay if he would like to join the royal family by becoming a chief or “nana" in the local language, Twi.

The chieftaincy role Barclay was offered was the one Gyearbuor was given but died before he could accept. 


TRAILBLAZERS: The cast of hit show Desmond’s. Gyearbour Asante is in the back row second from the left

Barclay, the only obruni (white man) present, had all this translated for him.

“I was hijacked” he recalls. “All I did was say ‘how lovely, I'd like to be adopted into the royal family.’"

He returned to Tafo a year later for the ceremony or enstoolment as it is known.

As part of the proceedings Barclay was paraded around the village on people's shoulders for 25 minutes, accompanied by drumming, dancing and a brass band.

HONOUR

However the TV producer says accepting the title was all about honouring his late friend who he knew over several decades.

“I met Gyearbuor (or Christopher as he was known in UK then) in 1972, when he was doing such shows as Crown Court on ITV and so on," he recalls. “I visited Ghana many times as his guest and when he died in 2000 at the age of 58 of clogged-up arteries, I was the only obruni at his funeral.”

Barclay’s official title is Kwadwo Nana Gyearbuor. He was the first white man to be given the title.

A shortened translation means chief in charge of development. The decision to bestow Barclay with the title was a landmark for the Ghanaian town as he was the first ever white man to be given the role.

During his 14 year tenure Barclay took his responsibilities seriously, dividing time between Britain and Ghana, raising much-needed funds for the Kwahu area.

The task presented formidable challenges such as improving the local provision of basic facilities such as running water, electricity and finding the resources to expand the town’s schools.

But Barclay enthusiastically set about his task.


THE NEW CHIEF: Humphrey Barclay dressed in traditional kente during his enstoolment

In Britain, he helped mastermind a comedy and musical gala in 2004 which ran until 2014, at London's Hackney Empire. 
“The shows, Empire Strikes Black and Strictly Come Laughing galas relied on the phenomenal goodwill of stars from all over the black comedy circuit, who always gave their services entirely free of charge,” he recalls. 

Over the course of a decade, money raised from the shows totalled £100,000. The money went to Friends of Tafo, the UK charity that was established after Gyearbuor's passing.

During Barclay’s tenure in the role, he oversaw the rebuilding of Kwahu Tafo Senior High School.

In 2003, the school consisted of one row of classrooms, with four pupils and no paid teachers. By 2007, it was transformed into a major campus with 650 enrolled students, 25 staff, and government recognition.

CHIEF

Barclay retired from his role as development chief in 2014, but remains an elder in the community.

“It was a great privilege," he recalls. “When one’s doing charity work it’s usual to be channelled into one particular area — say, old people, poverty, education, health. But as development chief for a whole community you are engaged in everything — from lavatories to music! And as with my television work, what charms me is being involved in the development of talent."

Since Desmond’s ended, there have been regular calls to bring the show back.

But with the passing of both Gyearbuor and Norman Beaton who played lead character Desmond Ambrose, and with Carmen Munroe who played Desmond’s wife Shirley now in her 80s, Barclay says there is little hope of a return of the show, not even a one-off special. 

He is however still in touch with many of the cast.

“I see Carmen regularly and took her to Ghana a few years ago. Robbie (Robbie Gee who played the character Lee Stanley in the series) supported us throughout the Hackney shows.

“Ram John (who played Porkpie) used to appear in them too. We are all good friends and very thankful that we had such a good time and did such a good show together which is still funny today."

But, he says, his most treasured memories are of working on the show with Gyearbuor.

“He was wickedly funny, passionate about acting, and, as one of his admirers said, ‘full of grace'.”

To find out more about the charity Friends of Tafo please visit www.friendsoftafo.org

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