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The life of Cy Grant celebrated in touring exhibition

TALENT: Cy Grant moved effortlessly from qualifying as a barrister to acting, singing and broadcasting

BECAUSE OF a British colour bar, men of African or Asian descent had been prevented from serving in the Second World War which started in 1939. But after losing a large number of servicemen, Britain decided to appeal to the Caribbean for help.

Cy Grant volunteered to join the Royal Air Force In 1940 and passed the test. His decision to join had been prompted solely by a desire for adventure and to get away from what he foresaw would be a dull future in a British colony.

He arrived in England in 1941 with the hope of becoming a Spitfire pilot. It wasn’t to be, as he was commissioned in 1943 as a Navigator of a Lancaster Bomber. After only three bombing missions during June 1943 in the Battle of the Ruhr, the plane was shot down over Holland, two of the crew were killed and the rest of them became prisoners of war in Germany.

After WWII ended in 1945, Cy studied Law as a member of London’s Middle Temple qualifying as a Barrister in 1950, but was unable to find Chambers or any work as a Lawyer. He was forced to turn to show business in order to make a living. In preparation for practicing at the Bar, he had joined an amateur dramatics society in order to enhance my diction. This, he believed, would have helped him as an advocate.

Cy had a successful audition in 1951 with the Laurence Olivier Festival of Britain Company at the St James’ Theatre, London and the following year to the Ziegfield Theatre in New York, USA. Whilst in America, Cy realised that at the end of the tour he would most likely be out of work for some appreciable time. Most of the roles on offer in the profession were what he termed ‘black roles’. So he decided that he would try, on his return to England, to establish myself as a singer as well as an actor.

On his return to London he began his career as a singer of folk songs of the world -love songs, songs of protest and songs with a message, all to become very popular in the 1950s and 60s. He moved effortlessly from qualifying as a barrister to acting and broadcasting.

The BBC’s innovative and ground breaking daily live TV programme TONIGHT was presented by Cliff Michelmore from 1957 to 1965. Cy sang a topical calypso at the start of each programme and songs from a large repertoire of folk songs from around the world when there was a technical hitch, guest arriving late, and other incidents. Cy was the first black celebrity to appear regularly on television in the 1950s.

In 1965, he was acclaimed as Othello at the Phoenix theatre, in Leicester. The following year he starred in Cindy Ella with Cleo Laine at the Garrick theatre, in London.

During 1967 and 1968, Cy’s voice was that of ‘Lieutenant Green’ in Gerry Anderson and Sylvia Anderson’s science fiction series production Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons on Granada TV, which was later transmitted in more than 40 other countries, including the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.

Cy also appeared in the films Shaft in Africa with Richard Roundtree (1973) and At the Earth's Core, with Peter Cushing (1976).

John Mapondera and Cy founded the Drum Arts Centre, London, in 1974 with the aim of creating a national centre for the arts of black people. Its main objective was to open doors leading to workshops at the National Theatre and productions at the National itself and eventually, an acknowledgement that black people are as good actors as anyone else.

In 1978, Cy asked the National Theatre if he could do a one-man performance of Aimé Césaire’s poem Return to My Native Land as a platform performance. The reading at the National led to a two-week production at the Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court Theatre, London; a few months later, he began a tour of Return to My Native Land around the country that lasted for two years.

His work with Drum had been primarily to give black actors a chance to become more proficient by setting up workshops and validating their own identity. During the following years it became clear to him that all minorities in Britain needed to make their cultural identities explicit. So, ‘The Concord Festival Trust’ was set up to run A Festival of Britain’s Multi-cultural Arts.

Whilst on the Concord tour during the 1980s that he read a book that would shape his philosophy of life. It was a slim volume on Chinese wisdom: Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu, a contemporary of Confucius. But, it was the concept of Negritude that led him to undertake his search for identity and meaning.

At first it seemed that the issue was one of colonialism and racism or at the very least, the pigmentation of one’s skin. Later he realised that it was more to do with mankind’s deracination from Nature and the fragmentary way mankind looked at reality.

Celebrating the Life of Cy Grant, a touring exhibition, is currently on show until November 30th at the Marcus Garvey Library, Tottenham Green Leisure Centre, 1 Philip Lane, London N15 4JA. Admission is free.

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