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'Why I've decided to return to the stage after 25 years'

CHIRPY CHAPPIE: Comedian Charlie Williams in 1975

I RETURNED to the stage for the first time in 25 years, somewhat reluctantly, to star in a play I’ve written, Skinteeth. But don’t forget my past and my claim to have been one of the true young black pioneer actors in this country, having been in The Oblong Box with Christopher Lee and Vincent Price at the age of eight. I was also in Diamonds are Forever at the age of 12 with Brinsley Forde from Aswad. I was also, of course, in Tennesse Williams’s last play The Red Devil Battery Sign with former James Bond, Piers Brosnan when we were teenagers (he was a few years more of a teenager than I).

Then of course one of the world’s most renowned movie makers, the Danish director Lars von Trier cast me opposite the late great Michael Elphick in Trier’s critically acclaimed film The Element of Crime. If I am good enough for them lot, I guess I am good enough for me.

The play itself is based on an incident in the life of that old comedian Charlie Williams. How many of you remember him? He was really the first black stand-up comedian on national television. He was actually of mixed heritage, which in the old days of black and white television was pretty black to most people. He was one of a group of comedians who had been assembled by a TV company to provide us with Saturday evening peak time light entertainment. Everybody watched it.

GOOD JOKES

In those days most of us had never been anywhere near a comedy club. This was the televised equivalent of that and it was compelling viewing in the 1970s when we had nothing better to do as youngers than to crack each other up with some good jokes when we should have been paying attention at school to Mr Hudson’s ancient history class on a Monday morning. Who remembers those times? Ask your granny if you don’t. Ask her about Charlie Williams too. I bet you she hisses her teeth. Because Charlie Williams made white folks roll around with laughter, but couldn’t resist doing it at the expense of every other black person in Britain.

Sad, because he was actually a very funny man. He was a black Yorkshireman who was more Yorkshire than the whitest Yorkshire man. And he had a cheeky chappie stage persona that was a powerful symbol of black presence in Britain. Outside the county, who knew at the time that there was such a thing as a black Yorkshireman who could speak in a dialect that was even more Yorkshire than Last of the Summer Wine?

We know now because we’ve all heard Nicola Adams speak after winning the first ever gold medal in women’s Olympic boxing at London 2012. And she certainly seems to be that great role model that Charlie Williams could have been if he didn’t keep making jokes which undermined and demoralised black Britons, just to ingratiate himself with the funny bones of his majority white audiences at working men’s clubs all over the north of England, to which ignorant fools were more sure to roam than to stay at home.


POSTER BOY: Charlie Williams

Charlie Williams pandered to their prejudices. His most famous catchphrase was to warn his audience: “If you don’t behave, I’ll move next door to you.” This at a time when the general perception in Britain was that the last thing you wanted was to have a ‘West Indian’ family move next door to you because they’ll cook smelly food, have all-night parties and the price of your house prices would fall.

STEREOTYPE

We were of course all ‘West Indian’ to the majority population in those days, so even our Nigerian family went from one temporary bedsit to another because landlords didn’t want to rent to us (I have never forgiven you ‘West Indians’ for what you put us through – lol!). The chirpy chappie Charlie Williams could have changed that negative perception of black people in this country; instead he underlined the stereotype of us as the neighbours from hell - just for laughs.

Back to the play, Skinteeth - it is inspired by one moment in the life of Charlie Williams. After being deemed politically incorrect for terrestrial television, alongside his fellow funnyman from The Comedians show, the openly-racist Bernard Manning, Charlie Williams was invited on to one of the first black talk shows in Britain, Black on Black in front of a live audience. He thought it was an opportunity to get back on the box.

The first part of the programme went well in front of the mostly young black audience. Charlie Williams got respect from them for being one of the first black footballers in top flight footie in the 50s and the first black British stand-up on TV. He seemed to be just the kind of role model that the community needed, an inspiration to us all. Then the audience is shown clips of his stand-up routine from back in the day when he is taking the mickey out of black people and the mood in the studio, as you can imagine, changed.

That is where the play Skinteeth takes its lead. It is set 20 years later and ‘Sunshine Charlie’, now in his late 50s is preparing for a date with a gorgeous twenty-something woman. She will have the last laugh. So I’m giving you laughs, drama and a proper slice of black British television/comedy history.

Remember, this will be your only chance to see one of the true black pioneers of black British acting take to the stage. I assure you, I will never take to the stage again after this. Acting does not agree with me. With just a week to go it is already giving me the jitters.

Skinteeth is on for four nights only from Monday, October 29 to Thursday, November 1st at the Bernie Grant Arts Centre Theatre in Tottenham.

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