1 9 8 9 – 1 9 9 4 (UK)
71 x 30 minute episodes
Set in a barber’s shop situated in the south London district of Peckham, Channel 4’s Desmond’s established the black British sitcom.
The humour was drawn from generational differences and the difference in attitude between West Indian immigrants and their British-born descendants, as well as from the individual characters’ traits.
Desmond’s salon was the Peckham equivalent of the Cheers bar in Boston, with family, friends and neighbours popping in to play out the latest episodes in their life. Little in the way of hairdressing seems to have been done, but as a local meeting place, it was second to none.
Desmond Ambrose himself was a grump, like a black Victor Meldrew, and easily exasperated by things; his wife Shirley had to put up with him throughout a long marriage, but she usually managed to trump his excesses and win in the end.
After she and Desmond emigrated to Britain from the Caribbean in 1959, Shirley spent years in the service of her family, looking after her husband and their three children, now young adults, Michael, Sean and Gloria. She was also an experienced stylist with the scissors.
As well as the Ambrose children we regularly saw Matthew, an African, and the permanent visitor Porkpie (so named because of his hat), a long-established friend of Desmond from the old country. Whites played their part too, principally by way of Gloria’s friend Louise, and Tony, who worked in the salon.
The entire ensemble comprised very likeable characters, the type who – were Desmond’s an American sitcom – would have attracted applause as they entered the stage; as it was, the British studio audiences were not discouraged from whistling, cheering or jeering at appropriate moments, adding to the air of conviviality of the piece.
Desmond’s was like an extended family, a series that somehow embraced the characters on screen, the audience in the studio and the viewers at home, and half an hour in its company would generate not only warm laughter but a sense of belonging.
The origin of Desmond’s is an object lesson in simplicity. The writer Trix Worrell was en route to a meeting with TV comedy producer Humphrey Barclay when his bus stopped at a red light, enabling him to witness the three staff in a barber’s shop ogling some passing schoolgirls.
Raised in Peckham, and remembering a barber’s shop there from his youth, Worrell promptly formulated the basis for a sitcom, which he pitched to Barclay at the meeting a few minutes later. Barclay agreed to provide development funds and Worrell went away to flesh out the characters. Had the traffic light been green, Desmond’s wouldn’t have happened.
Once at the planning stage, Worrell – himself born in St Lucia – was keen to emphasise the fact that the West Indies comprises many islands, not just Jamaica, so he made his three main characters – Desmond, Shirley and Porkpie – of Guyanese origin. Then, having scripted the first two series, he started to pool the writing – instigating an all-too-rare pro-women writers policy – and began to direct some of the episodes.
By teaming Norman Beaton and Carmen Munroe as husband and wife, Worrell and Barclay united the two leading lights in British black acting in recent decades, a combination strong enough for the series to reap the Best Sitcom prize at the 1993 British Comedy Awards.
Finely blending rascality and bravura, Beaton’s Desmond was the linchpin character, everything flowing around him in the way that things centred on Bill Cosby in The Cosby Show.
Indeed, the American star so enjoyed Desmond’s (it was screened in the USA by the Black Entertainment Television cable network) that he invited Norman Beaton across to the USA to appear in The Cosby Show, where he played the part of a cricket-mad West Indian doctor (in an episode titled ‘There’s Still No Joy In Mudville’).
Norman Beaton died on 13 December 1994, aged 60, while visiting the island of his birth, Guyana.
C4 screened Beaton But Unbowed – A Tribute To An Artist six days later, immediately after what was already announced as the last ever episode of Desmond’s.
The story wasn’t quite over, however, as one of the Desmond’s regulars was spun off into his own series, Porkpie.
Augustus ‘Porkpie’ Grant
Ram John Holder
Joan Ann Maynard
Count Prince Miller