Beaton, Norman 1934–1994
Norman Beaton 1934–1994
Actor, comedian, and composer
Norman Beaton, often called the “British Bill Cosby,” was one of Great Britain’s best-known black comedians. Starring in situation comedies such as The Fosters (1976) and Desmond’s (1988), he was among the first black actors to achieve success on British television. Although most people associated him with the humorous father figures he played in these programs, Beaton was not limited to sitcoms. He had begun his performing career as a singer and composer, and had acted for many years in the theater before moving into television.
Norman Lugard Beaton was born in Georgetown, Guyana, on October 31, 1934. The son of a civil servant, he went to school at Queen’s College until he was expelled for truancy and bad grades. He was later given a second chance at the Government Teachers’ Training College. As Beaton described in his autobiography, Beaton but Unbowed, he was prone to “drink, debauch, and live a thoroughly unrespectable existence in all the whorehouses and low-life dives in the city.” Nevertheless, he managed to graduate with distinction. This ability to flourish despite adversity became a pattern that would continue throughout Beaton’s life.
Beaton taught at Providence School, East Bank, De-merera, and at Cane Grove Anglican School on the West Coast. He also worked for Radio Demerera and for a local newspaper, as well as playing with a calypso band, The Four Bees. The group released 24 singles, several of which became hits.
In 1960, Beaton left Guyana to train as a teacher at the Institute of Education at the University of London. However, he ran out of money almost immediately and had to give up his studies. Beaton was unfazed, however, because he never really considered himself a career schoolteacher. “At the back of my mind I planned to pursue my singing career in London … who wanted to teach anyway?” he wrote in his autobiography.
Beaton found English society to be racist and xenophobic, with blacks relegated to certain types of jobs. He held a series of low-paying jobs while he searched fruitlessly for work as a teacher. Finally, he took a job in the shipping department of a bookshop—which offered the side benefit of free cast-off books. By this time, he’d met friends from his native Guyana and life again became a “carnival of parties and orgies, in between bouts of serious debates, politics and reading.” Eventually, Beaton’s wife and children arrived in London, and he landed a job as a teacher in Liverpool, becoming the first black teacher to be employed by the Liverpool Education Authority.
While Beaton remembered Liverpool in the mid-sixties as an exciting place, “in a state of cultural euphoria” following the success of The Beatles, it was not an easy thing to be among the small number of blacks living there. “If you were broke and walking peacefully along the street, you might be done for vagrancy,” Beaton
At a Glance…
Born Norman Lugard Beaton, October 31, 1934, Georgetown, Guyana; died December 14, 1994; son of William Solomon Beaton, acivil servant, and Ada Agatha (Mackintosh) Beaton; immigrated to Britain, 1960; married Gloria Moshette, later divorced; Leah Garady, later divorced; third wife, not known; five children: Jayme (son), Kim, Jeremy, Norman, and William. Education: Queen’s College and Government Teachers’ Training College, Georgetown. Religion: Anglican.
Career: Teacher, Providence School, Demerara, Guyana and Cane Grove Anglican School, West Coast, Guyana, 1950s; singer with calypso band, The Four Bees, 1950s; teacher, Liverpool Education Authority, 1964-66. Stage appearances include: A Tale oí Two Cities, 1966; The Merchant of Venice, 1968; Sit Down Banna, 1968; The Tempest, 1970; The Threepenny Opera, 1972; The Black Mikado, 1975; Rum and Coca Cola, 1976; Nice, 1980; Measure for Measure, 1981; The Miser, 1982; You Can’t Take It With You, 1983. Television appearances include: The Fosters, 1976-77; Empire Road, 1978-79; Cargo Kings, 1983; The Bill, 1984; Dead Head, 1985; Desmond’s, 1988-94; Little Napoleons, 1994, Compositions include two musicals, Jack of Spades, 1965; and Sit Down Banna, 1968.
Awards: Variety Club Best Film Actor Award, 1978; Channel 4 and BASE Award for Best Ethnic Actor, 1990; Voice Film and Television Personality of the Decade, 1991; Royal Television Society Best Comedy Performer, 1994.
recalled in his autobiography. “You dare not walk down the road at night with anything resembling a suitcase. You were bound to be stopped and searched….If you were young and black it meant keeping your opinions to yourself and your temper on a leash lest you lose your job or your liberty.”
Even as he gained success as a teacher, Beaton continued to harbor dreams of working in the theater. During this time he wrote a musical, Jack of Spades, which centered on the doomed relationship between a black man and a white woman. The musical was performed by the Everyman Theatre Company in 1965. While it received mixed reviews—partly because many were shocked by the subject matter—Beaton felt confident enough to give up teaching to concentrate on the theater. He then moved to Bristol to join the Bristol Old Vic company as a composer. He also wrote music for the Little Theatre in Bristol, where he appeared in several productions.
Meanwhile, Beaton ran into difficulty with the law. In 1967, he spent six months in prison for attempting to defraud a department store. As soon as he was released, however, he was offered a job as musical director at the Connaught Theatre in Worthing, Sussex.
The next year at the Connaught Theatre, he played the leading role in a musical he had written, Sit Down Banna (“banna” being the Guyanese equivalent of “mate”). Throughout his years in Britain, Beaton never lost his Guyanese vocabulary or his accent. He spoke “clearly and beautifully—but always with the wry streetwise rhythms of Guyana,” wrote Peter Ansorge in the Guardian.
Beaton’s role in Sit Down Banna marked the beginning of his career as an actor. Previously, he had considered himself mainly a singer and composer. In the early seventies, Beaton began to perform in plays in London’s West End and found success. He acted in the works of such major playwrights as Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett, and Moliere, while also performing in Gilbert and Sullivan musicals and pantomime. In 1970 he played the role of Ariel in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which he described in his autobiography as “the most important role of my acting career.” Two years later, he played another challenging role as the Narrator in Bertholt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera.
However, Beaton was well aware that the majority of these parts were for black characters who “appeared as lone figures in what was essentially a white scenario, “he wrote in his autobiography. He wanted to give other black actors the opportunity to work in theater, particularly theater that did not include one or two token minorities. In 1975, he helped to establish the Black Theatre of Brixton, which was designed to encourage aspiring black actors. He also joined the group The Arts Britain Ignores, which later became the Minority Arts Advisory Service.
In Beaton but Unbowed, Beaton bitterly recalled the struggle to find funding for the Black Theatre. “The white man can find money to build and equip community and sports centers for blacks, as though the only thing black people are interested in is knocking balls—or themselves—about. No one funds black literature or educational and cultural activities in the ghetto.” He resented being perceived as a black person first and an actor second. “There is no such thing as a black actor or a black writer,” Beaton remarked in the Guardian. “I’m an actor….Flesh and blood. Human emotions. That’s all there is to it.”
In 1976, Beaton broke into television in the series The Fosters, a British adaption of the American sit-com Good Times. When the series first appeared, Beaton stressed that the comedy was not just aimed at the black community. “We may be a black family, “he stated in the Daily Telegraph, “but we’re from Brixton, which is part of Britain, and we want everybody from Land’s End (the southern tip of England) to John O’Groats (the northern tip of Scotland) to identify with us.” The Fosters, which also featured the comedian Lenny Henry, was the first British television show centered around a black family. All the actors were aware of the pressure to succeed. “If we blew it, the possibility existed that there would be little justification for giving other blacks a break for God knows how much longer,” Beaton recalled in his autobiography. While the series was popular with viewers, earning consistently high ratings, it was not a critical success. Much to Beaton’s dismay, The Fosters was cancelled after only two years.
Beaton’s career continued to develop, however, as he began to play serious roles on television. He played a leading role in the black soap opera, Empire Road, which was also cancelled after a brief run. Although critics praised Empire Road, viewers were not as enthusiastic. “Black people blame me personally for the demise of The Fosters and Empire Road,” he complained in Beaton but Unbowed. “It is always the actors who pick up the tab for the bizarre decisions of the people who control the medium.”
In 1988, Beaton landed a part on the sitcom Desmond’s. He played the lead, Desmond Ambrose, a crotchety father figure similar to Sam Foster in The Fosters. It was the role that Beaton would become most closely associated with in the minds of the viewing public. Desmond’s became Channel 4’s most successful British-made sitcom, running for more than six years and winning a range of awards. For his role in the show, Beaton won the Channel 4 and BASE Awards for Best Ethnic Actor in 1990. In 1991, Beaton was named film and television personality of the decade by the Voice newspaper, while in 1994 he was nominated by the Royal Television Society as best comedy performer.
Perhaps Beaton’s most cherished honor, however, was a personal invitation from Bill Cosby to appear on The Cosby Show. Cosby was so impressed with Beaton that during the filming of the episode, he wore a Desmond’s baseball cap that Beaton had presented to him.
Although Beaton had earned the reputation as a consummate actor, his personal life was erratic. He married three times, and had five children. In 1979 he was jailed for drunken driving, while a few years later he was accused of trying to defraud the promoters of the singer Ray Charles. He was cleared of the charge, but fined for fraudulent acquisition of a plane ticket.
By his own acknowledgement, Beaton drank and smoked too much. Eventually, his destructive lifestyle took its toll. In 1993, he collapsed during the filming of the television drama series Little Napoleons. After seven weeks in intensive care, he recovered and made a sixth series of Desmond’s. Soon after, Beaton disclosed that he had emphysema and announced his retirement.
During the last year of his life, Beaton suffered increasingly severe health problems. In December 1994, he flew back to Guyana. “He knew he was dying and wanted to go back to his beloved country to be with his mother and father who are buried there,” his first wife Gloria told the Daily Mail. Upon landing in Guyana, Beaton collapsed at the airport and died a few hours later at the age of 60.
Beaton, Norman, Beaton but Unbowed, Methuen London, 1986.
Guardian, December 15, 1994, p. 17.
Daily Mail, December 15, 1994, p. 33.
Daily Telegraph, December 15, 1994, p. 22.
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