Desmond’s: Successfully depicting Black British lives from the early 1990s

In January 1989, Desmond Ambrose (played by Norman Beaton) was first shown on our TV screens, living his day-to-day life with his British-Guyanese family and his pals, in his Barbershop in Peckham. Now, for all you noughties babies that never had the pleasure of being introduced to the Ambrose family, and all the 25 plus gang that wish they were still a fixture on Channel 4’s primetime sitcom roster, here’s a list of 10 reasons why the Desmond’s TV show was and is a jewel for British television.

  1. First sitcom in British history to be scripted by a black writer of African Caribbean descent

Although Desmond’s was not the first black or even predominantly Black British TV comedy it was the first sitcom in British history to be scripted by a black writer. An eternal round of applause for Trix Worrell, a St Lucia-born writer, composer and director popularised for writing and producing what is one of Channel 4’s most successful home-grown comedies of all time. The success of which was acknowledged with accolades such as winning a British Comedy Award and two BAFTA nominations for Best Comedy.

  1. One of Channel 4’s longest running sitcoms of all time

With 71 episodes, Desmond’s is one of Channel 4’s longest-running sitcoms. It’s run of five years and seven series, is not just a notable and phenomenal achievement in terms of Black British representation on prime-time television, but an astounding achievement for British-produced sitcoms in general.

  1. A layered portrayal of African and Caribbean Brits

Desmond’s successfully illustrated the layered and often nuanced portrayal of immigrant African and Caribbean Brits. It also showed a cross representation of different classes within the Black British community – retired, working class, upper-middle class, university educated, university-bound all intermingling – chilling, chatting and chasing different dreams.

  1. Debunked the myth that all black people during that period had West Indian accents and that these were from Jamaica

Now, we can’t lie there’s still a tendency even in 2018 for people to paint all Caribbean’s with the same green, yellow and black Jamaican paint brush. However, in a period in which many white Brits assumed all West Indians were Jamaican, Worrell played a significant role in highlighting the diversity in West Indian cultures. The predominately Guyanese cast and the portrayal of a British-Guyanese family on screen exposed those outside the community to the subtleties and nuances in Caribbean cultures, broadening the idea of black citizens beyond narrow stereotypes.

  1. Highlighted the similarities and differences between African and Caribbean cultures

One of the regulars in the barber shop, Matthew (Gyearbuor Asante) was a lifetime student from the Gambia. It was important that a character like Matthew was shown on our screens as African characters in black shows (most of these shows being exported from the US), were often made fun of for their name, or food, or what the world is slowly coming to appreciate today as richly melaninated (yes that’s not a word – sue me!) skin. With African characters, there was always a sense that they were extremely ‘grateful’ to have left their homelands. However, Matthew made it a point to emphasise the strength of African History at every given opportunity. He advised his West Indian friends to respect the African culture as it is an integral part of their culture and heritage. At the same time, it was clear he enjoyed witnessing the synergies and retention of Africanisms within West Indian cultures.

  1. Sneak peek into the illustrious black barber shop

For many black men all over the world, black barbershops hold a much wider cultural significance than simply a place to get a fresh trim. It’s a social setting where your trim will come with cost-free additions, included but not limited to, a game of chess, cards, dominoes or a screening of the days’ football match. They’re a safe space to be vulnerable, to have conversations about local gossip, politics and pressing community issues. Decades before movies such as The Barbershop, Desmond’s provided a sneak peek into the function barber shops play within the black community, and an insight on black family life different from what had ever been seen before on British television.

  1. Huge international success

Desmond’s was a hit internationally, with reruns aired in the USA on BET in the early-1990s. It’s popularity continued in the late 90s, as it ran on NYCTV as part of their Caribbean programming on Sunday nights. In the noughties, we continued to see reruns of Desmond’s from time to time on Paramount Comedy and Trouble. If you’re reading this and wanting to kick your parents for not conceiving you in the 80s/early 90s to enjoy watching the Ambrose family in their element, it’s okay because the full series is available on 4oD through YouTube for your viewing pleasure.

  1. Depicting an openly gay Black British character

When Desmond’s son, Sean went off to uni viewers witnessed him push back on the sexist, misogynistic and homophobic undertones in dancehall and British rap. Sean’s first friend at uni was an openly gay character, Bernie, and Sean was adamant about creating safer spaces for Bernie and his female friends. A noteworthy storyline in the early 90s, a time in which actively protesting societal ills such as homophobia, was seen us unimportant and frowned upon – especially within the black community.

  1. Showcased the complexities of what we call ‘home’

Desmond’s dream was to return to what he considered home – Guyana. His wife Shirley, on the other hand, did not share such ambitions. Having spent more than half of her life in Peckham, home for her was where her kids were. The Ambrose kids were a part of a wave of first-generation Guyanese Black Brits who acknowledged, loved and appreciated their Guyanese roots but also saw the UK as home.

  1. First black teen neek

So, we all already know the Ambrose’s youngest, Sean was quite the activist. If you didn’t fancy him already then let me sprinkle some more seasoning, he was also the first black teen computer coder I’d ever seen on TV. What makes Sean special is that he is a computer whiz without fulfilling the stereotypical neeky cliché. He is a rapper and a D.J. – smart, cool, and respectful of his parents and culture.

Desmond’s sadly came to an end following the passing of the main character, Norman Beaton in 1994. Over two decades since the first episode ever aired, the show, the storylines it depicted, and characters portrayed are still more relevant than ever for our community.