The Return Of Desmond’s Barber Shop

Posted by Erik 'The Hat' Bear on
Category: Film & Television59 Comments

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One morning back in 1988, Trix Worrell sat on the top-deck of the number 36 bus going from Peckham to Central London. The young St Lucia-born writer was a worried man. He had just won Channel 4’s debut writing competition and had been invited to meet distinguished TV producer Humphrey Barclay and talk about making a new black sitcom. He had no idea what he was going to pitch to the producer and had never even written comedy before. As the bus stopped at the traffic lights on the Queens Road, he noticed a West Indian Barber shop.

“It was called Fair Deal,” recalls Worrell, “and there were these barbers, their noses pressed against the front window, chirpsing the girls walking past. And I could see the customers in their chairs, half-lathered and half-shaved, waiting to get their hair cut, but thinking nothing of it whatsoever. That’s when it came to me.”

Worrell knew barber shops as hives of chat and gossip conducted over endless games of dominoes – and where the chances of getting an actual haircut were pretty slim. “The black barber is a community and a drop-in,” he says. “And, more crucially, a space where black people can just be black.”

By the time he reached Barclay’s office, the kernel had crystallised into what would become Channel 4’s latest sitcom, Desmond’s, aired for the first time on 5 January the following year. But according to Barclay, the show almost never came to light.

“My heart sank at his pitch,” he remembers. “There had already been several series set in salons, which tended to feature ladies with blue hair. So, I wasn’t excited at all. But he shook his head and said, ‘Have you ever been in a West Indian barber shop?’ Then he started to tell me more. The more he told, the more I liked it.”

Desmond’s was not the first black sitcom on British TV – that would be The Fosters, which ran from 1976 to 1977, featuring Norman Beaton and Carmen Munroe (who played Desmond and Shirley Ambrose) and a young Lenny Henry. That show, however, was not an original creation, adapted from US sitcom Good Times. So, what marked Desmond’s out?

“It was the first black business you really saw on television,” says Worrell. “It doesn’t matter that the guy can’t cut hair! More than that, the underlying principle was if you’re a minority in a predominantly white society, you have to laugh. Comedy is what keeps you going.”

The show’s popularity was cemented by the second episode of the second series, Hold De Front Page, in which the barber shop was held up by two violent, if hapless, teenagers armed with guns. It was uncharted waters for a British sitcom and by the end of that series, five million people were tuning in.

“We knew we were doing something different,” says Worrell. “I have to take my hat off to Michael Grade [then chief executive of Channel 4], who supported us when it was a real risk. But it reflected the growing violence on the streets.”

The cast of Desmond's

The cast of Desmond’s.

Desmond’s showed the lives of the Ambrose family, who all longed to improve their lot. Desmond, played by the late Beaton, dreams of retiring and returning to Guyana; Shirley, his wife, enrols in a French evening class in the opening episode; yuppy eldest son Michael aims to run the local bank; middle child Gloria wants to be a fashion writer; and youngest son Sean is on course to go to university.

Like most great sitcoms, Desmond’s thrives on its running gags and side characters: the frequent jubilant cry “Yeah, mon” of Desmond’s best friend Porkpie; Matthew, the perennial student from the Gambia with a penchant for “old African sayings” such as “the respectful goat doesn’t fart in front of the chief”; and gossiping hypochondriac Beverley.

Filmed in front of a raucous live audience (“those guys were off the Richter scale,” says Worrell), Desmond’s, at its best, was a triumphant celebration of family and friendship in the face of adversity. In the show’s most poignant episode, Georgetown Dreaming, Desmond ponders what life might have been if he had never come to this “godforsaken country”.

Might he already be retired, having achieved glory through the Georgetown Dreamers, his one-time band? Would his children have escaped racism and discrimination? Or as Shirley – always the voice of reason – points out, “we could have done a lot worse”. Cue an alternate history of squalor in the Caribbean, with a bland, insipid Desmond, Shirley a drunk and Michael a violent hoodlum.

At its core, Desmond’s was a family show, says Ram John Holder, who played Porkpie, its warmth transcending racial fault lines. “It didn’t matter if you were black or brown or white,” he says. “It was the story of every family.”

“I didn’t write Desmond’s for black people,” says Worrell. “I wrote it for white people so they could see how black people really are. At that time, the negative press about muggings and shootings was all we seemed to get. I was fed up with it.”

Desmond’s ran for 71 episodes, ending in 1994 due to Beaton’s health. Danny Boyle featured a clip in the best-of-British-TV segment of his 2012 Olympics opening ceremony. “It’s an important part of the cultural history of this country,” says Holder. “An artistic achievement.”

“When I started out, they made braver choices in television,” says Worrell. “While there might be all these workshops today to increase the presence of minorities on screen, it’s just about boxes being ticked. In reality, I don’t think we’ve moved on. Unless your name’s Toby or Ben, it’s really difficult for black writers to get commissioned.”

So, what turned the story of the Ambroses into Channel 4’s longest-running sitcom? Find out for yourselves because it is back on All 4 and can also be seen via Sky Box Sets in its entirety.

Enjoy.

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Posted By

Erik 'The Hat' Bear

I am fairly new to this writing on a Blog malarkey so you will have to forgive me while I continue to get the hang of it. I have asked if I can write about films and television programmes because that is what I know the best. I love watching old films and television series and some more modern ones too. I hope we will like some of the same things. Watch this space, I guess…


59 Comments on “The Return Of Desmond’s Barber Shop”

  1. From the long hot nights to the ocean breeze
    to the damp and to the rain of London city
    We come from the sun to live in the cold
    I miss my rum, I want my coconut tree

    Dont scratch my socha, ’til the party’s over.

  2. Thank you everyone so much for all of your kind words you have left on my Twitter. I just wanted to say if I don’t get to like every individual comment each time it’s not because I don’t like it, sometimes I’m busy or my little paws get tired. I do honestly appreciate you all – Thank you :paws:

  3. I’m back after a week. My Nan went to hospital in an ambulance but is now recovering from COVID, and my Mum and my sister who I live with have tested positive but showing no symptoms.

    One can only hope it kills me off.

  4. If you’re wearing a dress that cost less than twenty quid and someone compliments you on it, you have to tell them exactly how much it cost and where you got it from. Even if they didn’t ask. It’s the law.

  5. Imagine voting against feeding hungry kids then eating a subsidised meal straight after though… just imagine being that much of a cunt for just a second.

    Off to bed to sleep til 6pm… na’night.

  6. My little Dumpling and I were discussing our beds. I prefer a tight-fitting box but she likes a real cat bed. There are plenty to choose from in the veranda. Mind you, I would happily give up my box if she would let me share her cat bed. I can’t see that happening any time soon.

  7. “Taaaaaa- daaaaaa!” Welcome to Thursday, I am your Tangerine tour guide and not an undesirable who loiters in the booking hall, harassing people attempting to con them into giving chin scritches & treatos as previously thought.

  8. Rolf report 22 Oct

    My family is helping me get my beauty sleep so I’m at my best for my first virtual cat cafe tomorrow. It’s set up by the university library team. My humans & campus mom Dr Claudia will tell my story then I’ll interact with all the students that attend.

    Rolf x

  9. Watched the first episode of Bly manor last night and all I’ve been saying all morning is “perfectlyyyyy splendid” and my 4 year old has just told me to shut up!

  10. Was sending a voice note to a client and I farted, but you couldn’t hear it. So I thought I’ll send it anyway. However just before I sent it and while it was still recording my child goes “oh my god mummy YOU FARTED!!”
    IT WONT LET ME DELETE IT. I’m lashing my phone.

  11. Dear Larry The Cat spent the morning out of the rain on the window ledge outside No 10 with the atmosphere so toxic inside he is a very wise boy indeed. Strange but once Boris left he went back in!

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