British Writer

Michael Abbensetts is considered by many as the best Black playwright to emerge from his generation. He has been presented with many awards for his life-time achievements in the area of television drama writing, and in 1979, received an award for an "Outstanding Contribution To Literature" by a Black writer resident in England. His work emerged alongside and as part of the larger development of black British television drama.

Abbensetts was born in Guyana in 1938. He began his writing career with short stories, but decided to turn to playwriting after seeing a performance of John Osborne's Look Back In Anger. He was further inspired when he came to England and visited the Royal Court Theatre, Britain's premier theatre of new writing, where he was soon to become resident dramatist. Sweet Talk, Abbensett's first play, was performed there in 1973.

In the same year, The Museum Attendant, his first television play was broadcast on BBC2. Directed by Stephen Frears, the drama was, Abbensetts says, based on his own early experiences as a security guard at the Tower of London. After these two early successes Abbensetts, unlike most Black writers in Britain at the time, was being offered more and more work. He wrote Black Christmas which was broadcast on the BBC in 1977 and featured Carmen Munroe and Norman Beaton. Like The Museum Attendant, Black Christmas was based on actual experience and was shot on location for television.

During the 1970s and 1980s, a number of Abbensetts' plays were produced for the London theater. Alterations appeared in 1978, followed by Samba (1980), In The Mood (1981), Outlaw (1983) and Eldorado (1983). Inner City Blues, Crime and Passion, Roadrunner and Fallen Angel were produced on television.

Abbensetts' success led to participation in British television's first Black soap opera Empire Road (1978-79) for which he wrote two series. Horace Ove was brought in to direct the second series, establishing a production unit with a Black director, Black writer and Black actors. The television series was unique in that it was the first soap opera to be conceived and written by a Black writer for a Black cast, but also because it was specifically about the British-Caribbean experience. Set in Handsworth, Birmingham, it featured Norman Beaton as Everton Bennett and Corinne Skinner-Carter as his long-suffering screen wife. Although Empire Road was a landmark programme on British television, it managed to survive only two series before it was axed. The late Norman Beaton said of the programme, "It is perhaps the best TV series I have been in."

Norman Beaton continued to star in many of Abbensett's television productions including Easy Money (1981) and Big George Is Dead and Little Napoleons (1994/Channel 4). Little Napoleons is a four-part comic-drama depicting the rivalry between two solicitors, played by Saeed Jaffrey and Norman Beaton, who become Labour councillors. The work focuses on a number of themes including the price of power, the relationship between West Indian and Asian communities in Britain and the internal workings of political institutions.

Much of Abbensetts drama has focused on issues of race and power, but he has always been reluctant to be seen as restricted to issue-based drama. Certainly his dialogue is concerned with the development and growth of character and he is fundamentally aware of the methods and contexts for his actors. Abbensetts has always actively involved himself in the production process and his dramatic works have provided outstanding roles for established Black actors in Britain--Carmen Munroe, Rudolph Walker and of course Norman Beaton--giving them the chance to play interesting and realistic roles as well as creating stories about the everyday experiences of Black people. Abbensetts' work thrived at a time when there was very little drama on television which represented the lives of Black British people and his television plays have created new perspectives for all his viewers.

-Sarita Malik

MICHAEL ABBENSETTS. Born in British Guiana (now Guyana), 8 June 1938; took British citizenship, 1974. Attended Queen's College, Guyana, 1952-56; Stanstead College, Quebec; Sir George Williams University, Montreal, 1960-61. Security attendant, Tower of London, 1963-67; staff member, Sir John Soane Museum, London, 1968-71; resident playwright, Royal Court Theatre, London, 1974; visiting professor of drama, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, 1981. Recipient: George Devine Award, 1973; Arts Council bursary, 1977; Afro-Caribbean Award, 1979. Address: Heinemann Educational Books Ltd, Halley Court, Jordan Hill, Oxford OX2 8EJ, U.K.


1978-79 Empire Road
1994 Little Napoleons Television Plays
1973 The Museum Attendant
1975 Inner City Blues
1976 Crime and Passion
1977 Black Christmas
1977 Roadrunner
1982 Easy Money
1987 Big George Is Dead


Home Again, 1975; The Sunny Side of the Street, 1977; Brothers of the Sword, 1978; The Fast Lane, 1980; The Dark Horse, 1981; Summer Passions, 1985.


Sweet Talk, 1973; Alterations, 1978; Samba, 1980; In the Mood, 1981; The Dark Horse, 1981; Outlaw, 1983; El Dorado, 1984; Living Together, 1988.


Sweet Talk (play). London: Eyre Methuen, 1976. Samba (play). London: Eyre Methuen, 1980.
Empire Road
(novel). London: Panther, 1979.
Living Together (play). Oxford: Heinemann, 1988.


Leavy, Suzan. "Abbensetts an Example." Television Today (London), 19 May 1994.

Walters, Margaret. "Taking Race for Granted." New Society (London), 16 November 1978.