DESMOND'S

British Situation Comedy

Produced by Charlie Hanson and Humphrey Barclay, Desmond's was first broadcast on Channel Four in 1989 and finally came to an end in December 1995, a short time before its leading star, Norman Beaton, died. The half hour weekly program has often been referred to as an "ethnic sitcom", in the sense that it featured a Black family and their predominantly Black friends. However, the series managed to reach a mainstream audience and thus appeal to viewers of all ages and cultures in Britain. It has also been popular in the Caribbean and in the United States where it is broadcast on Black Entertainment Television.

Desmond's was also distinguished by its West Indian writer, Trix Worrell, a graduate from the National Film And Television School in Britain previously an actor. Although Worrell went on to direct Desmond's, the series was initially co-produced and directed by Charlie Hanson. Hanson had previously co-devised and produced No Problem!, Channel 4's first "Black comedy" (1982-85). Many have argued that the Desmond's comic formula was more successful than previous "ethnic sitcoms". Although the series has often been compared to The Cosby Show, it has been seen as the first light entertainment programme to fully embrace the Black community within a British context.

The series was based in "Desmond's", a barber shop in Peckham. A core group of characters used the shop as a social meeting place. Norman Beaton played Desmond, a West Indian traditionalist, and Carmen Munroe played his loving and supportive wife, Shirley. Together they ran the South East London barbershop, where their children and friends would often congregate. The couple's children were Gloria (Kim Walker), Sean (Justin Pickett) and Michael (Geff Francis). The dynamics and relationships between these various characters formed the basis of the comedy.

The setting of the programme was unique in that it was a Black sitcom based in the workplace. The series' antecedents such as No Problem! and The Fosters tended to focus on Black family relationships within the family home. The cast of Desmonds were not passive characters in a stagnant setting, but socially mobile people in multiracial Britain. In this context the comedy introduced new types of protagonists such as Desmond, the Black entrepreneur and his two sons, one an aspiring bank employee and the other a bright student. The characters in Desmond's were quite distinct types but at the same time, neither caricatures nor stereotypes. Worrell was very keen to emphasise the differences within the African-Caribbean diaspora and so the audience was witness to racism and prejudice between for example, Matthew (Gyearbuor Asante), the African eternal student and the West Indians characters. The series depicted a myriad of types, spanning across generations, lifestyles and politics and thus deconstructed any notion of there being an essential black British subject. Indeed, generational and other differences among characters them often triggered the hilarity.

 

Desmond's
Photo courtesy of Channel Four

Desmond's had its own unique method of team writing. To some extent, it became a training-ground for young, multicultural, creative talent. Many aspiring writers, producers, directors and production staff gained experience on the programme by learning how to create a long-running fresh situation comedy. Although the series lasted for five years on British television, those involved in the production often mentioned the pressures of producing what was generally perceived as a black comedy. Worrell and Hanson have both spoken of the expectations placed on them, simply because there were so few other black comedies on television. In the 1992 television documentary Black and White in Colour Hanson commented that "Black situation comedy comes under the microscope far more than any other situation comedy on television." At the same time, the programme marked a progression in that most black British sitcoms have tended to focus on dysfunctional families and social problems. Carmen Munroe sees Desmonds as a landmark programme and in Black and White in Colour noted that "we have successfully created a space for ourselves, where we can just be a real, honest, loving family, with problems like lots of people, and we can present that with some degree of truth and still not lose the comedy."

-Sarita Malik

CAST

Desmond .........................................Norman Beaton Shirley............................................. Carmen Munroe Gloria ....................................................Kim Walker Sean ..................................................Justin Pickett Michael................................................. Geff Francis Matthew........................................ Gyearbuor Asante

PRODUCERS
Charlie Hanson, Humphrey Barclay

PROGRAMMING HISTORY

Channel 4
1989-1995

 

See also Beaton, Norman; Munroe, Carmen