Saturday, 20 February 2010

Cy Grant RIP

Actor and activist Cy Grant dies

Cy Grant, the Guyanese actor, singer and writer who was the first black person to be seen regularly on British TV, has died at the age of 90.

Grant served in the Royal Air Force during World War II and qualified as a barrister before turning to acting.

He became best known for his role on the BBC's daily topical programme, The Tonight Show.

It made him a household name but he left after two and a half years to avoid being typecast.

He went on to star in the award-winning TV drama Home of the Brave in 1957 and played the lead in Othello at the Phoenix Theatre in Leicester in 1965 at a time when white actors were routinely "blacked up" for the part.

Cricket songs

He returned to the Bar briefly in 1972 but left after six months.

Two years later, he helped create the Drum Arts Centre in London - which was considered to be hugely important in the development of black theatre.

He went on to set up multi-cultural festivals across England in the 1980s.

Alongside his acting and activism work, he recorded five albums, having performed Caribbean folk songs and calypso across the world.

Two of his best known singles are King Cricket and The Constantine Calypso, in celebration of Garfield Sobers and Learie Constantine, two of the West Indies' most famous cricketers.

He also recorded many shows for radio and wrote several books including a collection of poems.

Grant's daughter Dana told the BBC he died in London.

'With his topical calypsos on the Tonight programme, Cy Grant became one of the first black artists to appear regularly on British television. He was with the show from its start in February 1957 and over the next few years his tall, lean and handsome presence became familiar to millions of viewers.

Grant opened the programme, singing to his guitar about the events of the day. Many of the calypsos were written by Bernard Levin, who was making a name as a waspish political columnist on The Spectator, although Grant often changed the lyrics to make them scan. Sometimes he was still polishing the words minutes before the programme went on air...'

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'In 2008 Grant told the Telegraph: "We had successfully bombed Gelsenkirchen on Friday June 25 when we came under attack as we flew home. The tail gunner, Pilot Officer Joe Addison, shouted over the intercom that a German fighter was closing in from underneath us. The German fired a long volley and a jet of tracer spat out towards us."

The Lancaster pilot put his aircraft into a dive; the enemy fighter disappeared; and it seemed as if Grant and his comrades had escaped. Then they realised that the outer starboard engine was on fire. Again the pilot dived, trying to extinguish the flames; but the fire spread, and one of the wheels fell off.

"By the time we reached the coast," Grant recalled, "we were a flaming comet over the Dutch sky. Both wings were on fire now and I gave the shortest course to the English coast. Unfortunately we were flying into a headwind of about 80 miles an hour at 20,000ft."

In the end the crew was forced to turn back to Holland and bail out. "We had been instructed in the use of parachutes but never had to practise leaving an aeroplane by one. When I went forward I found that the bomb aimer and engineer, who should have left in that order, were struggling to get through the hatch-door situated below the bomb aimer's cushion in the nose.

"Al [Alton Langille, the pilot] left his controls and came after me. The four of us were soon piled one on top the other, tossed from side to side in the cramped space of the nose of the plane... when suddenly, with a deafening blast, which lit up everything, our aircraft blew up and disintegrated..."'

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Kurt Barling writes: 'In 2008, I persuaded Cy Grant to return to the village in the Netherlands where he had landed during the war to make a documentary. He recalled the desperate efforts to evacuate his plane when it crashed on Dutch soil, and the absurdity of thinking he could escape to Spain. A black man in occupied Europe had no means of disguise.

When Cy finally met Joost Klootwijk during filming, Joost was overcome with emotion at being in the presence of a man he had pictured in his mind as a real-life hero since he was a boy. Cy was humbled by the esteem in which RAF aircrew are held by the Dutch and regretted that they had not been recognised in this way at home. Cy and Hans, Joost's son, soon began to compile a permanent online archive of Caribbean aircrew in the RAF. It occupied much of the last 18 months of Cy's life.

One of the curious by-products of Cy's RAF experience was the 1960s marionette TV series, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. The creator of the series, Gerry Anderson, had lost his own brother over the Netherlands in the second world war, and he drew on Cy's personal qualities to develop one of the first positive black fictional characters in children's television. These were the qualities deemed necessary by Anderson to defeat the Mysterons in 2068. Cy's melliflous tones gave Lieutenant Green, the black defender of Planet Earth alongside Captain Scarlet, a serene and heroic quality. Cy looked back on that series, essentially an allegory of the battle between good and evil, with great fondness. Ever the practical man, he recently told me that Green had kept him well fed into retirement.'

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