Cy Grant [1919 - 2000]
In November 2017, a crowd gathered in Highgate, North London, to unveil a long overdue plaque for Cy Grant, a multi-talented actor, writer, activist, barrister, musician, poet and an RAF navigator, who was once taken as a POW by the German Luftwaffe during World War II.
Attending the unveiling was a constellation of characters, including the Mayor of Haringey, dignitaries from Grant’s native Guyana and other Caribbean countries, war veterans, in-service men and women, Grant’s former show-business contemporaries, family and friends, as well as members of the general public.
Cy Grant was born in British Guiana (modern-day Guyana), one of seven children in a close-knit middle-class family. His father was a Moravian minister, and his mother was a music teacher from Antigua. In 1941, Grant joined the Royal Air Force in the early years of the Second World War and was based at RAF Elsham Wolds in Lincolnshire. On his third operation, in 1943, Grant was shot down over the Netherlands during the Battle of the Ruhr. He parachuted to safety into a field and was imprisoned in Stalag Luft III camp, east of Berlin, for two years. In 2007 Grant was featured in a documentary, Into the Wind (2011), about his experiences as an RAF navigator.
He became a member of the Middle Temple in London and qualified as a barrister in 1950. However, despite his distinguished war record and legal qualifications, he could not find work at the Bar and decided to take up acting. Aside from earning a living, he saw acting as a way to improve his diction in preparation for when he finally entered Chambers.
Moving to London, he came to national prominence in the 1950s as the first person of colour to be featured regularly on television in the UK – mainly due to his appearances on the BBC’s Tonight Show, with journalist Bernard Levin and on BBC radio. In 1956, he appeared in A Man from the Sun, a television drama written by John Elliot about the experience of Caribbean migrants to Britain after the Second World War and appeared in an episode of The Persuaders, opposite Roger Moore. He hosted his own television series, For Members Only, which consisted of performances and interviews. Between 1967 and 1968, he was the voice and inspiration behind the massively popular children’s character of Lieutenant Green in Gerry Anderson’s Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. In addition, he made several appearances in films, including the 1957 Seawife alongside Richard Burton and Joan Collins.
In the seventies, Grant co-founded Drum Arts Centre in London to challenge discrimination in the Arts. He wrote two books, Ring of Steel: Pan Sound and Symbol (Macmillan Caribbean, 1999) and Blackness and The Dreaming Soul (Shoving Leopard, 2007), and in 2008, he began an online archive to trace and commemorate Caribbean airmen of the Second World War. In 2016, The Cy Grant Trust was launched to preserve Grant’s work.
Location: 54 Jacksons Lane, Highgate, London, N6 5SX
ABOUT CY GRANT
After the war, Grant decided to pursue his original ambition to study law, perceiving it as a means to challenge racism and social injustice..
Grant's first acting role was for a Moss Empires tour in which he starred in a play titled 13 Death St., Harlem. His career received a boost after he successfully auditioned for Laurence Olivier and his Festival of Britain Company, which led to appearances at the St. James Theatre in London and the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York City (alongside Jan Carew). Aware of the short supply of roles for black actors, Grant decided to increase his earning potential by becoming a singer, having learnt to sing and play the guitar during his childhood in Guiana. This proved to be a successful undertaking and Grant soon appeared in revues and cabaret venues such as Esmeralda's Barn, singing Caribbean and other folk songs, as well as on BBC radio (The Third Programme and the Overseas Service). In 1956 he hosted his own television series, For Members Only (broadcast on Associated Television), on which he interspersed interviews with newsworthy people with singing and playing the guitar.
In 1956, Grant appeared alongside Nadia Cattouse, Errol John and Earl Cameron in the BBC TV drama Man From The Sun, whose characters are mostly Caribbean migrants to London, and also starred in the World War II film Sea Wife (1957), with Richard Burton and Joan Collins. The following year, Grant was asked to feature in the BBC's daily topical programme, Tonight, to "sing" the news in the form of a "topical Calypso" (a pun on "tropical"). With journalist Bernard Levin providing words, Grant strung them together. Tonight was popular and made Grant a well-known public figure, the first black person to appear regularly on British television. However, not wanting to become typecast, he stepped down from this position after two and a half years.
His acting career continued apace and later in 1957 he appeared in Home of the Brave, an award-winning TV drama by Arthur Laurents, and travelled the following year to Jamaica for the filming of Calypso, in which he played the romantic lead.
In 1964, Grant appeared in the musical The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd. in which he was the first to perform the song "Feeling Good", later covered by many others. He included a version of the song on his 1965 album, Cy & I.
Grant's general frustration with the lack of good roles for black actors was briefly tempered in 1965 when he played the lead in Othello at the Phoenix Theatre in Leicester, a role for which white actors at the time routinely "blacked up".: 36–37 Between 1967 and 1968 he also voiced the character of Lieutenant Green in Gerry Anderson's Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons.
A brief return to the Bar in 1972 reflected Grant's disenchantment with show business as well as his growing politicisation. After six months at a Chambers in the Middle Temple, he decided that he no longer had any passion for law and resolved to challenge discrimination through the arts.: 38
Grant performed Caribbean calypso and folk songs in many countries, at venues including Esmeralda's Barn in London (1950s), the New Stanley Hotel, Nairobi (1973), Bricktops, Rome (1956), and for the GTV 9 station in Melbourne, Australia. In addition, he entertained British armed forces in Cyprus, the Maldives, Singapore and Libya. His concert appearances include the Kongresshalle of the Deutsches Museum in Munich (1963) and Queen Elizabeth Hall in London (1971). In 1989, he helped to organise the "One Love Africa, Save The Children International Music Festival" in Zimbabwe.
Grant recorded five LPs. His album Cool Folk (World Record Club, 1964) – featuring "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?", "Yellow Bird", "O Pato", "Blowin' in the Wind", "Work Song", and "Every Night When the Sun Goes Down" – is a collector's item. Other LPs include Cy Grant (Transatlantic Records), Cy & I (World Record Club), Ballads, Birds & Blues, (Reality Records) and Cy Grant Sings (Donegall Records). Two of Grant's singles, "King Cricket" and "The Constantine Calypso", recorded in 1966 for Pye Records, celebrate the lives of West Indian cricketers Garfield Sobers and Learie Constantine. The songs were featured in the 2009 BBC Two television documentary series Empire of Cricket.
Grant had extensive involvement in British radio broadcasting. The BBC Sound Archive contains more than 90 entries for his radio work, dating from 1954 to 1997. These include a series of six meditations based on 24 of the 81 chapters of the Tao te Ching for the BBC World Service in 1980, The Way of the Tao (Grant was a devotee of Taoism); The Calypso Chronicles, six programmes for BBC Radio 2 (1994); Panning for Gold, two programmes for Radio 2; Amazing Grace, Radio 2; and Day Light Come and Wild Blue, both for BBC Radio 4.
Grant discussed his experiences of being among the first generation of Afro-Caribbean actors in Britain in TV's Black Pioneers, broadcast on BBC Four in June 2007, and Black Screen Britain, Part 1: Ambassadors for the Race, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in 2009.
In collaboration with Zimbabwean John Mapondera, in 1974 Grant set up the Drum Arts Centre in London (not to be confused with The Drum in Birmingham) to provide a springboard and a national centre for black artistic talent. Laurence Olivier rebuffed Grant's invitation to become a patron of Drum, accusing him of being separatist. As recalled by Gus John, a Drum trustee (other trustees included Tania Rose, Chris Konyils, Helen McEachrane, Gurmukh Singh, Eric Smellie and Margaret Busby), Grant said of the prevailing mainstream climate at the time: "These people are simply incapable of seeing the world through our lenses, incapable of imagining for just one moment what it must be like for us to experience their system which to us is anything but as open as they would have us believe. They therefore see our self-organisation as an affront."
Considered a landmark in the development of black theatre, Drum counted among its highlights a series of workshops held in 1975 at Morley College by Steve Carter of the New York Negro Ensemble Company. This led to a production of Mustapha Matura's Bread at the Young Vic and workshops with the Royal National Theatre. In 1977, Ola Rotimi produced a Nigerian adaptation of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, titled The Gods Are Not To Blame, at the Greenwich Theatre and Jackson's Lane Community Centre; meanwhile, The Swamp Dwellers by Wole Soyinka was produced at the Commonwealth Institute Theatre. The Drum Arts Centre also premiered Sweet Talk by Michael Abbensetts at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in 1975. Among the exhibitions it mounted was Behind the Mask: Afro-Caribbean Poets and Playwrights in Words and Pictures at the Commonwealth Institute and the National Theatre in 1979.
Grant stood down as chair of the Drum Arts Centre in 1978 following internal disagreements, giving him the opportunity to concentrate on a one-man show adapted from Aimé Césaire's epic poem Cahier d'un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to My Native Land). A critique of European colonialism and values, it was cited by Grant as a major influence on his thought. After a platform performance at the National Theatre and a two-week production at the Theatre Upstairs, Royal Court Theatre, Grant embarked on a two-year national tour in 1977.
In 1981, Grant became director of Concord Multicultural Festivals, which in the course of the four years staged 22 multicultural festivals in cities in England and Wales, starting in Nottingham. These were followed by two national festivals in Devon (1986) and Gloucestershire (1987). Both lasted several months and involved a vast range of local, national and international artistes, as well as workshops, in an attempt to celebrate the cultural diversity of modern-day Britain and foster improved race relations.
In 2007, Grant helped open the London, Sugar and Slavery permanent exhibition hosted at the Museum of London Docklands.
Location: 54 Jacksons Lane, Highgate, London, N6 5SX