Michael J. Abbensetts
Michael J. Abbensetts

The UK is fortunate to have given birth to a host of excellent and versatile Black actors and directors, like Idris Elba, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Naomi Harris, John Boyega, Thandi Newton, and Steve McQueen, only the contemporary names which come from a long, rich tradition that is sometimes invisible to a broader public.

Michael Abbensetts, one of the first Black playwrights and screenwriters to give Black British actors a voice and platform, is a figure whose contributions may not be widely known, but are deeply significant. His work, often described as the best black playwright of his generation, has left an indelible mark on the Black British community, giving them a voice and a platform that was previously unheard of.

Michael was born in British Guiana, now Guyana, in 1938. After studying in Canada, he came to live in Britain in 1963, driven by a passion for storytelling and a desire to make a difference. He soon developed a keen interest in writing short stories and amateur dramatics, a hobby that would later become his life's work.

By 1973, he debuted with his first theatre production called ‘Sweet Talk.' Directed by Stephen Frears, it starred Don Warrington and Mona Hammond and set Michael on the road to future success.

In 1977, the BBC aired Michael Abbensetts’ ‘Black Christmas,’ a powerful drama that delved into the experiences of a Black family during the festive season. It has been described by TV historian Stephen Bourne as “one of the best television dramas of the 1970s”.

Michael's achievements were not just groundbreaking, they were historic. He became the first Black playwright to be commissioned to write a television drama series. His creation, ‘Empire Road,’ not only ran for two series but also made history as the only Black drama, with a predominantly Black cast, to be aired on prime-time TV in Britain. This was a significant milestone, not just for Michael, but for the entire Black British community, and it continues to inspire and pave the way for future generations.

Michael continued to write for TV and theatre, and in 1990, he bought a property on Buckley Road, Kilburn, where he wrote the series Little Napoleans for Channel 4.

Michael died in 2016, leaving behind a legacy that continues to resonate with the Black British community. He is remembered as the first writer to give Black British actors a voice on British TV in a series that represented the lived experiences of Black people in the UK.

His work not only paved the way for future generations of Black playwrights and screenwriters but also played a crucial role in shaping the narrative of Black British cultural history. In a fitting tribute to Michael Abbensetts, a commemorative blue plaque was unveiled on his former home in Buckley Road, Kilburn, where he resided for 16 years. This plaque serves as a permanent reminder of his contributions to Black British theater and television. His family, in collaboration with the community, organized a series of events to honor his life and work. These included the distribution of a commemorative publication that featured his most notable works and a reception at the Kiln theatre, neighbours and friends, and actors and directors, who had worked with Michael shared their memories and experiences of his work and the lasting legacy he has left behind.

“My dad would be so very proud to have his achievements and legacy marked in such a permanent and special way.” Justine Mutch, daughter of Michael Abbensetts.

“When it comes to Black writers in Britain, Michael Abbensetts is like John the Baptiste. He was the first to give Black Briton a voice on TV. His work heralded in a new age of African and Caribbean acting talent which has gone on to change the world of TV and theatre.” Dr Jak Beula, CEO of Nubian Jak Community Trust

"Michael Abbensetts wrote about people he knew. He rebranded the image of Black people in British Theatre and Television to give a more meaningful representation of their experiences: their strengths, weaknesses, love, joy, and pain, which make us all human." Michelle Asantewa, Writer and Activist

"I always remind my students that Michael Abbensetts was among the Windrush generation pioneers and one of the first writers from that generation to give voice to our experiences in Britain."Anton Phillips, Actor, Director.

“It's great to be on board commemorating Michael Abbensetts. I remember that being in one of his productions was what we actors yearned for!” Kesheniwa Aghaji, Artist, Actor, Nubian Jak Community Trust.

“Michael always had time for me when I was starting out as a playwright. It was not only his encouragement but his legacy that gave me the belief that I could be a playwright.” Oladipo (Dipo) Agboluaje.

“…I could only have got here by standing on the shoulders of giants, and I’d like to give a shout out to some of these giants now [...] Eddy Grant; Horis Ové; Norman Beaton; Michael Abbensetts; Mustapha Matura…” (quoted with permission: Mobo Awards 2015, Life Time Achievement Award acceptance speech). Sir Lenny Henry

Location: 41 Buckley Road, London, NW6 9LY