8 November 1919|
Beterverwagting, British Guiana
|Died||13 February 2010
London, England, UK
|Occupation||Actor, musician, writer, poet|
|Style||Calypso music, Folk music, Steelpan music|
Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (1967–68)
|Title||Honorary Fellow of Roehampton University|
Cy Grant (8 November 1919 – 13 February 2010) was a Guyanese actor, musician, writer and poet. In the 1950s, he became the first black person to be featured regularly on television in the United Kingdom, mostly due to his appearances on the BBC current affairs show Tonight.
Following service in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War, Grant worked as an actor and singer, before establishing the Drum Arts Centre in the 1970s. In the 1980s, he was appointed director of Concord Multicultural Festivals. A published poet and author of several books, including his 2007 memoir Blackness and the Dreaming Soul, Grant was made an Honorary Fellow of Roehampton University in 1997, and a member of the Scientific and Medical Network in 2001. In 2008, he assisted in the founding of an online archive to trace and commemorate Caribbean airmen of the Second World War.
Grant was born in the village of Beterverwagting, Demerara, 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 a music teacher originally from Antigua. At the age of 11, he moved with his family to New Amsterdam, Berbice. After leaving high school, Grant worked as a clerk in the office of a stipendiary magistrate but was unable to study law overseas due to a lack of funds.
In 1941, Grant joined the Royal Air Force, which had extended recruitment to non-white candidates following heavy losses in the early years of the Second World War. One of approximately 500 young men recruited from the Caribbean as aircrew, he was commissioned as an officer after training in England as a navigator. He joined 103 Squadron, based at RAF Elsham Wolds in Lincolnshire, becoming one of a seven-man crew of a Lancaster Bomber. In 1943, on his third mission, Flight Lieutenant Grant was shot down over the Netherlands during the Battle of the Ruhr. He parachuted to safety into a field but was captured by German forces and imprisoned in Stalag Luft III camp, 160 kilometres (99 mi) east of Berlin. He was liberated by the Allied Forces in 1945. In 2007, Grant participated in the filming of the documentary Into the Wind (2011), in which he discusses his experiences as an RAF navigator.
After the war, Grant decided to pursue his original ambition to study law, perceiving it as a means to challenge racism and social injustice. 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 was unable to 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.
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. 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) and in his own television series, For Members Only (broadcast on Associated Television).
In 1956, Grant appeared alongside Nadia Cattouse and Errol John in the BBC TV drama Man From The Sun, whose characters are mostly Caribbean immigrants, and 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 the words, Grant strung them together. Tonight was popular and made Grant, the first black person to appear regularly on British television, a well-known public figure. 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. 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". 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.
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 TV documentary 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, The Way of the Tao (1980); 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 to provide a springboard for black artistic talent. Considered a landmark in the development of black theatre, among its highlights was 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 the 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, Grant cited it 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.
Caribbean Aircrew Archive
Launched in 2006, the Caribbean Aircrew Archive is a permanent record of West Indian volunteers who served in the RAF but whose contribution has since been overlooked. It is the collaboration of Grant and Hans Klootwijk, author of Lancaster W4827: Failed to Return, which recounts the fate of Grant and his fellow airmen after their plane was shot down over the Netherlands in 1943. The book is based on research carried out by Klootwijk's father, Joost Klootwijk, who was 11 when the bomber crashed into a farmhouse in his village. With regular updates by surviving aircrew and relatives, as well as by military historians, the online archive has established that West Indians in the RAF numbered roughly 440 and that at least 70 were commissioned and 103 decorated.
- Ring of Steel, Pan Sound and Symbol, published by Macmillan Caribbean in 1999, discusses the history, science and musicology of the steelpan.
- A Member of the Royal Air Force of Indeterminate Race, published by Woodfield Publishing in 2006, takes its title from the translation of a caption that appeared underneath Grant's photograph in a German newspaper after his detention as a POW.
- Rivers of Time: Collected Poems of Cy Grant, published by Naked Light in 2006, documents Grant's poetical journey through life and considers the influences that have contributed to his understanding of himself and the world.
- Blackness and the Dreaming Soul: Race, Identity and the Materialistic Paradigm, published by Shoving Leopard in 2007. A mixture of autobiography, cultural study and philosophical exposition, the book tells the story of Grant's journey of self-discovery and the major influences upon it. It is a critique of the perceived dualistic nature of Western culture that has resulted in the "alienation" of humans from both nature and themselves.
- Our Time Is Now: Six Essays on the Need for Re-Awakening, a collection of essays published in 2010.
Stage, film and television credits
- Member of the Laurence Olivier Festival of Britain Company, London and New York (1951)
- Safari (1955) – Chief Massai
- Man From The Sun (TV, 1956)
- Sea Wife (1957) – "Number 4"
- Home of the Brave (TV, 1957)
- Tonight (TV, 1957-60)
- Calypso (1958)
- The Encyclopædist (TV, 1961)
- Freedom Road: Songs of Negro Protest (TV, 1964)
- Othello – Othello (Phoenix Theatre, Leicester, 1965)
- Cindy Ella (Garrick Theatre, London, 1966)
- Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons – Lieutenant Green (TV, 1967-68)
- The Persuaders! (TV, one episode, 1971)
- Shaft in Africa (1973) – Emir Ramila
- Softly, Softly: Taskforce (TV, one episode, 1974)
- The Iceman Cometh (Royal Shakespeare Company, 1976)
- At the Earth's Core (1976) – Ra
- Return to My Native Land (Royal National Theatre and Royal Court Theatre; national tour; 1977-79)
- Blake's 7 (TV, 1980)
- Night and Day (Derby Theatre, 1981)
- Metal Mickey (TV, 1981-82) – Mr Young
- Maskarade (Cochrane Theatre, London, 1994)
- Obituary, Daily Telegraph (London), 15 February 2010
- Cy Grant: Actor, Singer and Writer, The Times (London), 16 February 2010.
- Obituary, The Guardian (London), 18 February 2010.
- Obituary, The Independent (London), 27 February 2010.
- "About Cy Grant". the Cy Grant Website. Archived from the original on 24 March 2010. Retrieved 14 September 2012.
- "Millennium Celebration by John Moat (Didymus)". Resurgence. Archived from the original on 27 September 2007. Retrieved 14 September 2012.
- Grant 2007, pp. 3-14.
- "Moving Here: Stories: Cy Grant from Guyana". movinghere.org.uk. Retrieved 16 February 2010.
- Black History, Issue 365, Spring/Summer 2009, Interview with Cy Grant by Angela Cobbinah.
- Grant 2007, pp. 36-37.
- Grant 2007, p. 38.
- Professor Gus John and Dr Samina Zahir, Speaking Truth to Power: a Diversity of Voices in Theatre and the Arts in England, Arts Council England, July 2008.
- "Return to my Native Land", the Cy Grant Website.
- "Flyers of the Caribbean". BBC Online: London. Retrieved 14 February 2010.
- "Book Review: Our Time Is Now: Six Essays on the Need for Re-Awakening". Islington Tribune. Retrieved 14 February 2010.
- Grant, Cy (2007). Blackness and the Dreaming Soul - a Sense of Belonging: Multiculturalism and the Western Paradigm. Shoving Leopard. ISBN 978-1-905565-08-5.