Michael Abbensetts

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Michael Abbensetts (born 8 June 1938) is a Guyana-born British writer, who is considered by many "the best Black playwright to emerge from his generation,[1][better source needed][2] and acknowledged as having given "Caribbeans a real voice in Britain".[3][by whom?][4]


Born in Georgetown, British Guiana (now Guyana), the son of Neville John (a doctor) and Elaine Abbensetts,[5] Abbensetts attended Queen's College there from 1952 to 1956, then Stanstead College, Quebec, Canada, and Sir George Williams University, in Montreal (1960–61), before moving to England "around 1963".[6] He became a British citizen in 1974.[7]

Writing career[edit]

Abbensetts began his writing career with short stories, but decided to turn to playwriting after seeing a performance of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger. Abbensetts was further inspired when he went to England and visited the Royal Court Theatre, Britain's premier theatre of new writing, where he was soon to become resident dramatist. Sweet Talk, Abbensetts' first play, was performed there in 1973, with a cast including Mona Hammond and Don Warrington, directed by Stephen Frears.[8]

In the same year, The Museum Attendant, his first television play, was broadcast on BBC2. Directed by Stephen Frears, the drama was, Abbensetts says, based on his own early experiences as a security guard at the Tower of London. Black Christmas, also directed by Frears,[9] was broadcast on BBC TV in 1977 and featured Carmen Munroe and Norman Beaton. It has been called by Stephen Bourne "one of the best television dramas of the 1970s".[10]

During the 1970s and 1980s, a number of Abbensetts' plays were produced for the London theatre, including in the West End. Alterations appeared in 1978, followed by Samba (1980), In The Mood (1981), Outlaw (1983), Eldorado (1983) and The Lion (1993).[11] Inner City Blues, Crime and Passion, Roadrunner and Fallen Angel were produced on television.

Abbensetts' success led to his participation in what came to be considered British television's first Black soap opera, Empire Road (BBC, 1978–79), for which he wrote two series. He has said: "I never really liked it being called a Soap. It was The Daily Mail that called it that. I always thought of it as a drama series, where each episode had a separate story."[6] The second series was directed by Horace Ové, "establishing a production unit with a Black director, Black writer and Black actors."[9] The cast featured Norman Beaton, Corinne Skinner-Carter, Joseph Marcell, Rudolph Walker and Wayne Laryea.

Abbensetts' television productions continued – Easy Money (1981) and Big George Is Dead (Channel 4, 1987, starring Norman Beaton, Linzi Drew and Ram John Holder)[12] and the mini-series Little Napoleons (1994, Channel 4).[13] Little Napoleons is a four-part comic-drama depicting the rivalry between two solicitors, played by Saeed Jaffrey and Norman Beaton, who become Labour councillors.

Teaching and fellowships[edit]

In 1983–84, Abbensetts was Visiting Professor of Drama at Carnegie-Mellon University. From September 2002, he was a Project Fellow in the Caribbean Studies Department of the University of North London. He was a Fellow at City and Guilds of London Art School, 2006–09.[9]


On Sunday, 9 December 2012, a rehearsed reading of Sweet Talk, directed by Anton Phillips, was held at the Tricycle Theatre in tribute to Michael Abbensetts.[14]

Selected works[edit]

Stage plays[edit]

Television plays[edit]

  • The Museum Attendant, BBC2, 1973
  • Inner City Blues, 1974;
  • Crime and Passion, 1975;
  • Roadrunner, 1977;
  • Black Christmas, BBC, 1977.
  • Empire Road, series, BBC, 1978–79.
  • Big George Is Dead, Channel 4, 1987.
  • Little Napoleons, mini-series, Channel 4, 1994.

Radio plays[edit]

  • Sweet Talk, BBC Radio, 1974.
  • Home Again, BBC Radio, 1975.
  • The Sunny Side of the Street, BBC Radio, 1977.
  • Brothers of the Sword, BBC Radio, 1978.
  • Alterations, BBC World Service, 1980.
  • The Fast Lane, Capital Radio, 1980.
  • The Dark Horse, BBC Radio, 1981.


  • Sweet Talk, London: Methuen, 1974.
  • Empire Road (novelisation of TV series), London: Grenada, 1979.
  • Four Plays (Sweet Talk; Alterations; In the Mood; El Dorado), London: Oberon Books, 2001. ISBN 9781840021790


  1. ^ Guyana Diaspora, 24 April 2006.
  2. ^ "Abbensetts, Michael, British Writer", Museum of Broadcast Communications (MBC).
  3. ^ Sarita Malik, "Abbensetts, Michael (1938-)", BFI Screenonline.
  4. ^ Theatre Communications Group
  5. ^ "Michael Abbensetts Biography (1938–)", filmreference.com
  6. ^ a b Michelle Stoby, "Black British Drama After Empire Road: An interview with Michael Abbensetts", Wasafiri, Issue 35, Spring 2002, pp. 3–8.
  7. ^ "Michael Abbensetts (1938 – )", Dollee.com
  8. ^ Stephen Bourne, "The Black Presence on the London Stage, 1825–1965: Some Key Players and a Timeline".
  9. ^ a b c "Michael Abbensetts", Royal Literary Fund.
  10. ^ Stephen Bourne, Black in the British Frame: The Black Experience in British Film and Television, Continuum, 2005, p. 200.
  11. ^ "Michael Abbensetts", National Theatre, Black Plays Archive.
  12. ^ "Big George Is Dead" at IMDb.
  13. ^ "Little Napoleons" at IMDb.
  14. ^ John Gulliver, "Playwright who gave black actors a dramatic entrance", Camden New Journal, 13 December 2012.
  • Leavy, Suzan. "Abbensetts an Example". Television Today (London, England), 19 May 1994.
  • Walters, Margaret. "Taking Race for Granted". New Society (London, England), 16 November 1978.

External links[edit]