One of the greatest black British actors of a generation. We asked if Channel 4 let us down ? Do black artists have fantasies? What lessons would you give black artists today?
Victor has been described as the "best actor of a generation”, a talented actor who has graced our TV screens and our theatre. He is a superb dancer and a world class reggae artist. In the 80's he starred in the TV comedy sit com, "No Problem", in the 90's big budget movies with Steven Seagal, and in the 00's he was back on TV, with parts in Holby City and Doctors.
Waiting for Victor in a fashionable London Club, I watched him come in with no swagger or ceremony, and when he smiled the genuine nature of his personality and charm came through.
Paul: In discussions with artists in the community I asked who was the most talented artist and your name has come up many times. Has it been a problem being blessed with so much talent?!
Victor: I am a product of my upbringing. From a young age I loved all the arts and got into theatre through a family member who had started a St Lucian amateur theatre group at the Stanley Road Community Centre, in London. Leee John from Imagination was also part of that group.
Paul: Was this when your acting talent was spotted?
Victor: Yes, I got some lead roles and at the age of 15 I was beginning to carve a small reputation as someone who had natural acting talent. From there "I met a beautiful girl" (laughter) who said that I should come to her drama club - Anna Scher Children’s Theatre in Islington. At that time I was still at school and belonged to a dance drama group at the school, and they needed voice overs for some of the shows. My dance teacher’s husband had a studio at their house, so I went there to do the voice overs. I don't know how it happened but I started singing and we seemed to connect in terms of music.
Paul: So almost everything happened at the same time; acting, dancing and singing?
Victor: Yes, I did not really have a dancing career but yes, acting and singing took off at the same time. For many of my performances at Anna Scher’s in particular I was getting great praise but I felt I was not getting anywhere. This also applied to other young actors at the time so three of us from Anna Scher’s thought, let's write a play, put it on in a pub theatre and invite as many directors and agents as possible to showcase our talents and hopefully get a foot in the door as it were.
Victor: This was no way a reflection of Anna, she was great and I can’t thank her enough - it was more a reflection of the difficulty that actors have in getting work and sometimes if you don’t take personal initiative you won't get anywhere in the acting profession.
Victor: The play was a three hander and therefore afforded us a chance to portray many characters and subsequently a director called Charlie Hanson came to see the show. He then cast me in a play called "Welcome Home Jacko" (1979) written by Mustava Matura. The play examines the lives of four West Indian teenagers and is concerned with the experience of disaffected second generation young black Britons. The play was about young men who thought they were Rastas but really they were just a bunch of delinquents. It was about the bravado of youth and the struggles of manhood.
Paul: There must have been some element of truth in the story considering the pressure that the black community was facing in the early 1980s.
Victor: Yes, there was, it was really hard for second generation black youth; the struggles of those days are often forgotten.
Paul: Was this the play that really got your acting career going?
Victor: Yes, but at the same time I was still recording with my dance choreographer’s husband. My first song was released in 1977, was called "The World is a Ghetto" (laughter), then I did a tune called "No money No love" (more laughter) . This was the first song on a label, Burning Sounds. My first hit was "At the Club" which achieved No1 in the reggae charts.
Paul: What did that mean for you, was it life changing financially?
Victor: In total it sold over 20,000 copies, not a life changing figure. I also had other hits and was signed to Epic in 1983 (the same label as Michael Jackson). Around the same time I did Babylon and not long after played the male lead in Burning Illusion. ‘No Problem’ was also running at this time.
Paul: This is the time that everybody would have known who you were. How did it feel?
Victor: It felt great because I was getting love from people whom I didn’t know, asking if they could hug me and so on – it was incredible.
Paul: Why didn’t you buy a house in St Lucia?
Victor: I wish someone had advised me to send £100 a month to St Lucia; I would have been a millionaire long ago. It was 75 cents a square yard for land then; I would have had acres by now. I wish I had had good advice at that time.
Paul: "No problem" was a defining black TV programme.
Victor: Yes, in the memory of the black community you are right, but you know when we first did ‘No Problem’ nobody bought advertising space in the ad breaks (laughter) all you saw was a clock with the hand going around for 60 seconds, it felt as if Channel 4 didn't want the nation to love the programme, maybe it was before it’s time.
Paul: Were you not also in ‘Black on Black’ with Trevor Phillips at the time?
Victor: Yes, it was a black magazine programme and I played a character called "Moves".
Paul: ‘No Problem’ ended after three seasons. It seems to have coincided with the end of the black movie era as well. No more black films. Why do you think that happened?
Victor: It’s about dependency; Babylon was written by Martin Stellman (Quadrophenia) and Franco Rosso,( Italian) who also directed it. Burning Illusion was written and directed by Menelik Shabazz who fought hard. Having won awards for ‘Burning an Illusion’ you would have thought that Menelik would get plenty of work, but he didn’t. We shall see with Steve Mc Queen who has proved himself as a great director - that should be the criteria.
Paul: In the film industry it appears that most of the people who get Oscars find afterwards that their careers tend to tank.
Victor: In the old days that was not true!!
Paul: I did see a programme about the curse of the Oscars, is the industry by definition fickle?
Victor: It never used to be.
Paul: After all your achievements – movies, records, TV etc. - what happened?
Victor: Then I grew my dreadlocks. I got disillusioned.
Paul: So you gave up the Afro and ‘dreaded’ up?!
Victor: I got disillusioned.
Victor: I was more circumspect about parts I was being offered; the same characters all the time. Mostly negative and poor story lines. I don’t mind playing negative characters in good stories but the scripts were not coming my way.
Paul: After growing your dreads’ in the mid 80’s - nothing really happened?
Victor: I was going through a period when I was trying to understand my identity, who I was and what I was doing. I was being introspective.
Paul: Was that because you felt you had lost your identity?
Victor: No, no, I was thinking more about where do I go from here...
Paul: The work was not coming through? Did you think you deserved better?
Victor: No, my background taught me that you are the architect of your own destiny. I was not blaming anybody. I live in England – who is going to want their daughters to be running after black guys?
Paul: Let’s explore that; a white guy I used to play football with once said to me, ‘I don’t like the music because I can’t see myself in Michael Jackson’. I struggled to understand why he could not listen to music without seeing the artists colour. For you Victor that meant that no matter how talented you may be, a white father would not want a picture of you on his daughter’s bedroom wall.
Victor: No, look what Michael had to do.
Paul: It was the torture for him to be successful.
Victor: Nobody saw beyond that (colour), look what he did to himself. But no one is thinking how did he come to the point where he felt he had to do that to himself..
Victor: He was the biggest thing but who wants their daughters going out with a broad nose black geezer? Maybe it was calculated on his part but psychologically he eventually fulfilled the sort of poster that your daughter could put up on the wall.
Paul: The psychodrama of the time – identity and place within society in the 80’s
Victor: Look at Dennis Brown for goodness sake. He appeared on Top of Pops and smashed it – he sang live, a great performance but did they ever have him again on Top of the Pops – NO! We can’t have these guys coming on and singing like that!
Paul: When I asked Claire Benedict who was the greatest black actor she had ever worked with she said you. Your career reflects a generation of artists who were very talented but never really moved on to the mainstream.
Victor: Maybe to move on you needed to fulfil a certain stereotype – which I didn’t.
Paul: That period was a time when you began to assert your identity.
Paul: What you were saying was take me for my talent. Most people should be able to see through the colour.
Victor: I also wanted to be self sufficient. The only way we will succeed is to be self sufficient and not be dependent.
Paul: In the mid 80’s you started this period of reflection – how long did it last?
Victor: I was still singing but I was not making records. There were rumours that I was taking drugs on account of the fact that I turned down this big movie which was to be filmed in St Lucia of all places, so as far as people were concerned I had to be out of it to turn that down .
Paul: Do you regret that?
Victor: No – at the time that’s how I felt; I did not want to play that type of idiot. The character in the script could not climb trees, but the white character could. All the things a black person could naturally do my character couldn’t but the white character could. It just did not sit right with me. Turning down that role sent a signal to the market that Victor was crazy – he turned down a 20k role – he must be on drugs. No, I don’t regret it.
Paul: What about the early 90’s?
Victor: In late 1989/early 1990 I got a part to play Ras Seymour Mc Clean in a TV film directed by John Dollar called the Book Liberator. It was based on a true story about a Rasta, who joined the British Museum, extracted priceless books and artefacts stolen from Ethiopia that he wanted to bring attention to, just like the Elgin marbles.
I then did a film that I didn’t like. I took advice and should have really listened to myself. The film was called Marked for Death starring Steven Seagal.
Paul: This was your big Hollywood break!
Victor: Yes, but of course it didn’t work out like that. I told them about my misgivings. The script was not something that I was totally sold on. I was assured that they had done their research but apparently people love it!
Paul: What was your role?
Victor: Originally I went there to play a character called ‘Monkey’ who was always getting into fights and losing to Steven Seagal’s character.
Paul: After all the personal soul searching, you end up playing someone called Monkey!! LAUGHTER
Victor: The irony is not lost on me. I was questioning many of the scenes and one day the producer said that they wanted Victor the actor, not Victor the HUMAN. I was not supposed to question. They then asked me to play another part called Nestor; ‘Would I mind ( American accent) We looked at the rushes and things and you are only five foot nine and Steven is such a big guy that we do not want people to feel sorry for you’ (laughter).
Paul: Were there no other black actors in the movie?
Victor: There were lots, I even asked one of the lead black actors to accompany me to talk to Steven about making the storyline better. But Basil Wallace who played Screwface said something to me I will always remember, on reflection maybe this was the real reason I had gone to America to hear these words; he said ‘Victor, I live here - don’t you want me to work again’?
Paul: He gave you the real politick of the movie business in America.
Victor: Basil said ‘you can go back to England; you have to understand that we are taking part in a white man’s fantasy and in his fantasy he can do what he wants. You’ve got your fantasies; I’ve got mine, go and write yours, I’ll be in it’.
Paul: Did you listen to him?
Victor: I understood what he was saying, but I am not sure I heard him. However, by the time they changed my character I wasn’t really in the film anyway.
Paul: They got rid of the troublemaker!
Victor: Yes. I went through the motions and got out. I was lucky I was able to get out of some of the ridiculous voodoo scenes. Thank god for that. I killed myself in the movie in more ways than one.
Paul: After you returned to England things must have looked pretty bleak?
Victor: A friend of mine called Calvin Simpson died and many in the black acting community got together and put on a performance. At that time the black acting fraternity was very close. From that we developed ‘the Posse’ in memory of Calvin.
Paul: The Posse were: Michael Buffong, Robbie Gee, Roger Griffiths, Gary McDonald, Sylvester Williams, Brian Bovell and Eddie Nestor.
Victor: Yes, we started at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, and we were extremely successful. In fact I do not remember a show that was not packed out. We did that from about 1993 to 1997, including Armed and Dangerous which was one of our most successful acts. We were lucky to tour and financially it was lucrative.
Paul: So why did you break up?
Victor: There were issues and it was a shame, we should have gone on to make movies, it was one of the most productive periods of my life.
Paul: Of that group who has really made it?
Victor: Robbie has been the most successful in terms of films and body of work; he does stand up with Eddie. Eddie has done really well against the odds, presenting Drive Time on Radio London.
Paul: But none of them have become major stars.
Victor: Not yet.
Paul: That’s fascinating; you can’t shape films and plays unless you are in a position of power.
Paul: Why have none of you made it big in mainstream media? You have acted, danced and directed. What’s holding back black talent?
Victor: Micheal Buffong is very powerful. (Director of Talluwo Arts Theatre).
Paul: It’s a minority theatre, it’s not mainstream, no one seems to have crossed over.
Paul: What advice would you give a young black person entering the industry now?
Victor: Perhaps I would advise them not to do it. If you aspire or dream of getting to the top the best way would be to start with your own company – learn the ropes that way. The track record has to be tangible. I feel there are a few of hard lessons here:
• There is glass ceiling accept it and try and break through it.
• You need to go your own way – set up your own company.
• You need a level of financial independence.
• You need to be able to fail, but most importantly, develop the resilience to keep going.
The Posse was the blueprint for the next generation. It was teamwork at its best. We could not go to the next stage but the infrastructure was there. We had the producers and the writers all working together, the formula needed to develop the skills to ensure that you cannot be ignored for the larger roles in the industry.
Paul: Thanks Victor, it’s been a pleasure. We will have to talk about the 21st Century next time!