Life and work of black theatre pioneer Cy Grant to be marked with blue plaque at icon's Highgate home
PUBLISHED: 09:25 10 November 2017 | UPDATED: 09:32 10 November 2017
The life and pioneering work of the first black person to make regular appearances on British TV screens is to be marked with the unveiling of a blue plaque.
Cyril Grant, known as Cy, was an actor, barrister, musician, poet and Royal Air Force navigator shot down by the Luftwaffe and kept as a prisoner of war in World War II.
Born 1919 in British Guiana, Grant – who lived in Jackson’s Lane, Highgate, with his wife Dorith for 50 years before his death in 2010 – went on to sign up with the RAF joining 103 squadron based at Elsham Woods.
Speaking before Saturday’s blue plaque ceremony, organised by The Nubian Jak Community Trust, Grant’s five children released a joint statement which said: “Our dad would have been so proud. This is a huge honour and we are delighted with this commemoration, which will be a lasting reminder of his achievements and one that future generations of our family will treasure.”
The son of a Moravian minister and music teacher mother crash landed in The Netherlands during the Battle of the Ruhr in 1943 ending up in Stalag Luft III prisoner of war camp made famous in the 1963 film ‘The Great Escape’.
On his return to Britain Grant’s hopes of becoming a barrister were dashed when he was unable to secure a job after qualifying in 1950 so instead he turned to acting.
His rise to fame was helped after a successful audition in front of Laurence Olivier saw him gain roles at the St James Theatre, Victoria.
And in the 1950s Grant became a familiar face on the BBC’s ‘Tonight’ show – with journalist and broadcaster Bernard Levin of ‘That Was the Week That Was’ fame – singing the news in a “topical Calypso” style.
He went on to appear alongside jazz singer Dame Cleo Laine, actor Richard Burton and actress Dame Joan Collins as well as to host his own television series ‘For Members Only’.
From 1967 to 1968 he famously voiced the character of Lieutenant Green in Gerry Anderson’s ‘Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons’ – the look of Lt. Green being based on Grant himself.
In 1972, after a six month stint at The Middle Temple Chambers, he decided to challenge discrimination through the arts later founding the Drum Arts Centre in London, though Olivier balked at an offer to become a patron seeing the venture as “separatist”.
Jak Beula of the Nubian Jak Community Trust, said: “It seems like just yesterday I was sitting and speaking with the legend Cy Grant. There are very few people who lived a life as varied as his, and on November 11 he will take his place among the handful of Londoners honoured with a blue plaque in the capital.”
After Grant died at the age of 90 the Bomber Command Association honoured the officer at a ceremony in the House of Lords as an example of how black and white service personnel fought together in the two world wars.
In Saturday’s event it is expected war veterans, in-service men and women, the mayor of Haringey Cllr Stephen Mann and Grant’s former show-business contemporaries, family and friends will be in attendance.
On his legacy as an actor Frank Cousins of The Dark and Light Theatre Company said: “Cy Grant was our icon. At that time his was the only black face on TV we could connect with, especially on a cold winter’s night. There were others, but he had charm and was charismatic.
“He was my role model. To both English and Caribbean viewers he was dubbed the British counterpart of artist Harry Belafonte. He was charming, witty, and when I needed help in raising money for the Dark and Light Theatre, with a concert at the Fairfield Hall, he offered his services free.
“He will be remembered as one of our stalwarts in the world of black British theatre.”
The ceremony begins at 1.15pm at 54 Jackson’s Lane on Saturday.