Cy Grant

Cy Grant
Cy Grant
Born 8 November 1919(1919-11-08)
Beterverwagting, British Guiana
Died 13 February 2010(2010-02-13) (aged 90)
London, Great Britain

Cy Grant (8 November 1919 – 13 February 2010[1]) was a Guyanese actor, singer, writer and poet, who in the 1950s became the first black person to appear regularly on British television.[2][3][4] Following service in the Royal Air Force during World War II, he worked as an actor and singer, before setting up the Drum Arts Centre in the 1970s[5] appointed director of Concord Multicultural Festivals in the early 1980s.[6] A published poet and author of several books, including his 2007 memoir Blackness and the Dreaming Soul, he was an Honorary Fellow of Roehampton University, a title awarded in 1997, and since 2001 a member of the Scientific and Medical Network. In 2008 he was instrumental in setting up an online archive to trace and commemorate Caribbean aircrew from World War II. A father of four children, Grant lived in Highgate, London, with his wife Dorith.


Early life

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 because of lack of funds.[7]

Career in the Royal Air Force

In 1941 he joined the Royal Air Force, which had begun to admit non-white candidates following great losses in the early years of the war. One of around 500 young men recruited from the Caribbean for aircrew, he was commissioned as an officer after training in England as a navigator. He joined 103 Squadron based at Elsham Wolds in Lincolnshire, one of a seven-man crew of a Lancaster Bomber. On his third mission, Flight Lieutenant Grant was shot down over the Netherlands during the 1943 RAF offensive, Battle of the Ruhr. He parachuted to safety in a field but was captured by the Germans and was made a prisoner of war in Stalag Luft III camp, 160 km east of Berlin. He was finally liberated by Allied Forces in 1945.[8]

In 2007 Grant took part in filming for the documentary Into the Wind, directed by Steven Hatton. The film, a feature length documentary about the veterans of Bomber Command, features Cy talking about his wartime experiences as a Lancaster navigator.

Showbusiness career

After World War II, he decided to pursue his original ambition and study law, seeing it as a way to challenge racism and social injustice. He became a member of the Middle Temple in London and qualified as a barrister in 1950. Despite his distinguished war record and legal qualifications he was unable to find work at the Bar and decided to take up acting. Apart from earning him a living, he saw acting as way to improve his diction for when he finally entered Chambers.[9]

His first role was for a Moss Empire tour in which he starred in a play called 13 Death St., Harlem. He career received a boost after successfully auditioning for Laurence Olivier and his Festival of Britain Company, which led to appearances at the St. James Theatre in London and the Ziegfeld Theatre, New York.

But faced with limited roles for black actors, he decided to increase his earning potential by becoming a singer, having learnt to sing and play the guitar as a youngster in Guiana. This proved very successful and he was soon appearing in revues and top cabaret venues like Esmeralda's Barn, singing Caribbean and other folk songs, as well as on BBC radio (The Third Programme and the Overseas Service) and on his own Associated TeleVision series, For Members Only.

In 1956, he co-starred with Nadia Cattouse and Errol John in a BBC TV drama Man from the sun, about Caribbean migrants, and appeared in the World War II film Sea Wife, alongside Richard Burton and Joan Collins (1957).

In 1957, Grant was asked to take part in the BBC's daily topical show, Tonight, to sing the news in calypso. The journalist Bernard Levin provided the words and Grant strung them together. Tonight was hugely popular and turned Grant, the first black face to appear regularly on TV, into a household name. But he left after two and a half years, anxious not to become typecast.[9]

His acting career continued apace and 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".[10] Between 1967 and 1968 he also voiced the role of Lieutenant Green in Gerry Anderson's Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, becoming the first regular black male character in televised science fiction.

A brief return to the Bar in 1972 reflected Grant's disenchantment with show business as well as his growing politicisation. After spending six months at a Chambers in the Middle Temple, he decided he no longer had any passion for the law and resolved to challenge discrimination through the arts.[11]

Cultural activism

In collaboration with Zimbabwean John Mapondera, Grant set up the Drum Arts Centre in London to provide a springboard for black artistic talent in 1974. Considered a landmark in the development of black theatre,[12] among its highlights was a series of summer workshops in 1975 at Morley College run by Steve Carter of New York's Negro Ensemble Theatre. This led to a production of Bread by Mustapha Matura at the Young Vic and workshops with the National Theatre for two consecutive years. In 1977 Ola Rotimi produced his Nigerian adaptation of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, titled The Gods are not to Blame, at Jackson's Lane Community Centre and Greenwich Theatre; while The Swamp Dwellers by Wole Soyinka was produced at the Commonwealth Institute theatre. Drum, which was based in London's Covent Garden, also premiered Sweet Talk by Michael Abbensetts at the 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 Drum in 1978 following internal disagreements, leaving him room to concentrate on his one-man show of the epic prose poem by Aimé Césaire (Cahier d'un retour au pays Natal),[13] an attack on colonialism and European values that Grant cites as a major influence on his thinking.[9] After a platform performance at the National Theatre and a two-week production at the Theatre Upstairs, Royal Court Theatre, he began a two-year nationwide tour in 1977.

In 1981, Grant became director of Concord Multicultural Festivals in the 1980s, which over the next four years staged 22 multicultural festivals in cities in England and Wales, beginning in Nottingham. These were followed by two county-wide festivals in Devon (1986) and Gloucestershire (1987). Both lasted several months and involved a vast range of local, national and international artists, as well as workshops, in an attempt to celebrate the cultural diversity of present-day Britain.

Recording career

Grant performed Caribbean folk songs and calypso all over the world, including Esmeralda's Barn in London (residency, 1950s); the New Stanley Hotel, Nairobi (1973); Bricktops, Rome (1956); and for GTV 9, Melbourne. In addition, he entertained British 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, London (1971). In 1989 he helped organise the One Love Africa, Save The Children International Music Festival, in Zimbabwe.

Grant recorded five LPs. His 1964 LP Cool Folk (World Record Club), which features Where have all the flowers gone? Yellow Bird, O Pato, Blowing in the Wind, Work Song, and Every Night When the Sun Goes Down, is a collector's item.

His other LPs are Cy Grant (Transatlantic Records); Cy & I, with Bill LeSage (World Record Club); Ballads, Birds & Blues, (Reality Records); and Cy Grant Sings (Donegall Records).

Two of his best known singles are King Cricket and The Constantine Calypso, recorded in 1966 for Pye in celebration of Garfield Sobers and Learie Constantine respectively, two of the West Indies' most famous cricketers. Both songs were featured in the BBC2 series Empire of Cricket (June 2009).

Grant's recording involvement in British radio broadcasting was also extensive. The BBC Sound Archive has more than 90 entries for his radio work between 1954 and 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 BBC Radio 2; Amazing Grace, BBC Radio 2; Day Light Come and Wild Blue for BBC Radio 4.

In addition, Grant discussed his experiences as one of the first generation of African-Caribbean actors in Black Screen Britain: Part 1 - Ambassadors for the Race, on BBC Radio 4 (March 2009), and TV's Black Pioneers on BBC Four (June 2007).


  • Rivers of Time: Collected Poems of Cy Grant, published by Naked Light, 2006, maps Grant's poetical journey through life, from his teenage years to the present, and reflecting the influences that have come to bear on him in his understanding of himself and the world. Some of the 88 poems have appeared in earlier collections: Blue Foot Traveler: An anthology of West Indian Poets in Britain by James Berry, 1976; Caribbean Voices: Vol 2, The Blue Horizons by John Figueroa, 1970.
  • Our Time is Now: Six Essays on the Need for Reawakening, a collection of essays published 11 February 2010. ISBN 0-9562901-2-4.[14]

Caribbean aircrew archive

The website Caribbean aircrew in the RAF during WW2 aims to provide a permanent archive of volunteers from the West Indies who flew for the RAF but whose contribution has been generally overlooked. It is the initiative of Cy Grant and Hans Klootwijk, author of Lancaster W4827: Failed to Return, which recounts the fate of Grant and his fellow crew members after their plane was shot down over the Netherlands in 1943. The book is based on research carried out by Hans' father, Joost Klootwijk, who was 11 when the bomber crashed into a farmhouse in his village.[15]

In May 2008 Grant went to Holland to visit Joost and Hans, and the idea for the website took root. It was launched on 17 October 2008, with the names of 70 West Indians who had flown for the RAF. But thanks to regular updates by surviving crew and relatives, as well as by historians in the field, it is now known they numbered around 440 and that at least 70 were commissioned and 103 were decorated.

Stage career, television and filmography


  • Grant, Cy (2007). Blackness & The Dreaming Soul - A Sense of Belonging : Multiculturalism & the Western Paradigm. Shoving Leopard Productions. ISBN 978-1905565085.  online
  1. ^ Obituary, Daily Telegraph, 15 February 2010
  2. ^ Cy Grant: actor, singer and writer The Times (London), 16 February 2010.
  3. ^ Obituary London Guardian, 18 February 2010.
  4. ^ Obituary London Independent, 27 February 2010.
  5. ^ "ABOUT CY GRANT : The Cy Grant Website". Retrieved 2010-02-15. 
  6. ^ "Resurgencet: Millennium Celebration by John Moat (Didymus)". Archived from the original on 2007-09-27. Retrieved 2010-02-15. 
  7. ^ Grant 2007, pp 3-14
  8. ^ "Moving Here". Retrieved 2010-02-16. 
  9. ^ a b c Black History 365 Spring/Summer issue 2009, interview with Cy Grant by Angela Cobbinah
  10. ^ Grant 2007, pp 36-37
  11. ^ Grant 2007, p 38
  12. ^ Speaking Truth to Power: a diversity of voices in theatre and the arts in England by Professor Gus John and Dr Samina Zahir, Arts Council England, July 2008
  13. ^ "RETURN TO MY NATIVE LAND : The Cy Grant Website". Retrieved 2010-02-16. 
  14. ^ "Book review: Our Time is Now: Six Essays on the Need for Reawakening. By Cy Grant.". Retrieved 2010-02-14. 
  15. ^ "BBC - London - TV - Flyers of the Caribbean". Retrieved 2010-02-14. 

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