Contributor: Nisha Obano
Born on 25 June 1937, Alfred Fagon was one of ten children in a close, religious family living in Clarendon, Jamaica. He left school at the age of thirteen to work with his father in the family’s orange plantation. While many of his older siblings left the Caribbean for the United States, Alfred moved to England in 1955 and found work with British Rail in Nottingham. He joined the army in 1958 and went on to become the Royal Signal Corps’ middleweight boxing champion in 1962. Upon the leaving the army, he travelled around the UK singing calypso and trained and worked as a welder, eventually settling in St Paul’s, Bristol, where he began his career as an actor and writer.
Alfred’s acting debut was at the Bristol Arts Centre as the Nigerian Officer Orara in Henry Livings’s play The Little Mrs Foster Show in 1966. In 1970 he made his first professional appearance in Mustapha Matura’s Black Pieces at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London. His acting career continued both on stage and screen. Among other things, he featured in the popular British television police series Z Cars in 1973, the film R.H.I.N.O: Really Here in Name Only in 1983 and another popular television series, Boon, in 1986. That year he also starred, with Hazel O’Connor, in Fighting Back for the BBC, which was filmed in St Paul’s.
During this time, Fagon also developed his own plays and television scripts, many of which he also starred in. Many of his early pieces are based on his experiences and life in St Paul’s. His first produced play was 11 Josephine House, in which he appeared as himself. Produced by InterAction and directed by Donald Rees, the play was staged at the Almost Free Theatre in 1972 and was set in the front room of a Bristol household in which the family dream about their spiritual home in Jamaica. This was followed by In Shakespeare Country, directed by Philip Saville for BBC Two in 1973; No Soldiers in St Paul’s, which Fagon directed; and Death of A Black Man which was produced at the Hampstead Theatre in 1975. Set in Chelsea and loosely based on the life of the Jamaican saxophonist Joe Harriot, Death of A Black Man eerily presages Fagon’s own passing. In 1983, Fagon’s Four Hundred Pounds toured the UK and played at the Royal Court and his final play, Lonely Cowboy, set in Brixton, came out in 1985, one year before his death.
For someone who had achieved so much during a short life, Fagon was not treated with the dignity he deserved in his death. Fagon was in the prime of his career when, on 29 August 1986 at the age of forty-nine, while jogging near his flat in Brixton, London, he suffered a fatal heart attack. Despite searching his flat in which there were numerous articles of identification including his passport, letters and scripts, the police reported that they were unable to identify his body and he was given a pauper’s funeral as a result. It was only when he did not turn up to a meeting at the BBC, who then contacted his agent Harriet Cruickshank, that his death was discovered.
Among the things left behind by Alfred Fagon, including his plays, television scripts, collections of poetry (including Waterwell), is also an inspirational legacy for black Britons and Black British theatre. To mark his achievements, a statue created by David G Mutasa was erected in Bristol, the only one commemorating an African Caribbean in the city. And the friends of Alfred Fagon later went on to establish a playwriting award in his name. The Alfred Fagon Award, which was inaugurated in 1997, recognises and celebrates writers of African and Caribbean descent and is supported by the Peggy Ramsay Foundation, the Royal Court and Talawa Theatre Company. Alfred Fagon’s archives, which include letters, scripts and photographs, are testament to a remarkable man and a remarkable career.
Character of Francis. Black Pieces. By Mustapha Matura. Dir. Roland Rees. ICA, London. 1970.
Character of Walton. ‘Answers to the Name of Watson’. Boon. Television programme. Central Independent Television, Birmingham. 28 Jan. 1986.
Fighting Back. Series 1. Television programme. BBC Bristol. 4 Aug.–1 Sept. 1986.
Bakerloo Line cast member. Full House. Television programme. BBC Television. 3 Feb. 1973.
Character of the West Indian. ‘Lucky’. ITV Playhouse. Television programme. Independent Television (ITV). 5 Feb. 1974.
Little Mrs Foster Show. By Henry Livings. Bristol Arts Centre, Bristol. 1966.
‘In the Beautiful Caribbean’. Play for Today. Television programme. BBC Television. 3 Feb. 1972.
Character of Black Man on Train. Pressure. Film. BFI (British Film Institute), 1976.
Character of Angie’s father. R.H.I.N.O.: Really Here in Name Only. Television film. Central Independent Television. 3 July 1983.
‘Club Havana’. Second City Firsts. Television programme. BBC, Birmingham. 25 Oct. 1975.
Character of Bert Bloggs. The Sleeping Policeman by Howard Brenton and Tunde Ikoli. Dir. Roland Rees. The Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, London. 8 Nov. 1983.
Character of Lucas. Shakespeare Country. Thirty-Minute Theatre. Television programme. BBC Television. 17 May 1973.
Character of Malcolm. ‘Skinner’. Z Cars. Television programme. BBC Liverpool. 4 Jan. 1973.
Shakespeare Country. Dir. Philip Saville. Perf. Alfred Fagon, Merdelle Jordine, Stefan Kalipha and Carmen Munroe. BBC Television. 17 May 1973.
11 Josephine House. Dir. Roland Rees. Perf. Mona Hammond, T Bone Wilson, Fagon, Oscar James, Ursula Moham and Horace James. Inter-Action. Almost Free Theatre, London. 22 Nov. 1972.
Four Hundred Pounds. Dir. Roland Rees. Perf. Gordon Case and Stefan Kalipha. Foco Novo. Royal Court Theatre, London. 1982.
Lonely Cowboy. Dir. Nicolas Kent. Perf. Trevor Butler, Jim Findley, Beverley Michaels, Joy Richardson, Calvin Simpson, Chris Tummings, Sylvester Williams and Angela Wynter. Tricycle Theatre, London. 1985.
The Death of A Black Man. Dir. Roland Rees. Perf. Mona Hammon, Gregory Munro and Anton Phillips. Foco Novo. Hampstead Theatre, London. 1975.
11 Josephine House; The Death of A Blackman and Lonely Cowboy. Plays. London: Oberon, 1999.
Lonely Cowboy. Black plays: Selected and Introduced by Yvonne Brewster. Intro. Yvonne Brewster. London: Methuen, 1987.
Character of Bert Bloggs. The Sleeping Policeman by Howard Brenton. Dir. Roland Rees. Perf. Carrie Lee-Baker, Trevor Butler, Craig Crosbie, Mary Ellen Ray and Ella Wilder. Royal Court Theatre Upstairs. Rec. 16 Nov. 1983.
Billington, Michael. ‘Foco Novo double bill’. Review of Four Hundred Pounds by Alfred Fagon. Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, London. The Guardian 18 Nov. 1982: 10.
—. Review of Death of A Black Man by Alfred Fagon. Foco Novo. Hampstead Theatre. The Guardian 3 June 1975: 12.
‘Obituary for Alfred Fagon’. The Times 20 Sept. 1986: np.
Perera, Shyama. ‘Police attacked over actor’s cremation’. The Guardian 1 Oct. 1986: 2.
Phillips, Caryl. ‘Lost Generation’. The Guardian 23 Apr. 2005, Review: 16.
Poore, Benjamin. Heritage, Nostalgia and Modern British Theatre: Staging the Victorians. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
Radin, Victoria. ‘Loot for the Court’. Review of Death of A Black Man by Alfred Fagon. Foco Novo. Hampstead Theatre. The Observer 8 June 1975: 24.
Ratcliffe, Michael. Review of 11 Josephine House by Alfred Fagon. Umoja Theatre Company and Black Theatre Cooperative. The Observer 24 May 1987: 21.
Williams, Roy. ‘Black theatre’s big breakout’. The Guardian 28 Sept. 2009, G2: 17.
Alfred Fagon Award Website. Talawa Award for Black British Playwrights <http://www.alfredfagonaward.co.uk/>.
Black Theatre Archive Website.
Bristol Education Action Zone Website (BrEASZ). <http://breazshare.net/resources/integratedcurriculum/blackbristolianspoeplewhomakeadifference/bbiographiesandlessonplansalfredfagonwriterpoetandplaywright>.
Caribbean Studies in Black and Asian History Website (CASBAH). <http://www.casbah.ac.uk/cats/print/240/THEP00002.htm>.
Discovering Bristol (Bristol local history) Website.
Doollee.com Website. (Literary database) <http://www.doollee.com/PlaywrightsF/fagon-alfred.html>.
Historical Geographies Website. <http://historicalgeographies.blogspot.co.uk/2011/09/biography-alfred-fagon.html>.
Internet Movie Database Website. <http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1527593/>.
Teacher’s notes Website. <http://public.merlin.swgfl.org.uk/establishments/803/QandS/EMTAS/AllDocuments/Alfred%Fagon.pdf>.
Oberon Publishers Website. <http://oberonbooks.com/author/alfred-fagon/>.
Victoria and Albert Museum Theatre Archive Website. <http://www.vam.ac.uk/vastatic/theatre/archives/thm-89f.html>.