The death of acclaimed British actor, comedian and writer Felix Dexter last week, triggered moving tributes in the press and on social media. A stunning performer of stage, theatre, and television, his big break came with the BBC television classic 1990's show The Real McCoy. He went on to perform in the Fast Show, Absolutely Fabulous, with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and more recently in Citizen Khan, currently running on BBC television. He was also hugely successful on the live show circuit where he reproduced his creations to uproarious applause.
Dexter was an acute observer of race dynamics in the UK, and used this to produce brilliant comedy performances. His character Nathaniel, the Nigerian part- time cab driver and part time accountancy student was a great exemplar of this. Nathaniel dressed in white shoes, over stylised suits, and snootily criticised 'West Indians' to whom he felt superior because of their lesser commitment to the British way of life. Dexter's characterisation of Nathaniel spoke to many of the truths of life in the UK at the time: the struggles of African and Caribbean, and other migrants, to understand what it meant to be British, and how to dress in order to demonstrate assimilation. Dexter was a 'West Indian', playing a ridiculous African, who ridiculed 'West Indians' was genius.
It was important to fit in and showed you belonged as differences would be beaten out of you by a rampaging bovver boot. Nathaniel's, ludicrously inappropriate formal dress, gave a message of aspiration that many black and Asian migrants held at the time. Many were from middle class backgrounds in their country of origin, but found themselves driving buses, sweeping the streets, driving cabs, portering or working as low graded nurses. Although these jobs paid the bills, they were meant to be temporary until they could qualify as accountants, lawyers and doctors. But discrimination, inequality and the low paid jobs, with long anti social hours meant part time study programmes extended indefinitely. And for many, those accountancy or law exams were never taken.
Similarly, his other very popular character creation was Douglas, the 'Roots and Culture' lawyer, the embodiment of erudite upper class sophistication, with frequent 'break outs' of patois. The depiction of Douglas's confusion was not about culture clash but about posing the big question of when black migrants would be allowed to be truly English, by their own and other's definition. Is it acceptable for successful black people to have white partners, live in rural areas, enjoy affluent lifestyles beyond limits that were sometimes self imposed? Can one remain authentic and true to one's cultural heritage, language, dialect and achieve the dizzying heights of life in Cobham as Douglas has? How do black people negotiate the myriad of lifestyle choices with the white Britain, each other, and the family back home? And what of the expectations of the host nation? Did assimilation truly mean equal competition for a share of all the resources the UK had to offer, or only those that were not wanted by the host population?. These questions continue to produce tensions today and few can comfortably answer them.
People of African and Caribbean heritage shared together in this discrimination, and Dexter's Nathaniel was one of the few opportunities people had to openly confront how they were turning against each other, and how ridiculous it was. It was unifying to laugh together at Nathaniel and Douglas.
Those who had the pleasure to know and work with Dexter, attest his goodness, talent and humility through the medium of social media. For the rest of us, he appeared to be all that and his untimely death, has robbed us an unbounded talent, still in his prime.