Joseph Marcell - from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to a Yorkshire stage

Joseph Marcell recalls the best piece of advice he was ever given.

Joseph Marcell stars in Alone in Berlin being staged at Yorks Theatre Royal until March 21. Picture: Geraint Lewis.
Joseph Marcell stars in Alone in Berlin being staged at Yorks Theatre Royal until March 21. Picture: Geraint Lewis.

“I was just a young lad, thinking about my future, and if it would be in acting, or something else and I’d been lucky enough to meet a wonderful lady, a teacher called Nina Finberg.

“She took me to one side and she asked me if I wanted to be famous, really famous, and make lots and lots of money, or did I want to be an accomplished actor with a long career? Even back then, (and I’m 71 years old now), I knew instinctively that it had to be the latter. So I went down that route. And, you know, it hasn’t turned out that badly at all, has it?”

It certainly hasn’t, for Marcell is now a distinguished actor on stage and screen, with stints in Hollywood. He has worked for the RSC and on Broadway, in the West End, and all over the world.

Joseph Marcell in a scenefrom the play. Picture: Geraint Lewis.

Joseph and his family arrived in the UK from St Lucia, in the Caribbean, in the middle of the 1950s. They first made a home in Peckham, south London.

“What a culture shock that was”, he remembers. “We’d been used to blue skies every day, a lot of swimming in an equally blue ocean, and sun all the time. Let me tell you that Peckham was a revelation. Why did we come over? I suppose that it was a sort of ‘grass is always greener’ sort of thing.” He chuckles: “Except that, in Peckham, there was precious little grass!”

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“I’d been taken on by a marvellous guy called Ed Thomason, who was a truly innovative director, and clearly, like Miss Finberg must have seen some potential in me. The ‘science’ thing means that, like all of us in that team, I learned quite a lot about electrics and lighting. It was a very helpful and informative experience.

“I was one of the very few black faces in Sheffield in those days, and yes, I got stared at a lot. Because I was ‘different,’” he says.

“Sheffield was black, and sooty, and the air wasn’t that clean. It had been bashed about a bit in the war, and it was still recovering.

“But the Playhouse, oh boy, that was – despite having hardly any funds – thriving, doing really well, with a loyal audience, because we put on things that audiences couldn’t get anywhere else. Endgame by Samuel Beckett one week, Hamlet by William Shakespeare the next.

“Even back then, I was an absolute realist. Before I went to Sheffield, I thought ‘Right, black guy, all I’ll be doing, unless I am very lucky indeed, will be playing someone in the background in a revival of Sanders of the River.

“But Ed Thomason – who was the man who eventually directed the first production at the new Crucible Theatre, a place that he fought long and hard to open – had far better ideas. He was a visionary, there’s no doubt about that. You were cast on merit, or because he believed that you could actually play a role in a new and interpretative way – and not because you had a non-white skin. And, having learned all that I could in Sheffield, I found myself going for an audition with the RSC, and, unbelievably, landing it.”

It was, as Marcell points out, a different era. “There were a lot of shows on TV where the main butt of the so-called ‘humour’ was the black man and his family living next door, or where a person of colour was always the token member of the cast. The Black and White Minstrels, loveable songsters, were still part of peak-time viewing….” And, he says, with more than a hint of incredulity in his voice, “major theatre companies were still asking white actors to – it’s a phrase I hate, but it was of the time, and is part of theatre history – ‘black up’ to play Othello.

“I can remember one very distinguished veteran doing it so thoroughly that he even ‘blacked up’ the palms of his hands, which was ludicrous, and insulting.”

Marcell’s TV break came in 1978, in the BBC’s contemporary soap called Empire Road, which began in 1978, and had an almost completely black cast. “That was a remarkable decision for them. I met my dear mate Rudolph Walker in that one, and we worked out of Birmingham. Happy days”.

Marcell got to work with the RSC and then in Hollywood, the latter thanks to another Yorkshire link – his good friend Sir Patrick Stewart. “He took a small group of mates, other actors, to perform a few shows in California, and also at a few selected university campuses across the US. And we did pretty well, and had a fun time.”

Stewart helped him again. “He was in LA one day and some executive asked him about casting someone to play the butler in the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. They said ‘know anyone who might be up for it?’ and Patrick, bless him, said ‘matter of fact, I do’, and I went over and started playing Geoffrey Butler (the butler) opposite a young man called Will Smith.”

This was in 1990 and the show, which launched Smith’s career, continued for the next six years. “It was one of the happiest times of my life, and Will and I still keep in touch, and we meet up every now and then – there are cast reunions as well.”

After his stint in LA, Joseph’s career rocketed. “I’ve done so much varied stuff. I’ve done soaps like The Bold and the Beautiful in the US, and Eastenders here at home. I’ve done Holby City, and Death in Paradise. I’ve played Coriolanus, King Lear, and I’ve been in The Tempest and Lady Windermere’s Fan. I have been so blessed, so lucky. Opportunities keep on popping up, and for that I am so very grateful.”

The latest is the British premiere of Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin, set in the Nazi capital in 1940. It’s a story of defiance, courage, and resilience. Joseph plays Inspector Escherich, and reveals: “It’s a real indictment of those times, and also a reminder of where we all are today, as the Far Right gets hold of more and more ground, and people are realising that they have to stand up for their beliefs. It’s powerful stuff”.

It’s on at York’s Theatre Royal until March 21, and reunites him with Tom Bird, now executive director at the theatre, and an old friend of his.

Marcell now has veteran actor status, so if he were to pass on some sage advice to an aspiring actor what would he say? Surprisingly, it isn’t about technique, but tact. “I’d tell them this. That you’ll work with an awful lot of people, and many managements. And if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. Never ever bite the hand that feeds you. Do that, and you might find yourself out of work permanently.”

He laughs and adds: “Common sense for sheer survival, really!”

Alone in Berlin, Theatre Royal York, runs to March 21. Box office on 01904 623 568.