Imison Award 1994


The Times, May 13, 1994

New voice of the streets - taken from an article by Simon Tait, who met the winner of the first Richard Imison Award for radio drama, sponsored by The Times.

Last night V.S. Naipaul, the master of the post-colonial English novel, presented the Society of Authors' annual awards. And among the winners was a young writer very much in the Naipaul tradition: a south Londoner who is half Nigerian and half Irish. What's more, the radio drama with which Gabriel Gbadamosi won the first Richard Imison Memorial Award, sponsored by The Times, is a classic observation of multi-cultural Britain. Called The Long, Hot Summer of '76, it is described by the judges as a ''fierce, experimental play'' about the Notting Hill Carnival.

Imison died of cancer last year after 30 years as script editor for BBC Radio Drama. During that time he worked with a host of distinguished writers: Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard and John Arden among them. He launched dozens of writing careers. No script, however humble the supplicant, was returned by Imison unread. Now, however, his script-unit has been disbanded, so the Society of Authors has established the 1,000 award for radio drama to perpetuate Imison's tradition of fostering young talent.

Gbadamosi entered the competition for one compelling reason. Winning it, he thought, would give him a lever to persuade the BBC to broadcast a season of African plays. Although scheduling is not finalised, the series is indeed going to happen. It will be broadcast on Radios 3 and 4, with Gbadamosi as consultant.

The son of an Irish cleaner and a Nigerian telephone engineer, he was born in Lambeth, brought up in a Vauxhall tenement, and now lives in a Brixton council flat. He lives simply and alone, the flat sparsely furnished partly because he has come to expect an annual burglary. It takes several minutes to set his computer up, because it is his least dispensable possession and so the different parts are hidden.

From the age of 14, his ambition had been to be a poet, which he now is, as well as a playwright (he has also edited anthologies of British, Irish and African verse). He went from a local comprehensive school to Churchill College, Cambridge, and then immediately to Africa to study writing. He felt safer in Uganda in the uncertain days of 1984, he says, than he does in Brixton.

Returning in 1987, he embarked on a peripatetic career to learn his trade, using bursaries to get him to Africa, the Caribbean, Europe and, for a year, Manchester as the Mobil Oil-sponsored resident writer at the Royal Exchange. His first play, toured in 1987 by his own Irish Irregulars Theatre Company, was called No Blacks, No Irish, and he is now developing it into a feature-length film. Gbadamosi's latest project is a production in Berlin of his play Hotel Orpheu, which examines the similarities between the Angolan schism and the Berlin Wall.

The street culture of inner London provided subject-matter for his winning radio play. In ''the long hot summer of '76'' Gbadamosi, who was 15, went to his first Notting Hill Carnival and witnessed a famous riot. ''People said there were fascists causing the trouble, to make the West Indians look bad, but it wasn't that,'' he says. ''It was simply British people demonstrating. It was a time of optimism, of the revival of CND marches, Rock Against Racism and so on. What happened in the carnival of '76 was people using street processes to effect change. It was a true assertion of a multi-cultural society, which Britain has always been.

''I couldn't write black American literature, I couldn't write with all that pain, that inherent psychosis. It is the British absorption of immigrant artists that has produced the English literature we have, and it has been particularly effective because of the Irish influence. I want to take it on and see what happens next.''

Many thanks to Greg Linden for locating and summarising this article

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