Numerous stage and TV roles would follow, notably his work with Trinidadian playwright Mustapha Matura on productions such as Play Mas, and Nice, a tragicomic monologue later adapted for Channel 4, delivered to perfection by Beaton as a prison trustee explaining, direct to camera, how he arrived at his current position.
He further displayed his range in an all-black production of Measure for Measure (indulging his love of Shakespeare) and as Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Ouverture in the Riverside Studios stage adaptation of C.L.R. James’s book The Black Jacobins, a far cry from his domestic TV comedy roles, but one which served to draw new audiences to the theatre and proved a triumph for the star.
Hollywood beckoned in the late 1980s, with a role as the Jamaican governor, opposite Denzel Washington and Robert Townsend, in the crime thriller The Mighty Quinn (1989), and an appearance on the hugely popular Cosby Show. In 1986, by now well-established as a major figure in UK entertainment, he wrote his autobiography, a frank and insightful account of his journey so far, and an important piece of work in its own right, but made doubly so by being the first memoirs written by a black actor in the UK.
The stage was now set for worldwide success in a series of his own, Channel 4’s runaway hit sitcom Desmond’s. Set in a Peckham barbershop and running for six series between 1989 and 1994, Desmond’s was the brainchild of St Lucian writer-director Trix Worrell, and re-established a long standing working relationship between Beaton and veteran actress Carmen Munroe, and would prove to be the cap on their already estimable TV careers.
Sadly, in 1994, during a return visit to his native Guyana, Norman Beaton collapsed and died. He was just 60 years old.
Relatively speaking, his screen career was short at just 27 years, and less than 20 years of those were as a leading player, but his influence was immense. To those of us growing up in his wake, Beaton was to 1970s British TV what Earl Cameron was to 1950s film: a pioneer, a true star and a unique, instantly recognisable figure.
His mastery of florid language and comic business was peerless, with the ability to turn a seemingly banal phrase into a hilarious piece of prose. His commitment to the education and development of young performers saw the BBC Radio 4 Norman Beaton Fellowship come into being in 2003, providing training and opportunities for new actors in the field of radio drama.
Norman Beaton was an educator, a rogue, a lover of the classics and a purveyor of salty Caribbean wit. He was a major star, yet unquestionably authentic and real; a complex man, yet down to earth. He was all of these things, and he was ours.