Imagine my delight when my phone rings and it is Carmen Munroe, responding to a WhatsApp message I had sent her, letting her know that after five years of living and working in Africa, I was back in London and would love to reconnect. She too had returned from the United States to be near her family in London. At 88 years, she was preparing to go into rehearsals on a new play! I told her about Desmonds being shown on Netflix and how thirty years on, the next generation were rediscovering this incredible sitcom, of which she was the star.
Carmen Monroe OBE, born 1932 in Guyana, has lived in the UK since the early 1950s. She is a veteran actress and pioneer for diversity and Black representation in British theatre and television, and a long-time friend. We first met in 1982, when I was appointed to lead the Greater London Council’s (GLC) Ethnic Arts Department at just 24 years old. I invited her to serve on the Ethnic Arts Sub-Committee as its founding member. Many years later, she came across my letter and sent it to me as the reminder of our audacity of hope!
Carmen has been a leading lady in the development of Black British theatre, featuring in and directing plays by Black writers and creators, and is one of four founders of Talawa Theatre Company, a Black-led touring theatre company. Talawa Theatre Company, from a Jamaican term meaning “gutsy and strong” was founded in 1986 when I commissioned Yvonne Brewster OBE to produce the Black Jacobeans by CLR James, as part of the Black Experience Programme I had developed as the Greater London Council was preparing to be abolished.
In 1986, I left the arts and went to work with the BBC because I wanted to make films. It was during the postproduction of my first independent feature film Babymother in 1998, that our paths would cross again. I was a Women in Film and Television (WFTV) board member with Sara Geater as its Chair. We conceived and produced the Black and Asian Women’s Film and Television Festival entitled Shooting from the Hip and dedicated this festival to Carmen Munroe.
Carmen Munroe’s creative career in television, theatre and film spans more than six decades. She gained her acting experience with the West Indian Student’s Drama Group whilst working full time during the day in a library and in offices. She finally made her professional West End debut in 1962, playing a somewhat stereotypical role for a black actress as a maid in a production of Tennessee William’s Period of Adjustment at the Royal Court. She never played a maid again saying, “I figured that once you played a maid, there didn’t seem much point playing another”.
In those early years, establishing her career was often a struggle and, with a young son to bring up, she would supplement her income by crocheting hats!
Carmen went on to leading roles in such West End productions as Alun Owen’s There’ll Be Some Changes Made and George Bernard Shaw’s The Apple Cart. Other plays to her credit include works by Black writers such as Lorraine Hansherry’s A Raisin in the Sun, James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner, and Allister Bain’s Catalysta. She has also directed stage plays like the British 1987 premiere of Derek Walcott’s Remembrance.
Carmen has had a thriving television career, appearing in Rainbow City, the 1967 Doctor Who story The Enemy of the World, General Hospital, LoveStory, The Fosters, Black Christmas, and The Hope and the Glory.
Most notably, from 1989 until the death of her co-star, Norman Beaton in 1994, she played Shirley in the long-running Channel 4 sitcom Desmonds. In December 2016, the British Film Institute Black Star Season honoured Carmen Munroe and co-stars of Desmonds. In the Q&A that followed, Munroe touches on her role. “I’m not sure I was a comedy actress. I’d seen myself as a real drama queen and I still don’t see myself as a comedy actress… I felt I could honestly play this woman… doing something as important as the portrayal of Black people in society… we were often put in plays as the token. There is nothing that represents tokenism in this piece… he (Trix Worrel) wrote it because of who we are and knowing, all the characters were born out of truth”.
The show was the first predominantly Black series to be set in the workplace, providing a fresh insight into Black family life, and the complete series is now showing on Netflix.
She was honoured as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2007 for her services to drama, and was the recipient of the Edric Connor Trailblazer Award at the 2016 Screen Nation Film and Television Awards.
As we mark International Women’s Month, it is an honour to pay tribute to this iconic star of stage, television and film. We are grateful for all that her generation of Black and Asian creatives fought for and on whose shoulders so many us today stand.
About Parminder Vir OBE
Parminder Vir OBE has dedicated herself to positively impacting and transforming lives through a professional career spanning 40 years in philanthropy, entrepreneurship, film and television production, arts and culture, and investment funding. She is the co-founder of the Support4AfricaSMEs campaign and The African Farmers Stories, launched in 2020. She served as the CEO of the Tony Elumelu Foundation, based in Lagos, Nigeria from April 2014 to April 2019. Prior to joining the Foundation, Parminder has enjoyed a distinguished career as an awarding winning film and television producer and private equity investor in film and media.