Above Paterson Joseph’s dining table hangs a portrait of a man dressed in Georgian finery, his bearing proud but not arrogant, his brown eyes warm and soft. It is the writer, musician and activist Charles Ignatius Sancho, the first African man to vote in a British general election, in 1774, and he has haunted Joseph’s thoughts for more than two decades. “I love the man,” he says. “He’s in my head, in my house. Sometimes I don’t know where he ends and I begin.”
Most people will know Joseph, 58, for his long-running, much-loved stint as Alan Johnson, the appallingly smooth-talking wannabe big shot boss in Channel 4’s Peep Show. He’s one of England’s most charismatic and versatile small-screen actors: his credits also include Green Wing and Casualty, and recently he played the bigoted black politician Kamal Hadley in the BBC’s adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s Noughts + Crosses, which imagines a Britain run by a black establishment. (“It was fascinating getting inside the head of a racist,” says Joseph. “Racists are rarely monsters.”) Last year he appeared as an eerily calm submarine commander in the BBC’s hit underwater thriller Vigil, and he began his career with a string of roles at the RSC.
Yet when we meet, in his smart garden flat in Willesden Green, northwest London, he’s not interested in dwelling on any of that. No, all he wants to talk about is Sancho, who was also an actor, who was obese and had a slight speech impediment, and about whose exceptional life Joseph has written both a one-man play – Sancho: An Act of Remembrance – which he has toured since 2015, and now a novel, partly comprised of extracts from a fictionalised diary.
“It’s all Tilda Swinton’s fault,” he says. Years ago, while they were both filming Danny Boyle’s Alex Garland adaptation The Beach (2000) “one evening she asked me what I would like to be remembered for after I die. And without realising what I was saying, I said I wanted to write a story about black Britons before my parents’ Windrush generation. I was aware there was an anterior story, but I didn’t know what it was and I wanted future generations to know they have a part in the United Kingdom because black people were always there. The seed was sown. Not long after, I came across Sancho’s portrait in a book about Gainsborough. And that was that.”
Joseph spent years poring over what he calls the “threadbare” archive of Sancho’s essays and letters, establishing what he could from the facts and extrapolating what he couldn’t by using his imagination, a practice known as critical fabulation. The story he unearthed is extraordinary.
Born on a slave ship in the middle of the Atlantic around 1729, Sancho spent his childhood as the live-in slave of three sisters in Greenwich before working for many years for the family of the peer John Montagu, who taught him to read and write, and to discuss art and music. He became a published writer and, after striking up a friendship with the Anglo-Irish novelist Laurence Sterne, became a prominent voice in the abolitionist movement. He composed music, performed Othello in the West End, and was a feted figure in Georgian society, the “Idris Elba” of his day, as Joseph puts it. He later established a grocery shop, becoming a man of property and therefore eligible to vote. “He felt himself to be part of the conversation, which is what makes him very unusual. He was a product of his upbringing under Montagu and he made these elevated spaces open up for him. For him to be anything else would have been very strange.”
Joseph’s novel, The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho, which playfully apes the epic style of Cervantes’ Don Quixote (after whose servant Sancho got his real-life nickname) attempts to find the private man beneath the public face, glimmers of which are revealed in his letters. It includes the odd fleeting reference to the racism he experienced: in one letter, describing a journey back from the opera with his children, Sancho writes how they “went by water, took a coach home, were gazed at, followed etc, but not much abused”.
Yet Joseph also summons a richly colourful Georgian London, striated by class hierarchies, but also possessing a lively multicultural demimonde populated by musicians and dancers from across the world, many of them also sailors, and in whose society Joseph imagines Sancho meeting his West Indian wife, Anne Osborne. “To be honest, people were more racist about the Irish than the blacks back then,” says Joseph. “The real racism began later, with the Enlightenment and the study of eugenics.”
The novel is being published at a time when the hidden history of black Britain is finally being taken seriously. David Olusoga has written and broadcast extensively on a vibrant narrative that stretches back centuries, while Mary Beard has long argued for the presence of Africans in Roman Britain. In July, Radio 4 broadcast Joseph’s radio play Severus, an Up Pompeii!-meets-Succession-style comedy drama, in which Joseph starred opposite David Mitchell as Septimius Severus, the 3rd-century emperor who was born in Libya and ruled over the Roman empire from the unlikely outpost of York.
Not everyone is on board. Historians “like David Starkey like to say we are rewriting history,” notes Joseph. “To which I say: yes, we are, because you wrote it badly. You missed stuff out. We know Henry VIII had a black trumpeter [John Blanke]. We know there was an 18th-century black magistrate, Nathaniel Wells, who became a wealthy landowner in Wales. Hogarth frequently depicted black people in his society portraits, although no one has thought them important so no one has bothered to find out who they are. History is better when you look at it in colour,” he continues, praising Sam Mendes’s 2019 film 1917 for depicting a Sikh soldier fighting in the British Army. “But most people don’t know that brown people fought in the war, because soldiers of colour were banned from appearing in the VE celebrations, so that’s the image we now have. We have fixed ideas of Tudor Britain, Victorian and Edwardian Britain as entirely white. But an awful lot of what we know as history was curated by racists. There is no other word for it.”
Joseph is charming and talks so much that my time with him overruns by a good few hours. He has a teenage son with his French ex-wife, and grew up not far from where he lives now – people who knew him 50 years ago as a boy still stop in the street to say hello. His parents were from St Lucia and refused to speak creole at home, not wanting their five children to grow up with an accent. He went to the local school that was dominated by the children of Irish immigrants, but had such an unhappy experience, repeatedly undermined by his teachers, that he started bunking off, albeit to the library. When he was 14, he came across Shylock’s speech to Antonio in Act I of the Merchant of Venice and it changed his life. “‘For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe,’” he intones, with grandiose flair. “It was like someone had untied all the knots in my tongue. Some kids discover porn. I discovered Shakespeare.”
Desperate to act – he would entertain his siblings with impressions of Norman Wisdom and Freddie Starr – he applied at the age of 18 to study drama at the Cockpit, a fringe theatre in Marylebone. His teachers, from a generation who had come of age during the Second World War, taught him “all the old-fashioned stuff – elocution, deportment, rhetoric, everything Olivier would have been taught. It’s why Sancho sits with me so easily.”
He then went to Lamda, where he was considered a bit of a know-it-all, although he is quick to say he never experienced direct racism, and soon after leaving, thanks perhaps to that classical training, joined the RSC. He was part of the late 1980s/early 1990s generation of black talent that included Adrian Lester, David Harewood and Lennie James, and considers himself lucky to have been at the company alongside directors such as Mendes, Boyle and Nick Hytner, all of whom were pioneers in opening up casting. In 1990, he “did The Last Days of Don Juan with Danny and he basically cast every black and Irish actor in the RSC,” Joseph says. “A local paper responded with the headline: ‘the RSC has gone all irish and black’!
“My career started off very well in classical theatre, a genre that I shouldn’t perhaps have done so well in. As a result it became clear to me that I had a bit of an outlier status. I was never part of the black theatre scene, for example. Black theatre companies such as Talawa never asked me to audition.”
In the Secret Diaries, he has Sancho admit that he likes to perform because it makes him feel as though he belongs. Was Joseph making a general point about the relationship between black people and entertainment in white-dominated cultures? “Actually, no, I was talking in a personal capacity. Sancho’s way of feeling safe and valued and wanted and useful was to entertain. In a life where you are oppressed and not listened to, and told to sit in the corner and shut up, which is the life I’ve led, to feel the appreciation of an audience can mean a huge amount. I’ve made it this far, this is my world, I feel very accepted and at home here. But is my niece going to feel that when she comes through, or is she going to have to go through the whole f---ing thing again to feel accepted?”
Joseph is an interesting mix of equanimity and eruptive fury. He concedes that Britain is undergoing huge changes, and cites the toppling of the statue of slave owner Edward Colston in 2020 as a pivotal moment, although not one he necessarily thinks should be repeated. “That was a piece of theatre, a one-off. I don’t think we should go on pulling down statues. But we should certainly be making clear exactly who these people were. History is a Pandora’s box. We’ve opened it now, we can’t pretend stuff doesn’t exist.”
Does he think there might be 1,000 Sanchos, just waiting to be discovered? He goes back to Hogarth. “There’s a black kid in his 1742 painting Taste in High Life. He’s dressed to the nines and is being given hot chocolate. He’s too young to be Sancho. So who was he? That’s where the new history lies. In unearthing these stories.”
The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho by Paterson Joseph (Dialogue, £16.99) is out on October 6