actor Hugh Quarshie on the new assertiveness of young black Britons

“There’s something fascinating about how morals and behavior change with wealth” (Getty)

Do honest people become real bastards when they acquire wealth? For Hugh Quarshie, this is the central question of the new soapy drama, Wealth, in which he plays the CEO of a family-run black hair care business. For reasons that quickly become clear, Quarshie ultimately doesn’t get much screen time – but his impact is felt throughout the show. Spanning six episodes, the first season follows the Richards family as they figure out how to save their business from financial ruin.

Take the role in Wealth was not a difficult decision for Quarshie. Since his first professional credit in 1979, the 68-year-old’s career has branched out from medical procedures City of Holby in the title role in othello for the CSR. Earlier this year he was nominated for a Bafta for Best Actor in Etienne, a mini-series about the aftermath of Stephen Lawrence’s murder. When he first spoke to Wealth showrunner Abby Ajayi, he found they immediately bonded as Oxford graduates who “wasted” their time studying by being drawn to more creative pursuits. But when he heard more Invent Anna new TV show from the writer, which has flavors of Succession and dallas but is based on a black British family, he got hooked.

“I think there’s something fascinating about how morals and behavior change with wealth,” Quarshie reasons. “The thing about newly acquired wealth is that one of the effects seems to be to cast off all old behaviors and attitudes. The sense of right or wrong is replaced by a sense of what you can afford and get away with. One of the first scenes shows Stephen’s second wife, Claudia (played by Sarah Niles), appalled at the thought of a mere £20,000 monthly allowance – despite having a humble beginning. ‘one like this: ‘You must live longer and suffer more!’ “I think it’s really bold of Abby to present a range of characters and attitudes that suggest that in fact people of African descent are everything. equally capable of good and evil, and can just as easily be carried away by a sense of right.”

On top of that, the show’s wealth of young black talent was something Quarshie found inspiring and a hopeful sign of a long-overdue balance in the entertainment industry. “There was this kind of comedic actor, a Stepin Fetchit, back then,” he says, referring to the vaudevillian 1930s black actor who made a career playing “the laziest man in the world.” world” – now seen as a very problematic trope. . “Now the actors don’t compromise [like that]; they will also use their African names. In Wealthwe have Adeyinka Akinrinade, Ola Orebiyi, Nneka Okoye… and the audience will have to get used to these names and pronounce them correctly.

“It’s disappointing that Kwasi Kwarteng allowed himself to be called ‘Kwar-zee’,” he said, making a sudden connection between his co-stars and the former Chancellor of the Exchequer. “In Akan culture, the dominant culture of Ghana, the name Kwesi or Kwasi is almost always pronounced ‘Kweh-si’ – but the fact that it went to Eton where people don’t care to pronounce it correctly…” Quarshie puts on the voice you imagine from an old Etonian. “’Oh, hello Kwar-zee!’ He did not correct them. I feel like there is now an assertiveness among young black Britons; people will call it awakening. It has nothing to do with awakening, it’s people saying, “No, that’s who I am.” Accept it.'”

Poking fun at the former chancellor is one of many tangents Quarshie goes on during our 40-minute Zoom chat. One moment he talks about how a lot of Formula 1 drivers were ‘financed by dad’, the next he poses a debate about how ‘a religion of colonizers and oppressors’ remains so popular in Africa, or jokes about having words with Sean Bean, which propelled him to Bafta Best Actor at this year’s ceremony. From his home office, Quarshie sits in front of a stacked and varied shelf – he wears his intelligence on his sleeve and has a real sense of curiosity about the world.

Stephen Lawrence’s name has been ingrained in British consciousness since 1993, when the 18-year-old Londoner was killed in a racist attack. His death has become a landmark event in exposing institutional racism in the police and discrimination in society at large. To date, Quarshie has played Neville Lawrence, Stephen’s father, twice: in the 1999 documentary drama The murder of Stephen Lawrence and in the 2021 three-part miniseries, Etienne. It’s something he calls a huge privilege and he always keeps the experience close to his heart.

“I have tremendous respect for both of them,” he says of Neville Lawrence and Stephen’s mother, Doreen. “I had a very strong sense of responsibility to do the right thing for them.” When it came to tackling the story more than two decades later, however, Quarshie made the decision not to speak to them again – now a father of three himself, he didn’t find it necessary to ask for a additional emotional context.

Quarshie in 'Rich' (David Hindley/Prime Video)

Quarshie in ‘Rich’ (David Hindley/Prime Video)

“The second time around, I didn’t think it was appropriate to talk to Neville, because I didn’t want to reopen those wounds. What am I going to say – ‘how did you feel when you found out your son had been stabbed? How did you feel when you learned that the killers had gotten away with it for so long? You don’t want to go that route. I have my own son now, who is barely older than Stephen when he was killed. You don’t have to try very hard to imagine how you would feel if your son was killed this way.

Another key role on Quarshie’s resume is that of Ric Griffin in City of Holby. After joining the cast in 2001, Quarshie was the longest-serving actor when he left in 2020. Less than a year later, the BBC announced that City of Holby was canceled as part of a move to invest in other dramas across the country. Its final episode aired in March. When Quarshie learned that the show was coming to an end, he was surprised and mostly felt disappointed for his former castmates. Yet, he admits, he had reached his own limits with the series long before.

“I was reaching a point where I was regularly frustrated with certain storylines,” he explains. “I just wanted us to be, not necessarily a documentary, but to embrace the fact that there was a natural drama in the sense of health, which didn’t require us, in my case, to deliver my granddaughter’s baby. 14 year old daughter while treating my brain tumour. It was kind of at this point that I thought: is this really what I want to do?

Now, without the ties of serial drama, Quarshie is embracing the many different jobs available to her – and is considering stepping behind the camera, too.

“My ambition is to move more into production, as a producer and screenwriter,” he says. “I want to tell those stories that are often overlooked, or footnotes in other people’s stories.” When pressed on what’s on his mind, he’s mostly mute, but can’t help but give a hint. “So I’m thinking of something with Heathcliff in The Wuthering Heights…” Whether Emily BrontÑ’s tortured antihero was written as a black character has been a long-debated literary mystery. Perhaps this is an aspect of the Heathcliff story that he hopes to tell one day? But Quarshie isn’t ready to give it his all just yet. “That’s all I can say now,” he said with a smile. “More on that another time.”

‘Riches’ is available to stream on ITVX now

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