Paterson Joseph’s initial interest in Charles Ignatius Sancho, the first black Briton to vote and the hero of his debut novel, was, he admits, purely selfish. The actor, known for TV hits including Peep Show, Vigil and Noughts & Crosses, had been eager to star in a period drama in the 2000s, but he was repeatedly told there weren’t any suitable parts.
“I am a product of drama schools that did a lot of classics — I love Shakespeare and the European classics. I believed I could play anything, but not according to the casting directors,” he says with a wry look. “I thought there must be a black character that I could get a writer to write that I could then play.”
He set about researching black British history, and came across Thomas Gainsborough’s portrait of Sancho. “I had never seen anything like that before,” he recalls. “I thought it was maybe a pastiche, but it was a real fella.”
Joseph discovered not only had Sancho attempted an acting career, composed popular songs and written a book on music theory for the royal family, he was also obese and suffered from gout. “I thought, ‘Bafta! Olivier! This is gonna be great!’”
Yet as he read more about the 18th century figure — the inspiration for Joseph’s one-man play in 2010 and now The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho — he found himself feeling more at home in the country he had been born in.
“I grew up in this country, and yet I felt like an outsider,” he says. “I grew up in the 70s in Willesden Green [in north-west London]. It was the Irish and the blacks, and we were always vilified — ‘w**s out’, ‘Paddy go home,’ you could see that painted everywhere — so we always felt like strangers. Here I was, going, ‘They think we’re just Johnny-Come-Latelys. We’ve been here for centuries!’ That’s really why I’ve written the book, because I feel like it’s about belonging.”
Sancho’s story is indeed the stuff of a compelling primetime period drama. He was born on a slave ship in the middle of the Atlantic around 1729 and sold as a “pet” to three sisters in Greenwich, who named him after Don Quixote’s squire. After escaping slavery, he became a writer, composer, shopkeeper and abolitionist, all in a short life of 50 years.
Joseph observes that Sancho occupied an unusual position, straddling both poor and royal circles: the Duke of Montagu, who was closely associated with the royal family, became a mentor to Sancho, and he later met the king.
For Joseph, it wasn’t so much that he wanted to write a novel as that he felt it was “essential” to tell this story “because it was missing”. “This should have been something that I was picking up when I was reading David Copperfield and Oliver Twist in my teens. It’s a disgrace that we don’t have tons of these stories because there are tons of people to tell stories about,” he says.
The story of British slavery, Joseph points out, is unique because it happened “remotely”. “Officially, there was no slavery in Britain,” he says, despite the posters for runaway slaves scattered across urban centres. That black British history, however, remains untold.
“Now our whole black culture is American. Why do we think that the American history is our history? It’s the only history we have, but it’s important for us to be specific, and the story of Britain and slavery is very different.”
As we speak, Joseph is in the process of signing hundreds of copies of his book, but he keeps the conversation going fluidly. Much like his writing style, he is “verbose”, as he puts it, with the sense of humour you would expect from the man who made smooth-talking boss Alan Johnson a legendary comic character through nine seasons of Peep Show.
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Joseph was keen to bring humour to this story. Sancho was close friends with Tipperary-born Laurence Sterne, whose great novel Tristram Shandy is a clear influence on The Secret Diaries. The lively tone, however, didn’t appeal to everyone — Joseph says many publishers rejected the book on the grounds that it didn’t feel “authentic”.
“You’re basically saying it can’t be true because this man is articulate and it doesn’t feel like he’s a victim. This is not 12 Years A Slave. I thought, Oh, I know what you want. You want a lot of pain and agony and him having no power,” says Joseph, exasperated. There are plenty such books available, he adds, but he is more interested in humanity than brutality.
“How did we live if we didn’t have humour? Humour is what helps us go ‘Life’s shit, but here’s a joke about how shit it is.’ The Irish have it. The s*** that the British perpetrated on them — this to me is another source of great rage — and yet, the Irish are the most twinkly, funny, amusing people who can tell you about the English, but at the same time, you’re laughing, you know?”
His book also depicts the close bond between Irish and African communities in London in the 1700s, of which he observes: “Colonial peoples understand what it is like to be oppressed, so there’s a real solidarity there.”
Joseph too grew up surrounded by Irish people. He later lived in Dublin when filming In the Name of the Father, and afterwards with his French ex-wife, whom he married in Blackrock.
“The Irish are so important to me in my life. Everybody in my Catholic school in Willesden Green but me was Irish,” he says. His St Lucian parents stopped speaking kweyol, their island’s vernacular language, to him when he was three because they didn’t want their children to have accents, and he studied English voices on the radio. At school, Joseph was stunned to hear his Irish classmates — the delivery of “fill-um” was a particular source of wonder.
“I was five and a half, and my brain fizzed,” he recalls, noting his classmates were just as fascinated by his pronunciation of “ask”. “I was so bemused by it. I’ve got a big love and affection for the Irish.”
School was otherwise a deeply unhappy place. “I grew up in the era where Afro-Caribbean kids were designated educationally subnormal. I was always treated as if I was very thick,” he explains, noting that because of that experience, he never considered himself a writer, although he wrote many stories.
Many years later, after enlisting a writer to complete the first draft of his play, Joseph felt the result was “so wrong” he had to write the monologue himself. “I was a bit slow and a little under-confident about my writing skill. I started the first bit of the play in 2005, and when I finished it in 2008, we were living in a ‘post-racist society’, I was hearing,” he says with a roll of the eyes. “I thought, ‘Oh, I’ve missed the boat, but I’ll write it anyway and see how it goes’. And then of course, 10 years later, we’ve got George Floyd and Black Lives Matter.”
It was during this time, lockdown 2020, that he sat down and wrote the novel — more than two decades after he came across Sancho.
He is now working on a BBC series by Jack and Harry Williams, the writing duo behind The Missing and The Tourist. Even more excitingly, in Christmas 2023, he will star in his first musical, Wonka, alongside Timothée Chalamet. The film, a prequel to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, reunites him with his Peep Show co-star Olivia Colman, or “Colly” as he calls her.
“We did a scene together, and I laughed all day, sometimes during takes. It was a nice Peep Show reunion as well,” he says. “It was joyful. I got to dance about and be a proper villain to Timmy, who is just the loveliest — annoyingly loveliest — person.”
Can he sing and dance? “Apparently, yes! That’s my new career,” he jokes, simultaneously signing his 800th book of the day. “I haven’t got time to write books, I gotta put on my leotard!”
‘The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho’ by Paterson Joseph (Dialogue) is out now