Making all the right moves
Angela Cobbinah talks to choreographer Allister Bain about writing his memoirs and trying to teach James Mason to limbo dance
08 December, 2017 — By Angela Cobbinah
IT was the 1950s equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster and a young man from Grenada helped to really make it swing.
The film was Island in the Sun, an interracial romance set in the Caribbean considered daring for its time, and the youngster was dancer Allister Bain, who besides choreographing a key carnival scene, taught its star Dorothy Dandridge to limbo.
Allister got the job after the cast and crew attended a cabaret performance of his dance troupe, Bee Wee Ballet.
“We invited the stars to come up on stage and have a go at the limbo,” he recalls. “We all had a great evening. James Mason was as stiff as a lump of wood but Joan Collins managed it – she was a lot of fun. Afterwards, the producer Darryl Zanuck announced: ‘I want that in my movie’, so they incorporated carnival into the storyline and got Dorothy to do the limbo.”
Allister gave the US actress lessons in his sister’s living room where privacy could be guaranteed. “Dorothy was a real lady and a beautiful one at that. It was fantastic working with her. I also had to do a scene on the beach in which I played the part of a fisherman singing with [co-star] Harry Belafonte. The whole thing was a fantasy come true for me. I had reached the unreachable.”
The buzz around the film opened up many doors for him and in 1959 he and his troupe performed in England on the TV show Chelsea at Nine, which that week featured Shirley Bassey singing her first chart hit, Kiss me, Honey, Honey, Kiss Me.
London became home and the story of how he developed his acting career to appear in a wide variety of roles over the years – from Michael Abbensett’s Sweet Talk at the Royal Court Theatre to the BBC’s Dr Who – is told in his latest book, The French Cashew Tree.
More dreamy meditation than memoir, it is short on detail but full of wry asides and lyrical insights into self and life. Intriguingly, it is written under the pseudonym of Parrain Thorance.
“Writing anonymously meant I could be someone else and that gave me a certain freedom,” explains Allister, now a lively 82. “Really and truly I have always been searching for me and the book is a reflection of my journey through life.”
The title refers to the tree that loomed large in his childhood after his parents, grandmother and aunt tragically died, one after the other. “I lost them between the ages of eight and 12 and I became a kind of waif. To this day I find it hard to settle down in any place or with anybody. The tree became a source of solace and I would sit in it for hours to get away from everyone. It was my secret hideaway.”
It was attending drama classes in his late teens that turned his life around and brought the show-off in him to the fore as he appeared in plays as a member of the Grenada Players. A keen dancer, he also travelled to the sister island of Carriacou, the centre of a thriving folk culture, to learn traditional dance forms. He later set up Bee Wee Ballet, which went on to perform the musical he wrote for the festival in Trinidad marking the launch of the shortlived West Indies Federation in 1958.
“I was dancing on air. But in England I found one had to be either an actor or a dancer. You could not do both.”
He settled into a typical actor’s life, big breaks followed by long periods of nothing. “I am a man of many parts but I couldn’t always get the parts,” he jokes. “You work and you don’t work and how many roles are there anyway for black actors?”
He was faced with the additional problem of sometimes not being considered black enough: “I have asked directors – what are you looking for, an actor or a black person? They seem to have their own idea of what a black man looks like.”
But there were opportunities, too, with the explosion of black drama in the final three decades of the millennium that saw hit series such as Empire Road and Us Girls on TV and cutting edge stage plays by the likes of Earl Lovelace, Trevor Rhone and Derek Walcott, all of which Allister appeared in.
He was also busy at Islington’s Keskidee Arts Centre. “People from the continent used to come to the Keskidee for the weekend to experience something fresh and exciting, that’s how big it was. My dream was that it would get bigger and better, but like so much else positive that was going on at the time in black theatre it came to an end and we are more or less back to square one.”
Allister also looks back fondly at his time in repertory where he was able to get his teeth into more new writing and have fun in panto. Ova Ya was the first of his one- man shows, while later in his career he reinvented himself as a storyteller, touring schools and libraries up and down the country: “I love telling stories to children just as I loved listening to them as a child in Grenada.”
Ever the restless spirit, he is still full of ideas and projects, his small flat in Crouch End stacked with books and papers. The laughs come easily but the French cashew tree remains a presence in his life. “It has travelled with me to this day,” he says.
• The French Cashew Tree. By Parrain Thorance, authorHouse, £9.95