RAM JOHN HOLDER: A Profile
A number of reporters from the press and radio - myself included - were all crammed into Cotton?s Rhum Shop in Camden Town on this autumn evening. The warmth (partly due to the punch being served) makes us grateful to be in, away from the cold outside. In our company is Channel 4?s Farrakh Dhondy, together with Humphrey Barclay and Trix Worrel - the team responsible for probably the most popular Black British television series - the late, lamented Desmond?s. Barclay invites the assembled hacks to witness `the greatest show on earth?. The Man of The Hour is one Ram John Holder.
We watched him in Desmond?s; the cantankerous, yet loveable, lollipop man forever trading insults with Matthew, the Gambian student. Despite his baldness, he did spend a remarkable amount of his time in a barbershop. Now with his own series, Augustus Neapolitan Cleveland Grant - affectionately referred to as `Porkpie? - looks set to dethrone Victor Meldrew as the most popular pensioner on British television. Ram certainly feels he is up to the challenge.
Born in Guyana and educated in America and Britain, Ram?s grandfather, father and older brother were all Methodist ministers, and he trained to become one himself. However he later decided against this career path and opted for one in show business. His theatre credits include work with the Black Theatre Forum, the Royal Shakespeare Company (in the play God Bless), and parts in Reggae Britannia, Moon On A Rainbow Shawl, Beef No Chicken, Playboy of The West Indies (both on stage and television), and To Kill A Mockingbird. In addition, he has made a number of radio plays.
Ram has also made his mark as a musician. He plays a variety of instruments, including the drums, bass, piano and ukulele, and has recorded two albums - Bootleg Beatles and Black London Blues - both of which were made into a television documentary by the BBC. He wrote all the songs for Leo The Last, one of eight films in which he has appeared (the others include the eighties? cult hit, My Beautiful Launderette).
Like the screen character he is best known for, Ram knows just what it feels like to be out of money. ?I was on the dole when I auditioned for the role of Porkpie back in 1987,? he says, ?and went back on it after the first series ended. In fact, it wasn?t until the third series that I came off it for good. When I read the part the first time, I had to ask Trix (Worrel, the series? creator) whether he had written it specifically for me, as there were so many similarities between Porkpie?s life and my own. His wife and two daughters left him and went to live in Canada; mine left me and now live in the States. Unlike him, though, I still have a good relationship with my daughters; we?re good buddies.? He has kept regular contact with them, and is looking forward to becoming a grandfather in February.
It was after Desmond?s was axed that the impact the programme had made really sank in. ?I went to the Caribbean on a holiday,? he recalls, ?and heads of state were asking me what we were going to do next! All the people I came across wanted the show to continue in some form or other. We had the same kind of response from Africa and America.? Bill Cosby was one of the show?s biggest fans, and Ram acknowledges the fact that the success of The Cosby Show had helped pave the way for Desmond?s, and that both shows had proved that Black television programmes can have mainstream appeal.
So strong was Ram?s commitment to Desmond?s, he turned down a lucrative million- dollar- a- year offer to star in an American comedy series, 704 Hauser Street. It turned out to be a wise move; the series (which was seen here on Channel 4) was axed after only one season. His biggest payoff comes simply from knowing that what he does brings joy to a large number of people, although he admits that at the height of Desmond?s success, being recognised and stopped for autographs whenever he was out in public was a pain. As he puts it: ?I?m not into fame.?
There is a scene in the first episode of the new series where Porkpie reads a postcard sent to him by his long- suffering sparring partner Matthew, who has returned to the Gambia. The card simply says: ?Having a wonderful time. Glad you?re not here.? Doing that scene, Ram says, brought tears to his eyes. The relationship between Africans and African- Caribbeans Indians living in Britain has always fascinated him, and he likens it to The Odd Couple: ?we get on each other?s nerves, but we can?t live without each other.? His closest and oldest friend is a Nigerian architect, and, he says, he once had a Ghanaian girlfriend, but their relationship came to an end when she had to return home after her father became the country?s president.
In the series, Porkpie?s fortunes take a turn for the better when he wins the National Lottery. I had to ask - does he play the Lottery in real life? He does, very regularly, and has won five times - his total winnings adding up to the princely sum of ?50. Despite being luckier than most, he does have his misgivings about Britain?s most popular pastime (all right then, it?s in the Top Three). ?I feel that people who have four numbers right should get a lot more than they?re getting now, and that the jackpot should be kept at a maximum of about three million pounds,? he says. ?Also, I don?t agree with the way Lottery money is being used to fund things that really ought to be funded by the Treasury. But I still play it regularly. That?s just me being corrupted, I guess.?