Journey from Bel Air to Gaslight

Joseph Marcell in rehearsals for Gaslight

Joseph Marcell in rehearsals for Gaslight

First published in Entertainments

SIPPING a cup of ‘invigorating’ peppermint tea in lieu of any lunch and chatting about his love for the theatre, Joseph Marcell seems like a man who is content with his lot in life.

Known to many as pompous butler Geoffrey in the smash hit 1990s US show The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Marcell never aimed to be well known or to appear on screen.

He is happiest on the stage or in his garden, and is a little taken aback at the reaction he still gets to a role he played 20 years ago in the show that proved a platform into superstardom for Will Smith, currently the most bankable movie star in the world.

“People never come up to me and say ‘urgh look at this weather we’re having’ or mundane small talk like that. They say ‘what’s Will Smith like?’” he says.

It must be quite wearing, but he takes it with good grace. “It’s not really annoying,”

he says, “although it can be quite intrusive when I’m going around the supermarket with a trolley and my wife’s trying to tell me what to put in it.

“But being on that show was a wonderful experience. It gave me a lot of independence I wouldn’t have had otherwise,” he adds.

He still keeps in touch with his co-stars, although their last reunion was sadly at the memorial service for James Avery, the actor who played Uncle Phil and who died in December.

Marcell grew up in London, in Peckham and Bermondsey. His parents came from St Lucia to the UK to give their children a better future, and were not impressed when he decided to give up his engineering studies to be an actor. “They thought it was lunacy,” he says. “They expected their children to be carpenters, electricians, doctors, nurses, lawyers – not actors. What is an actor?”

But Marcell saw a performance by New York-based theatre group The Negro Ensemble Company when he was 21, and the acting bug took hold. He did his training then went to work at the Playhouse in Sheffield before joining the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1971. The role in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air came about completely by accident when he was spotted acting in a play in London. “The Americans saw me and wanted me to do my approximation of an English butler,” he laughs. The series was a global phenomenon, and Marcell has since performed on TV and in films, but theatre has always been his first love.

Last seen in Wiltshire playing King Lear with Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre at Wardour Castle during last year’s Salisbury International Arts Festival, he is currently in rehearsals for a production of Patrick Hamilton’s acclaimed 1938 thriller Gaslight at Salisbury Playhouse.

The play revolves around the fog-shrouded home of Jack and Bella Manningham in Victorian London, where the floorboards creak, the gas lights dim and Bella fears she is losing her mind. It is a classic chiller of murder and mind games in which Marcell plays police detective Rough. “It is a wonderful play,” he says. “It is dramatic, funny, exciting and a charming piece of work. It has beautiful language and it is a great story.”

Now aged 65, Marcell says he does sometimes think about retiring “but then, I ask myself ‘what would I do?’.

I have a garden and animals and a field I walk up to in the mornings, but I’m enjoying myself, so as long as the body and the old grey matter hold out, I’ll keep going.”

* Gaslight runs in the Main House at Salisbury Playhouse from Thursday, February 6 to Saturday, March 1. For tickets contact the box office on 01722 320333 or visit salisburyplayhouse.com.

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