"He recounts a visit to Nigeria about five years ago where he rowed with his father over storming out of their village Catholic church. Nri was incensed at the sight of poor villagers who had laboured to build the church, being flogged awake by their children dressed in Boys' Brigade uniforms they had paid for..."

 


It is ten minutes past two on a Wednesday afternoon and I am sitting in Bar Italia on Frith Street in Soho, a haunt of media and creative types. The bar is draped in large England flags, a consequence of the on-going Euro 2004 football championships. As I glance at my watch, Cyril Nri walks in, as if on cue. He is casually dressed in jeans with a trendy white long sleeved top and is wearing a seventies type floppy cap which nearly obscures his face, and makes it difficult for me to recognize him. But then that is probably the point. Cyril plays the role of Superintendent Adam Okaro in The Bill, one of Britain's longest running television series with a regular viewership of over seven million. A face-obscuring cap probably helps if you're Cyril and walking along a busy Soho street on a summer afternoon. It is such a lovely sunny day, however, that we soon opt to sit outside on the pavement. Cyril has by now removed his cap but it's replaced by a pair of Silhouette sunglasses. The sun is blazing overhead which may account for the glasses.

We order drinks, a glass of white wine for me, a coffee for Cyril and get down to business. While I still wonder how best to start off, Cyril tells me about his encounter at a bank earlier in the day. He had gone in with a bag of coins only to be told that the bank doesn't take coins. He asks to see the manager who finally accepts to take the coins, but "only this time". Cyril marvels at the illogicality, the irrationality of a bank not taking coins. Having started on that note, he continues with other recent experiences he has had of illogicality - Is it a word, he asks me- I'm not sure and say so. The next incident is about something that happened in the production offices where he works. In an attempt to ensure that people do not have bigger offices than they deserve (strict rules govern how large an office an individual has, dependent on their position in the organization), a section of the office has been sealed off. Again, Cyril is bemused by the rationale behind this decision. Incidents like these he says, make him wonder if he is living in a parallel universe, if he has missed out on something. I assure him that he's not, nodding my shared bemusement at the irrationality he describes.

We are meeting because a few months ago, Cyril was asked to review one of the books on the Orange Prize shortlist. The book, Purple Hibiscus was written by Chimamanda Adichie, a friend of mine. In his review, which appeared on the Orange Prize website, he admits being moved to tears by the book, by its deep resonances with his own experience. Like Adichie, Cyril is Nigerian and Igbo, and like Kambili, the heroine of the book, he was brought up a Catholic. At the Orange Prize award ceremony where I meet him for the first time, he tells me how the clash between parents and children over religion in the book echoed his experience. He recounts a visit to Nigeria about five years ago where he rowed with his father over storming out of their village Catholic church. Nri was incensed at the sight of poor villagers who had laboured to build the church, being flogged awake by their children dressed in Boys' Brigade uniforms they had paid for - because they had fallen asleep during the sermon. On getting home, his father asked why he had left church before the end of mass, an act capable of disgracing him (Nri senior) publicly. Hence the row. Considering that Nri must have been in his mid-thirties at the time of the incident, I gain the impression that the senior Nri must be quite a formidable personality. Not that the younger Nri is any pushover. Somehow I sense that he gave back as good as he got.

Cyril is from Nri, in South Eastern Nigeria, spiritual home of the Igbo and left Nigeria in 1968, in the middle of the civil war. I ask if he remembers the war - he was six when it started. Too well is his reply, describing 1968 as the year things fell apart. His mother, originally from Barbados, that year, fled Biafra to Portugal with her four children - Cyril and his three sisters. The strains of adjusting to a new culture - with the attendant pressures from an extended family that resented their engineer son's choice of a "foreign" wife- were exacerbated by the war when the family had to flee to Nri , their home town as the Nigerian Federal army advanced. Yet the unravelling of family ties are not the only thing that Nri recalls from these turbulent period. He tells me of his sister's birthday party in Port Harcourt in 1968, an air raid and him witnessing the decapitation of a policeman by a piece of shrapnel. He was only six years old. The image has lived with him over the years, and even as he recounts it, nearly forty years later, he shudders. I marvel again at the horrors and gruesomeness of war, and how anyone can justify exposing children to such sights.

The family lived in Portugal for six months before moving to England where Cyril was educated and later trained in Drama at the famed Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. His father later remarried and Cyril has four half-siblings in Nigeria where his father still lives. He admits that he hasn't been back to Nigeria in five years, largely because of the problems of making time out of the shooting schedule of The Bill and other programmes he's involved in.

This is what he calls the mixed blessing of being on The Bill. He is pleased that the fact that he has so little free time is because he is often playing in an episode. But then he misses out on doing other things and taking proper holidays. He particularly regrets, he tells me, missing the opportunity of a small part in the television film of Jake Arnott's book, The Long Firm. The role would have involved him stubbing out a cigarette in someone's eye, a direct contrast to the cool, urbane, decent Adam Okaro he plays in The Bill. He appreciates the opportunity The Bill offers him to portray a positive image of a senior black policeman but laments that there are still too few opportunities for black writers and actors, grimacing at how often he and Diane Parish are touted as evidence of diversity on the programme. He has tried to be proactive, offering names of black writers who he thinks can do a good job, but somehow it all never seems to work out.

Aha, I ask, sensing a lead: Does he think then that there's a conspiracy to put black actors and writers down, to keep them from reaching the top? No, is his measured response - it's more institutionalized, it's the subtle networks of who was at college with whom, and who had dinner last night with whom - something that no amount of legislation can address. He however admits that prospects for black actors and actresses are a lot better than twenty six years ago when he first started acting. He pays tribute to the current executive producer of The Bill who insisted on raising the profile of black actors and actresses on the series, despite warnings that he would lose the core audience. In reality, the audience has doubled from four to roughly eight million since.

I ask this father of two his opinions on corporal punishment, especially as there is a current lobby to ban it in the UK, a move that has provoked debate among Nigerians in London, as well as the larger society. He is unequivocal in condemning the practice, calling it a product of fear on the part of parents. He admits that he has spanked his children on occasion, but says he has always deeply regretted it. He argues that there are other more effective ways of punishment, and that corporal punishment perpetuates a culture of violence. When I remind him that the vast majority of Nigerians do not see the practice as violent, and would hate to be lumped in the same category as violent child abusers, he insists that there is no such thing as a little violence, asking if one can be a little pregnant. He argues that perpetuating violence leads to a world characterized by Wole Soyinka in his recent BBC Reith Lecture entitled "I'm Right and You're Dead" and argues that attitudes like these produce the paradox of George Bush's America. This he says, is a paradigm that says, "We can bomb your children from the air using sophisticated weaponry, but blowing yourselves up on the ground is so uncivilized, it's barbaric".

Reminded again that corporal punishment is seen as an intrinsic part of Nigerian culture, Nri argues that culture should be dynamic, and instead of going in circles, should move in spirals, moving slightly wider in each generation as harmful practices are obliterated.

We move on to another topic. I notice that he has done a significant amount of work for HIV/AIDS charities. Is this a passion? Yes, he admits. He has friends who have been infected and so has had personal experience of the disease. He argues that Africa must wake up to the challenges that the epidemic poses and must stop the stigma, discrimination and denial that enables the disease to keep spreading. It is time to confront the reality, he says.

As we talk, we are interrupted by a pretty young woman who stops to ask for his autograph. According to her, her fiancé is a big fan of The Bill and would kill her if she missed the opportunity of getting Cyril's autograph. He is gracious, waving away the piece of paper she proffers, and dipping into his back pack for a publicity photograph which he inscribes for the fan. As she walks off towards Tottenham Court road, we resume our conversation.

So does he speak Igbo, hang out with Nigerians a lot? Not really he says. He missed out on the Igbo, as he lost the little he spoke when they fled Biafra. He subsequently tried to enrol in classes at the School of Oriental and African Studies but he keeps procrastinating. The last Nigerian function he attended was a town union function last year. He had arrived with his children at the event which was supposed to start at seven. By eleven, he had had to go and buy his children dinner at a nearby restaurant as the party still showed no signs of starting. At twelve when he left the party had still not started. Nevertheless he says, he's still in touch with many Nigerian family friends, describing a telephone conversation the previous day with an Igbo friend of his mother's who has known him since he was four years old!

Is his mother proud of him, then, I ask. In asking, I recall a recent incident where a cousin congratulated Chiwetel Ejiofor's mother on his starring role in Dirty Pretty Things, only to be told "He's not a star, my daughter just got into Oxford, she's the real star" No, Cyril's mother is proud of him, she bores her friends with stories about him. Or so he tells me.

So when Cyril isn't working and isn't tumbling upside down on slides with his children, what is he doing? Writing he says without missing a beat. I love writing, it gives me joy. He's also learning to ride a motorbike, something else that he enjoys doing. Does he socialize? Not really is the answer, he does the occasional cocktail party but often prefers to stay in or do his own thing. He always tries to keep a part of himself, private and personal, something he describes as essential for an actor.

So will he be going back to the stage? Where does Cyril see himself in ten years time? He laughs heartily, replying that he is more interested in where he will be tomorrow- sliding with his kids in the park. On a more serious note, he adds that he hopes that in ten years he will still be acting, still be writing and hopefully not have ended up a lonely old man. He also has other dreams for the future but he's keeping them close to his chest. As he glances at his watch, I realize it's time to move on. We walk together towards the Piccadilly Tube station where he has to catch a train to the location for the days' filming. As we walk past HMV, the music store, he decides to pop in, and I watch as the security man executes a double take, recognizing him. The floppy cap is still tucked away in his backpack. As I leave, we agree to meet again to hear his Biafran stories, something I look forward to.



Anya is a Nigerian medical doctor and writer, currently at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine