Looking at his gait and composure, Joseph Abiodun Babatunde Adu, JAB Adu, popularly known as Bassey Okon in the popular Village Headmaster drama series is regal even at age 82. Known for his role in the series with his impeccable Efik-tainted English “chei, cheii, cheiii” JAB Adu was the master of Bonnyface, the hard and serious boy in the grocery store at Oja Village.
When Daily Times met JAB Adu at his residence in Abeokuta he was characteristically impeccably dressed in shirt and trousers with three biros tucked in his shirt pocket.
Though born in Calabar, capital city of Cross River State on December 28, 1932, JAB Adu started his education at the primary section of Baptist Academy then located at Oil Mill Street, Lagos when his father relocated from Calabar to Lagos.
From 1946 to 1951, he attended St. Gregory’s College, Obalende, Lagos.
Next, he worked at the British Bank for West Africa, the B.B.W.A, now First Bank, PLC. JAB Adu later travelled to Britain where he studied Banking at the Westminster City College, London and graduated as an Associate of the Institute of Bankers (A.I.B) UK. His passion for drama made him to enroll at Morley College of Drama, South London. He said, “I’d always wanted to do drama. In fact, before I left Lagos, I belonged to a theatre group. “The acting talent had been there and because I didn’t want to disappoint my parents, I did the first thing, read and worked as a banker. While working in the bank, I was sent abroad to read banking. I completed the banking course, then I did what I wanted to do — I spent the extra years attending a drama College.
On his return to Nigeria, JAB Adu worked with the Central Bank of Nigeria.
“When I came back, I worked with CBN. It was the period when pioneering activities started in television. NTA was just starting, that was around 1964, NTA was NBC and people like Segun Olusola, Christopher Kolade pioneered it. On the popular television drama, ‘Village Headmaster’, JAB Adu reminisced: “Segun Olusola conceptualised the Village Headmaster and it was an instant hit because it was the first of its kind. Sanya Dosunmu brought the concept into fruition.
Sanya was a producer in the drama department of NBC then. I was fortunate to be part of it. I played the role of Bassey Okon, the doctor, dispenser and pharmacist of Oja village. I was the Efik man at the junction town of Oja. While acting Village Headmaster, I was also working at CBN. Eventually, the drama aspect of me took an upper hand. I left CBN to go into full-time acting.”
But he wasn’t given the role of an Efik because of his background.
“I did not decide the role I was going to play. There were many characters and we were auditioned. I was challenged to take that role, and I accepted. It was something contrary to expectation, so I was very happy to accept it because it gave me the opportunity to be creative.”
Thinking back at the challenge, he faced with the character, Bassey Okon, he smiled and said, “I know that time my manner of speaking English was very smooth and it was like, can he speak pidgin English? Would it be easy for me to do so, I accepted it, and I think I did my best.
“I had to leave Central Bank because I had to follow my destiny. My love for drama was the major reason for leaving CBN, though it wasn’t paying much. But I managed to survive. After doing Village Headmaster for many years, yea, almost 10years I think, I decided that I needed to do something of my own.
That was what gave birth to the programme – Adio Family in 1978.
I conceptualised it and sponsorship at that time was not an easy task, yet I was able to get sponsors for it.
He wrote, produced and acted in the TV social drama series, the Adio Family, which dealt with family life. It focused on the effort of a typical middleclass family at coping with and maintaining a value-oriented upbringing for their children and a happy married life.
Speaking on the film, ‘Bisi daughter of the River’ which he also wrote and produced, he smiled and in a reflective mood said, “And again, that was a pioneering thing. In those years, film production was just about starting, we have pioneers like Francis Oladele who did Kongi’s Harvest which was the first film produced in celluloid on this country. After that, he did another one called Frog in the sun.
“I know that Sanya Dosunmu also did a film called ‘a Dinner with the devil and I decided then that I was going to try my hand at it. I wrote a script and I was lucky to find somebody who believed in the project and financed it.
“The film, ‘Bisi daughter of the River’ was based on the Yoruba legend of Olurombi and shot on 35min on celluloid on location both in Lagos and Badagry.
The film threw a challenge to the American and Indian films in the Nigerian cinema circuit because of its production quality and Nigerians’ thirst to see their own people on the cinema screens. One of the lessons of the film was that the crew were both Nigerian and foreign film technicians. It was an avenue for learning by the local crew members. It was a success story in the cinema theatres.”
He noted however, that the film was not much of a commercial success:
“In those days, those who owned the cinema house made most of the money and they gave you just about 40per cent. The film, ‘Bisi daughter of the River’ was not financially successful because we didn’t recover the money invested in it. But it was very popular. It was in Metro Cinema for over a month and it was a crowd puller. The cost of doing film on celluloid is prohibitive. Luckily for me, M. K. O. Abiola believed in the project and it was sponsored by him.
Actually, he put the money down for the production, it wasn’t a big sweat for him. “I also did some stage drama”, JAB Adu added, “I worked with JP Clark. I acted in the play The Boat by JP Clark. I was one of the people directing plays then on the stage and we did skit for BBC called Squandering of riches at PEC Repertory Theatre, JK Randel Hall, Onikan.
JAB agreed that Nollywood has taken over but noted that, “In those days, we were pioneers, not many of us, and of course now we have Hollywood, the younger ones have taken over. For me, I’m not totally retired because I’m still chasing my dream. Asked what that dream is, JAB responded with a broad smile, “I’m yet to attain what I will call my perfect production. You know, I’ve not achieved that yet. Hmm, there is a word I want to use for that, yes, my ‘master piece’.
“Yes, I’m still pursuing my master piece! I haven’t done that yet. Prodded on what the master piece is all about? He replied, “I don’t know. I can’t give you an insight into it. When I get it, I’ll know. Yes, my master piece, I’m still chasing it. I’ve not got my master piece yet, let’s put it that way.
JAB Adu kept the PEC Repertory productive with Our Dear Native Lord, Parcel Post, The Opportunity, ‘Schools Out’ and the maiden public performance of Clark’s Wives Revolt. When A Squandering of Riches was shot on location in Nigeria, all the sketches were written by JAB Adu and performed at the PEC Repertory.
JAB Adu was one of the Script writers of the African Radio Drama Association (ARDA) that wrote the radio series titled ‘Rainbow City’, which dealt with issues of good governance and democracy, accountability and transparency, reproductive health issues and HIV/AIDS.
His international radio contribution was with the BBC World Service as a script-writer and actor on their award-winning radio drama series — ‘Story Story’– Voices from the Market. This programme is popular in Nigeria and in many English speaking African countries.
JAB Adu served on a ministerial committee to harmonise the functions of the Nigerian Film Corporation and the Nigeria Films and Video Censors Board. He also participated in the development and writing of a BBC WST TV drama series Wetin dey and also acted in it. The Zuma Film Festival, in 2008 gave the Lifetime Achievement Award to JAB Adu for his contributions to acting, film production and leadership in the creative world of the country.
In 1978, JAB was awarded the Member of the Order of Niger (M.O.N.), for his contributions to the arts and creativity. Daily Times wishes Bassey Okon long life, good health and dream come true as he turned 82 yesterday.
*this was published in the Daily Times dated Monday, December 29, 2014