By Mike Ebonugwo& Elizabeth Uzor
When he introduced himself that Tuesday afternoon it immediately stirred memories of the good old days of television drama, especially the soap opera genre which most Nigerian families were usually hooked to courtesy of the Nigerian Television Authority(NTA).
The encounter was enough to provoke a flash-back to that golden era when The Village Headmaster ruled the NTA roost as the family drama of choice for most television viewers in the country.. This was between the late 1960s and the late 1980s when the popular programme was finally rested after setting the record of being the longest running television drama in Nigeria.
Surprisingly Mr. Oladele Osawe did not on this day look much different from Teacher Fadele, the character he played in the Village Headmaster during the period. He did not cut the image of the worry-worn veteran now marking his time on the sidelines while the present generation of art practitioners hold sway.
In fact, it can be said that the passage of time has been fair to him, appearance-wise, as he looks relatively young, agile and sharp-witted for a man who joined the original cast of Village Headmaster in the early 1970s and stayed on until the programme was rested in the ‘80s, some 20 years ago.
Having spent such a long time in the cast of such popular programme, it is understandable that Mr Osawe will speak about it and the role he played in its success with a tinge of nostalgia. It was a moment to rhapsodize about an experience that was for him, both engaging and should be cherished for a long time.
For him The Village Headmaster was one of the best things to happen in the Nigerian entertainment industry. Which is why he regrets the fact that the programme is no longer on air, having been phased out many years ago. The NTA was reported as having blamed lack of sponsorship for the development, but Osawe does not believe so, arguing that it was inconceivable that a programme that was the prime soap of its era would lack sponsorship, adding: “Only NTA can tell us why that important programme that enjoyed wide viewership should be phased out.
All I know is that could not have been due to lack of sponsorship”.
He also feels the same way about other entertainment programmes of the past which production he said were of higher quality than what obtains presently. In fact, he fels strongly that these programmes are not only still relevant for contemporary viewing, but is also making a strong case that they be brought out from the archives and be shown to the present generation of Nigerians who were not opportune to have watched them before. He said doing this has become more imperative at this time that Nigeria is celebrating her 50th independence anniversary.
For this he has a word of advice, if not appeal, for the Minister of Information and Communications, Professor Dora Akunyili: Compel NTA to search for these culturally and socially-relevant entertainment programmes and start showing them to Nigerians. “So, now that we want to celebrate Nigeria at 50, I think we should begin to show the Village Headmaster and other top quality programmes of that period so that the present generation of Nigerians can see what was done in the past and quality that went with them. It will also be an opportunity for them to see the people behind these production and give us our due as the pioneers of home video and what we have today as Nollywood.
“Most of us in my set have been relegated to the background; it’s time for us to be recognised again; people will then see the difference between us and those presently dominating Nollywood. We have many of these programmes like Cock Crow at Dawn, Samanja, Icheoku, Masquerade, Winds Against My Soul, Mirror In the Sun, For Better For Worse, The Adio Family, Koko Close, Hotel De Jordan, Second Chance, Sura The Tailor, amongst several others.
These plays stand out by reason of their high quality production. My only fear is that NTA may not still have them in their archives. The Village Headmaster ran for more than 15 years and was shown weekly. So in a year we should be having about 52 episodes. In other words NTA should be having about 400 to 500 episodes of Village Headmaster.
If they have them, they should start showing them at this period of our 50th independence anniversary celebration,” he suggested with feeling.
He said by so doing, most of the entertainment veterans of the Village Headmaster era who have been sidelined by the present crop of art practitioners, especially in Nollywood, will be begin to have a sense of belonging again as they are recognised as having been part of the success stories of these programmes.
Osawe is also of the conviction that NTA could make something for itself, revenue-wise, through re-introducing these programmes for public viewing. This he explained thus: “Actually, NTA does not know it’s sitting on a gold mine. Nowadays we’re being shown Mexican films; these films were shot many years ago but they’re now being brought to Nigeria for us to watch. NTA can do likewise with our own past movies and plays. They can convert them into DVDs and VCDs and export them to other African countries, especially the English-speaking ones. They can also take them to French-speaking countries and also convert some of them to celluloid which can be shown in cinema houses”.
Although Osawe believes that the advent of Nollywood has been a form of blessing to actors of the present generation, he is not impressed with what he describes as the poor quality production that characterises what is being sold to the public today as home videos. According to him: “It’s a blessing because nowadays you can see an actor earning N200,000, N500,000 and even N1 million. But in the past we were just doing it because of the interest we had in acting. So, the financial aspect of it is a blessing but quality-wise, believe me they are spoiling the job. We should work on the quality. It’s good to have the money, but we should take care of the quality because these videos will eventually be taken outside Nigeria where their quality will come under scrutiny.
“Now we cannot go to international film festivals because we don’t have what we can proudly show due to poor quality. At that level, films come in celluloid and not in home video. It’s after you have made your money on celluloid that you can decide to distribute in home video. So we should try as much as possible to work at the quality whatever we’re producing”.
It is remarkable that Osawe did not start life as an actor or was not originally trained as one.. In fact, he tells Sunday Vanguard that he studied Administrative Management at the university of Ilorin and was later employed as an assistant faculty officer in that institution. “It was when I retired from the University of Ilorin that I went fully into the acting profession,” he informed. After Village Headmaster was rested, he had returned to the University of Ilorin to resume his administrative job.
He also presently runs an entertainment outfit, Manel International which deals in film, TV, video, music and graphics production. It is under the auspices of this that he is presently pursuing an Artists Empowerment Project through which he is discovering and mobilising talented artistes and “assisting them to record soaps, television programme where they can showcase their talents” as well as help them negotiating with the television houses with respect to what they are entitled.
“I actually did this when I realised that people were forming all kinds of caucuses and some people have dominated the home video thing. So I now decided to assemble all these caucuses, visited them one by one to get their programms or the play they have and record, edit them and then negotiate with the television houses. We have already recorded about 13 episodes of Iba Otun caucus and we are editing it presently,” he said.