By Uche Nworah
The 80’s and 90’s in Nigeria belonged to actors and actresses who lit up our television screens with superb performances in soaps, TV dramas and shows such as Inside Out, Mirror in the Sun, Supple Blues, Behind the Clouds, Checkmate, Fortunes, Basi & Company, Ripples, New Masquerade, Fuji House of Commotion, The Village Headmaster, Cockcrow at Dawn, Second Chance, Tales By Moonlight and the list goes on.
These men and women became small screen gods and goddesses. I remember watching the likes of Barbara Soky deliver breathtaking performances first as Rosemary in the Rivers State Television (RSTV) produced soap Inside Out, and later as Yinka Fawole in Lola Fani-Kayode’s Mirror in the Sun – the soap opera that still ranks as one of the best to come out of Nigeria.
Recall the longevity of shows such as Cock Crow at Dawn especially the profound performances of Bitrus (Sadiq Daba) and the weekly comic relief served up by the whole cast of New Masquerade including Chief (Dr.) Zebrudaya Okoroigwe Nwogbo alias 4:30 (Chika Okpala), his screen wife Ovularia, Prince Jegede Sokoya (Claude Ake), Gringory (James Iroha), Clarus (Davis Ofor) and Akpeno (Christy Essien-Igbokwe).
Who will forget the forever raging battle of wits between Ann Haastrup (Ego Boyo) and Segun Kadiri (Richard Mofe-Damijo) in the Amaka Igwe directed soap Checkmate or the hilarious crew of the Ken Saro-Wiwa produced TV sitcom Basi & Company including Basil (Albert Egbe), Alali, Josco, Dandy, Segi and Madam-the-Madam all of Adetola Street who popularised phrases such as “If you want to be a millionaire, think like a millionaire,“, “It’s just a matter of cash!“, “I’m hungry, Mr. B!” and “Come in if you’re handsome and rich!” Basil was already advising us to think like millionaires if we wanted to be millionaires in the sitcom before Frank Edoho started searching for who wants to be a millionaire on TV. These were well-scripted shows that became popular in millions of Nigerian homes purely for their entertainment value.
Long before Ramsey Noah, there was already another heartthrob in the person of late McArthur Fom who made millions of women idolize him as Nosa in the soap hit Behind the Clouds. Ene Oloja played the character of Nosa’s no-nonsense stern elder sister while Zack Amata played the role of Mr Okonzua, Nosa’s father. Nosa’s career was unfortunately cut short by cerebral spinal meningitis which claimed his life.
This period could probably be described as the golden age of Nigerian television, a period when actors and actresses made waves for the right reasons not just because of who they were sleeping with or what car they drove. They worked hard at improving their craft and reaching their devoted fans every week performance after performance. The Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) broadcasting through a network of sister stations in almost all the states of Nigeria helped to bring these shows to people’s homes supported by corporate sponsors. NTA also gave opportunities to many of its staff including Pete Edochie and Obi Okoli to showcase their talent. This is also how the names Peter Igho and late Matt Dadzie came to be associated with quality television at the time. This period also saw the rise of independent producers such as Amaka Igwe and the likes of Paul Emema, my classmate at the Communications Arts department of University of Uyo who created Supple Blues.
And then came Living in Bondage and everything changed. Widely acclaimed as the pioneer of what has since become a multi-million naira film industry in Nigeria known as Nollywood. This straight-to-video movie was released sometime around 1992. It was directed by Chris Obi Rapu, written by Kenneth Nnebue and Okechukwu Ogunjiofor and produced by Kenneth Nnebue. Its cast included Kenneth Okonwo, Kanayo O. Kanayo, Bob Manuel Udokwu, Francis Agu, Ngozi Nwosu, Nnena Nwabueze and Sydney Diala. The success of Living in Bondage gave rise immediately to the production of other straight-to-video independent films notably Circle of Doom, Rattlesnake, Nneka the Pretty Serpent and many others whose release followed in rapid succession. Our Nollywood stars literally were then born. Enter Eucharia Anunobi, Saint Obi, Liz Benson, Jim Iyke, Genevieve Nnaji, Mona Lisa Chinda, Funke Akindele and the rest of them. They were widely celebrated while they smiled home to the bank as well. And the pioneers, those who first gave Nigerians joy on the small screen, it seemed their stars waned, sponsorship money on television dried up except for corporate owned and sponsored programming.
NTA also appeared to have lost its way preferring to air Mexican and other Latin American soap imports; moving away from its time tested and successful model of supporting indigenous soaps and productions. It appeared there was no longer interest in continuing to sustain soaps and other related shows on TV when Nollywood’s fame and fortune beckoned. And then the crossovers began, even former queen of soaps Regina Askia couldn’t resist the pull of Nollywood. Richard Mofe-Damijo, Joke Silva, Nkem Owoh, Olu Jacobs, Pete Edochie, Clarion Chukwura, Sam Loco Efe and many more who dominated soaps and shows on the small screen all made the evitable switch to Nollywood productions.
It is the Nigerian television audience that have become the biggest losers in the Nollywood “craze” – that is for those who still bother to watch. Lovers of good old-fashioned family sitcoms, soaps and shows have now been condemned to watching third rate performances by some unemployed actors, actresses and ‘wannabe’ stars as they dish up rubbish by way of some of the half-measure Nollywood films being rushed and produced overnight. Some end up being aired as fillers on the DSTV operated Africa Magic movie channels. These guys are forgetting that hard work and professionalism should come before the thoughts of fame and fortune.
Maybe some blame should go to some of the professional actors guild who rather than focus on improving the arts and demanding for minimum standards of performance are more interested in fighting for leadership of the guilds so as to control the perks of office and perhaps have access to President Goodluck Jonathan’s promised $200 million Nollywood lifeline. At the next award season in the United States, those who care should watch out for the Emmy Awards nominees and winners. It will prove that that motion pictures and media entity that is Hollywood has not killed television in America. So why should Nollywood destroy television in Nigeria?