Hugh Quarshie on wealth of diversity in Riches and almost quitting acting before Holby City
The actor opens up about his new ITVX series, his sense of identity and the problematic idea of "home".
In a first for UK primetime television, Riches features a self-made Black British family. The Richards family are sitting on the top of multimillion hair and cosmetics empire Flair & Glory, with Stephen (Hugh Quarshie) at the head of the household.
It comes time to name a successor for the family business and he must choose between the children he left behind from his first marriage – US-based Nina (Deborah Ayorinde) and Simon (Emmanuel Imani) – and his “new” family in London with second wife Claudia (Sarah Niles) – Gus (Ola Orebiyi), Wanda (Nneka Okoye) and Alesha (Adeyinka Akinrinade).
Written by Abby Ajayi (How to Get Away with Murder, Inventing Anna), Riches is being billed as a “love letter to Black London” and employs an inclusive and diverse cast and crew to represent the “nouveau riche” Richards family.
“My understanding is that often the children of the nouveau riche discard all the attitudes and moralities which they might have had before their parents became wealthy. Money can solve a lot of problems, it can buy access and fame and comfort,” Quarshie says.
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“You see what happens when people like Kanye West get into making their own fashion brands; the Kardashians became famous for being famous; and Gwyneth Paltrow [has her] wellness company Goop.”
Flair & Glory represents the billion-pound Black hair and beauty industry, which “goes to the essence of what is identity, how you present yourself”, says Quarshie. “Black women won’t deny themselves that right – it’s not a luxury, it’s a necessity.”
Riches is part of ITV’s Diversity Acceleration Plan, which generated a 33% increase in the number of lead roles featuring Black, Asian and minority ethnic talent on ITV last year.
The UK is finally catching up to the likes of US series Empire, which aired in 2015, and followed Terrence Howard’s character, a music mogul who had to choose which of his three sons should take over the business.
Although London born and bred, Ajayi studied screenwriting in New York and took inspiration from American series Dynasty and Dallas.
The Richards family are of Nigerian origin, but Quarshie was born in Ghana (“We humble Ghanaians really do admire the feistiness of Nigerians”), and moved to the UK with his parents when he was young.
He’s been on our screens since 1968’s Scene when he was just 14, and he’s now 67. In his long-running career, he’s starred in Highlander, The Murder of Stephen Lawrence, and its follow-up Stephen, Doctor Who episodes and Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, but he tells us: “There have been a number of times when I have thought about giving up acting, because it just didn’t satisfy.”
“It didn’t fulfil me financially, and that’s quite a consideration when you’ve got a family and a mortgage, and it was unfulfilling artistically. I thought about going into teaching, or business, or maybe writing,” he adds.
“Shortly after Star Wars, I was just so despondent and disappointed about what had happened or what hadn’t happened, but my agent at the time persuaded me to hang in there. It wasn’t long before I started my stint on Holby City.”
Quarshie appeared in the series for 19 years, making him the longest-serving cast member.
Quarshie’s Twitter bio describes him as such: “Actor. Director. Writer. African, British, European.” He has appeared on Who Do You Think You Are? to trace his Ghanian and Dutch origins, while his wife is from Sweden. “The idea of home has always been slightly problematic and a bit elusive for me,” he says.
“Growing up in the UK, you acquire a lot of British culture without necessarily feeling that you are English or Welsh or Scottish, but that you are African-British. You become aware that people assess you on first sight. I’ve tried to pass on to my three children that they have a sense of entitlement to be here.”
At the end of our interview, Quarshie asks me, with genuine interest: “What are your own ethnic origins?” I share with him, just as he’s shared with me. Earlier in our chat, he said: “I think our identity is based on a sense of kinship, solidarity with others, whether they’re related to us or not,” and this one conversation has already led to a greater understanding of each other and where we come from – we just need to be open to listening.
All six episodes of Riches are released on Thursday 22nd December on ITVX.