Tribute to the talented, inimitable Bill Marshall, friend and mentor

BY: By Ajoa Yeboah-Afari

This week, I devote this space to the memory of a fellow writer and mentor, Bill Marshall, whose funeral is taking place in Accra today, June 26.

A former Director of the National Film and Television Institute and, prior to that, a producer with Ghana Television, Mr. Marshall died on June 2, 2021, aged 88.

An acclaimed writer and playwright, he was previously the Vice-President of the Ghana Association of Writers (GAW).

The final funeral rites will be held at the GAW headquarters, PAWA House, Roman Ridge, 11 a.m. – 1 p.m.

To me, he was more ‘Tuli’ than Bill.

I always called him Tuli and I will explain why.

If my memory serves me right, we met when I had just started in journalism, around the early 1970s.

He not only persuaded, but helped me to realise my dream of writing drama and encouraged me to write two plays for Ghana Television which he produced.

We developed a lifelong big-brother-and-younger-sister type of relationship and the friendship expanded to include his wife, Lizzie.

When I found out that Bill was the author of a column in The Echo (a weekly newspaper), which happened to be a favourite of my father and myself, then, as the Akans say, it was a case of “fufuo ato nkwan mu!” (Literally, the fufuo has landed in the soup bowl! / Serendipity, or a happy coincidence.)

His Echo column, a light-hearted, amusing one, was called, I believe, ‘Tuli Blanko’s Diary’.

If I can’t recall the exact title now, don’t blame me; the period I’m referring to was the 1970s, nearly 50 years ago!

The main thing is that the name ‘Tuli Blanko’ was part of it!

Tuli had a great sense of humour and he liked to laugh.

However, behind the seeming laid-back, jovial nature was a dedicated, multi-talented person whose creativity earned him a number of awards, including in 1972, the Best Newcomer Award at the Hollywood Festival of World Television for his poignant, haunting play, ‘Child from the North’.

Fast forward to 2004, when I became the Editor of the Ghanaian Times.

After I introduced a novelty segment, the ‘Times Weekend’, I persuaded Bill to write for us.

He agreed, but this time it was under a very different name.

He chose to title it ‘This and That’; and, intriguingly, in yet another demonstration of his ingenuity, he decided to write from the viewpoint of a woman, thus ‘This and That by Akosua Kesewa Gyampo’.

How he came by that extraordinary and compelling name, Akosua Kesewa Gyampo, only God knows!

For glimpses into other aspects of Tuli, I have taken the liberty of reproducing here part of a profile I wrote of him which was published in the August 7, 1971 issue of this paper.

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The abridged profile:
Face to face with Marshall
“How did you get the name ‘Marshall’?” I asked.

“That’s a question you will have to ask my grandfather,” he replied.

“Where can I find him?” I enquired. “Well, you can’t,” he answered with a grin. “He’s dead.”

That initial conversation, I found out, is typical of Mr. Bill Marshall’s manner, a touch of humour here, a dash of irony there, mixed with a tinge of skepticism.

I had gone to Broadcasting House, Accra, to fulfil a long-felt wish to get to know Bill Marshall, producer of the popular local dramas that glue people to their television sets on Sunday nights and here at last I was, face to face with the man behind the name, and he was so different from what I had expected.

With a name like Bill Marshall I had imagined him to be either a ‘white’ man or failing that, a fair-complexioned man.

Yet, here he was, very obviously black!

Since he joined the GBC as a television producer in 1967, viewers have been privileged to watch the thrilling Ghanaian dramas he produces, some of which he writes himself.

His emphasis is on producing plays by local writers as a way of encouraging them “because I’m sure that there are people here who can write, only they don’t know it. They need to be shown the way,” he said.

A short story writer and an accomplished playwright, Bill has published a collection of two plays, and has a number of well-known plays to his credit.

There is little doubt that television viewers prefer local plays to those imported. The only complaint is that there aren’t enough of them. He attributes the deficiency to the scarcity of material and to the lack of professional actors and actresses.

“We waste too much time on one production because our actors are not full time,” he explained. “We use them when they’re available which makes things a bit difficult … What we need is a full time National Theatre. If we had one, television could draw on its actors and productions.”

Before 1967, he lived in London for seven years, where he studied drama and production at the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama. He never had any formal training in play writing.

“I write because I like to; and I enjoy it,” he said.

He has had four of his plays broadcast on the BBC African Theatre Programme.

What are his plans for the future?
“I expect to have more plays and better productions wherever I may be,” he replied, “because I think I’m lucky in that I enjoy my work.”

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And lucky for me, too, that he enjoyed his work, including assisting young people to unearth their potential.

That is how come at a very young age, I could boast of two television dramas that were broadcast on national television, under the expert guiding hand of my mentor, the inimitable Bill Marshall, Tuli Blanko to me.

May the earth lie lightly upon you, my brother.

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