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OBITUARY | The real Jamie Bartlett wasn’t Mike O’Riley or David ...

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OBITUARY | The real Jamie Bartlett wasn’t Mike O’Riley or David Genaro

Apartheid and black-and-white assumptions couldn’t contain the spirit of an actor with a huge presence and energy

Contributor and analyst

I could not believe my rookie luck when brilliant African actor Jamie Bartlett, perhaps better known as David Genaro (Rhythm City) and Mike O’Riley (Isidingo), characters that made him a household name and recognisable face across the continent, stopped me at Poppy’s in Melville, in 2012 or thereabouts, planted himself next to me and talked to me about the technicalities of speech and drama. Honestly, my passion for broadcast journalism was never and still is not about having my voice or face recognised. I am simply obsessed about the issues that I broadcast and write about. So, when someone larger than life like Bartlett sat down to tell me about my radio show that he had been listening to, I was smiling from ear to ear, a superfan trying hard to be nonchalant but failing.

We were both not-so-elegantly wasted, enveloped by the familiar conviviality of Poppy’s, drinking late into the night. I was enthralled by his passion for voice, and the incredibly nerdish but fun detail with which he was explaining stuff I was unaware of, why certain aspects of my voice projection, modulation, diaphragmatic breathing and so on have a certain sonic and aesthetic effect on the ear. Anyone who met Bartlett or knew him will agree he was energy, massive energy, and a gigantic, charismatic presence. That is why it is with utter disbelief that I had to change the previous sentence from present to past tense, to reflect the unbelievable fact that he died on Monday at the still young age of 55. Fellow creative and actor Nolwazi Shange-Ngubeni put it appropriately on Twitter: “The news of Jamie Bartlett’s death is weird to me. This is someone whose spirit didn’t seem like it existed in the same realm as death. His energy filled the room. It was palpable. To talk about him in the past tense is strange.”

Bartlett was born to a South African mother, Lola, who was a nurse, and an English father, Richard, who was an audio engineer. He arrived on Earth via Maidenhead in Berkshire, England, but grew up in SA, attending Western Province Preparatory Junior School and Rondebosch Boys High School. He did not really like talking about his early years much, describing even affluent Pinelands in Cape Town as a “colourful emotional wasteland”. He completed his schooling in his beloved Johannesburg, first at St Stithians Boys’ College before moving on to Bryanston High School. Interestingly, he was a very talented rugby player at school, representing Transvaal at Craven Week in Upington in 1983 and even getting a rugby scholarship. But despite this sporting prowess, his passion for performing arts was much stronger and rugby had taken a back seat. If you find these interests a weird combination for a South African boy, Bartlett was lucky to have a brilliant rugby coach, Tim Clifford, who also taught him Latin, and an English teacher, Michael Staley, who nurtured his lifelong love of literature. He rejected any stereotypical dichotomy between a sport like rugby and the arts. He studied speech and drama at the University of Cape Town and later at Chrysalis Theatre Acting School in London...

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