Many things in life are guaranteed: there’s a good chance of rain no matter what the season if you live in the UK; no matter how big your pay rise is this year, your bills will go up by substantially more, and Celebrity Big Brother will continue to scrape the bottom of the Z-list barrel until anybody who has even walked past a television studio will qualify as a ‘celebrity’. On top of those, add to that list one more thing: I am pretty sure that it is safe to bet that everybody who watched The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in the early 1990s will still remember all the words to the programme’s opening music. In fact, I can and will go further.
I am willing to bet that anybody who still remembers the lyrics to the theme tune still sings them on occasion for no reason other than they caught a fleeting glimpse of Will Smith on the television or something equally trivial. I am sure of this because I still do it; I was in the supermarket the other day, perusing the soft cheese spread aisle and it set me off…’In West PHILADELPHIA born and raised, in the playground is where I spent most of my days. Chillin’ out, maxin’, relaxin’ all cool, and all shooting some b-ball outside of the school…’ (I know that I’ve launched straight into the second verse and not the first, but otherwise my cheese spread reference wouldn’t have worked, all right?)
Just to back up how recognisable, catchy and well- loved this song is, the lyrics site that I double checked the words with reckons they’ve been viewed 1131 times THIS week alone. 1131! That’s over eleven hundred people who’ve been humming to themselves (possibly when whistling for or getting into a less than attractive smelling cab or, er – sitting on a throne? I am well aware, by the way, that if you don’t know the words to this tune then these references are entirely meaningless...) and suddenly thought that the most important thing they could do right now is ensure they can sing each word in the correct order. Good on them, I say.
Anyway, I digress. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air starred Will Smith (did you know his real name was Willard? No wonder he shortened it; not quite as easy to pull off being cool with a name like that, eh Willard?) as, er – well, pretty much Will Smith really, albeit slightly more farcical than his real rapping persona. The premise of the show was of a cocky teenage being forced to move away from his ‘crib’ and his ‘homies’ (sorry, my middle-class upbringing lends itself terribly to street talk) to live with his incredibly rich aunt and uncle in their posh mansion in Bel Air, California, in his Mum’s hope that they would be able to keep him under control after he got into a fight (seems a bit of a snap judgement to me but hey…). His new lifestyle was a long way from his background in West ‘Philly’ (told you), Pennsylvania and a lot of the humour came from the differences between the two.
Setting aside Smith for a moment, by far the biggest character (literally) on the show was the Honorable Philip ‘Uncle Phil’ Banks (the late and lamented James Avery). Once an activist for the civil rights movement in the 1960s he studied at Harvard to become a lawyer and, later on, a judge. Whilst he could be gruff and overly-stern, he was at heart a kind, loving and morally upstanding family man who wanted the best for all of his children, including Will. Phil stood firm against Will’s initial attitude towards the family’s wealth and perceived ‘softness’ (as compared to Will’s Philadelphia toughness) and in doing so showed Will that he had also been through some difficult times in his past, working hard to get where he was, as opposed to having it simply handed to him. Phil was generally portrayed in one of three ways: either the strict and sometimes sadistic disciplinarian, the overweight dad of the family doing something buffoonish or the ultimate professional in his field.
The personality of his wife, Professor Vivian Banks PhD (played by Janet Hubert-Whitten for the first three series, and Daphne Maxwell Reid for the remaining three), differed depending on who was playing her. In the early days of Hubert-Whitten she was portrayed as an outspoken career woman, but when the role was taken over by Maxwell Reid she morphed into more of a mother and housewife. The character of Vivian, whilst important to the dynamic of the Banks family, did not appear in as many episodes as her husband, and therefore was not so instrumental in shaping Will’s new life as he was.
The Banks’ eldest child was Hilary (Karyn Parsons); spoilt, vain, pretentious and not quite all there in the brain department. She got by mostly on her attractive looks, her Daddy’s money (although he was by no means a soft touch) and by relying on constant help from the family’s faithful butler Geoffrey (we’ll get to him in a minute…). She worked as a weather reporter at KFPB Channel 8 News Station before going on to somehow host her own talk show. Her main love affair during The Fresh Prince’s run was with Trevor, the lead news anchor of KFPB, although this ended tragically when he died during an on-air bungee-jump-cum-marriage-proposal. Hilary was obviously distraught, although with her fairly vacant brain it didn’t take her too long before her attention shifted elsewhere.
Carlton Banks (Alfonso Ribeiro) was Hilary’s younger brother; an audience favourite and often the comic turn, particularly when he danced - which he did often. Academically intelligent, Carlton was studying hard to attend an Ivy League University, but his conservative and pedantic ways were often at odds with his laidback and much cooler cousin. Will and Carlton had many run ins during the seasons (leading to a hugely varied list of insults by Will regarding Carlton’s height – or indeed lack of it), but later on it was apparent that despite their differences the two boys/men were in fact very close and would go to lengths to defend and protect each other.
Ashley (Tatiana Ali) was the third youngest Banks child; extremely gifted musically (she was able to sing as well as play the drums and violin) she was much-loved by the whole family but found herself being controlled by her dad who didn’t want her to become a ‘typical’ teenage girl and therefore often stopped her from doing what she wanted. Ashley found an ally in the more anti-authority Will when he first arrived (his encouragement of her defiance of her father regularly ended up with him feeling Phil’s considerable wrath) although as she grew up and her interest in boys expanded Will started to take on the same sort of proprietorial view of her life. She wanted to be able to make decisions for herself and would get upset with the pair of them when they interfered.
The final son was Nicholas, or Nicky; played by the infant Gregory Wheeler for the birth episode and then by Ross Bagley (who also appeared with Smith in Independence Day) for the last two series. Cute, and then later cheekily cute he was adored by everybody. Completing the line-up was butler Geoffrey. Although not related to them he was definitely part of the family, keeping the household running smoothly on a daily basis and providing a cynical commentary to their goings on (with particular references to Philip’s weight and his own paltry wages). English by birth, he would refer to himself as working class, despite being an Oxford graduate.
One further regular character was Will’s partner in crime (and in music – although if you don’t like their brand of poppy rap then you might consider that to be the same thing) Jazz (played by Jeffrey A. Townes, aka DJ Jazzy Jeff). Blessed with around about the same amount of brain cells as Hilary, Jazz spent most of his time being thrown out of the Banks’ mansion by various members of the family, although it was generally Phil that Jazz would offend through his tactlessness.
Beginning in 1990, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air ran for 148 episodes over six seasons, ending in 1996. The final programme ended with the entire Banks’ family (apart from Will) moving away from California: Hilary transferred to New York to continue her talk show and Ashley moved in with her whilst Phil, Vivian and Nicky also move to the city to remain close to their girls. Carlton began at Princeton University in New Jersey and Geoffrey returned to the UK to be closer to his son. Will stayed in Bel-Air so that he could finish his college course.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was one of those shows that everybody liked. It was silly at times, cheesily-heartfelt at others but it was mostly just fun, and Will Smith was (and still is) an actor who was immensely easy to watch.
I’m feeling peckish after all that – think I’ll have some cheese spread on toast. Oh n - here we go again…’In West PHILADELPHIA, born and raised, in the playground is where….’ (Continue on a loop inside your brain ad infinitum.)