When Joseph Abiodun Babatunde (a.k.a. Jab) Adu closed his eyes to this side of existence last Sunday morning, he became the latest cast member of the now NTA’s drama series The Village Headmaster to answer nature’s ultimate call. Both his professional life and his life off the screen attest to his passion for service, Okechukwu Uwaezuoke observes

“I rejoice with you all.” Jab Adu stood beside the white Toyota Hi-ace minibus that sunny Sunday afternoon and beamed at its occupants. “‘To give unselfishly, to help where help is needed, and to understand both the suffering and the weaknesses of your fellow-men, means to receive, because it is the simple and true way to the Highest’,” he quoted from the Work, In the Light of Truth (The Grail Message) by Abd-ru-shin.

The occupants of the white minibus, like him adherents of The Grail Message, were set to depart for Lagos. They had come to support his work on the spread of the three-volume book, which was originally written in German language, in Abeokuta and environs.

A few days earlier, Adu welcomed visitors at The Grail Message bookstand. This was at a trade fair in Abeokuta. One of the visitors wrote down in the visitors’ notebook: “Jab Adu is a crowd-puller any day.”
This visitor missed the point. The bookstand was obviously not about Adu’s popularity. But then, what made him “a crowd-puller”? It is not hard to figure out why he would be described as one. Adu was a screen icon, who would be best remembered for his role as Bassey Okon in the Nigerian Television Authority drama series The Village Headmaster.

This was sometime in the late 90’s. Fast-forward to 2004. Adewole Ojo sat with an interviewer at one of the drinking kiosks at “Abe Igi” in the National Theatre Lagos premises in Iganmu. He was speaking glowingly about Adu. Adu played the role of his dad (Mr Ojo) while he was Iyi in the now forgotten NTA series One Big Family, created by Charles Novia and directed by Sadiq Daba.

More than a decade after, the young actor – who had since earned his renown in the industry by featuring as Kashimawo in Tunde Kelani’s Maami – was expressing sadness at the sudden passage of the man he called “Uncle Jab”. “It’s very sad news I must say,” he said. “His contribution to the growth of Nigerian film industry can never be overemphasised… He will be greatly missed.”

Describing the man, whose supposed name “Jab” is actually an acronym for Joseph Abiodun Babatunde Adu, as “fatherly”, he recalled that he used to advise him “on certain ways to approach things.” This is in addition to his guidance on how the young actor would improve on his skills. “He was a very calm person, who was slow to anger.”

Would he then call him a mentor? He would rather describe the late actor as someone he admired.
Adu, it was gathered, had departed this earth-life on Sunday morning in his Abeokuta home. If the immediate cause of his physical demise still remained nebulous, blame it on the fact that at 83 he was deemed old enough to be debilitated by old age.

Thus, he became the latest cast member of the now-rested and much-cherished NTA drama series The Village Headmaster to pass on. The series, which was created by the late Segun Olusola, has recently lost a significant number of its cast members (including Olusola’s wife, Elsie) to the Grim Reaper. Notable among the departed cast members were Justus Esiri and Femi Robinson, who at different times played the role of the headmaster of the Oja village school. While Esiri departed this life in 2013, Robinson passed on last year.

Much earlier, it was Joe Layode (who played the role of Garuba the teacher) who gave up the ghost in 2006. Two years after, Oba Wole Amele (who acted as Counsellor Balogun) and Funsho Adeolu (Chief Eleyimi) who became the Alaye of Ode Remo (Sataloye II) followed closely on his heels. Leke Ajao (Kokonsari) passed away the following year. Then the culture community were shocked by the deaths of Enebeli Elebuwa (who acted as a police officer) and Albert Kosemani Olayemi (Gorimapa) in 2012.

Indeed, Adu’s demise was a sobering reminder of the fact that a generation of Nigeria’s olden days’ entertainers were answering nature’s ultimate call at an alarming frequency. His devotion to the cause of the spread of The Grail Message brightened his off-screen life to his final years.

Even after an active life in the industry, he still had his sights set on his masterpiece production.
Flash-back to sometime in early 2000’s. He had declined to be interviewed by a now-defunct quality newspaper but gave the reporter a hint that he would intimate him on a bigger project he was working on. If this project was later completed, that newspaper reporter would never know. But what became evident was that Adu never really retired from the industry even as an octogenarian.

Curiously, he had before his headlong lunge into the acting profession had a stint with the banking industry. He first worked with the BBWA (short for British Bank for West Africa), which became Standard Bank and finally First Bank. He would later travel to the UK to study banking as course at the Westminster City College, London, where he graduated as an Associate of the Institute of Bankers (A.I.B.). While still in London, he later enrolled at the Morley College of Drama in South London. “I completed the banking course and I did what I had always wanted to do,” he said in an interview.

Back to Nigeria sometime in the mid-60’s, Adu worked with the Central Bank of Nigeria. This period coincided with the pioneering activities of television. Then what used to be known as NBC (Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation) was starting in Lagos on the heels of WNBS (Western Nigeria Broadcasting Service) and ENBC (Eastern Nigeria Broadcasting Corporation) had started in Ibadan in 1959 and in Enugu in 1960, respectively.

On the staff of the NBC were the likes of Segun Olusola and Christopher Kolade. It was the former who conceptualised the drama series The Village Headmaster but Sanya Dosunmu, a producer in NBC’s drama department, crystallised the concept. Adu was handed the role of Bassey Okon, who was a doctor, dispenser and pharmacist all rolled into one. His being given this role had nothing to do with the fact that he was born in Calabar on December 28, 1932 though he was of Yoruba parentage.
He was auditioned for the role like others and he thought it challenged him and offered him the opportunity to be creative.

This was while he still worked at the Central Bank. But he would later give up his job at the apex bank when it became evident that acting was gaining the upper hand. Drama then was not as financially rewarding as it could now be. Yet, he didn’t look back when he was quitting his job at the Central Bank.

About a decade later, he decided it was time to do something on his own. This was how he conceptualised Adio Family in 1978. Then, getting sponsorships for drama productions wasn’t easy but he was able to get sponsors for the series, which he wrote, produced and acted in. A story about family life, it was about a middleclass family’s efforts at balancing the values-oriented upbringing of the children and a happy married life.

He later also scripted and produced the film Bisi, Daughter of the River based on the Yoruba legend Olurombi. It was shot on celluloid on location in both Lagos and Badagry. But it was Francis Oladele’s adaptation of Wole Soyinka’s Kongi’s Harvest, which blazed the trail as the first film produced in celluloid in Nigeria. Oladele subsequently did another film called Frog in the Sun. Then, there was also Sanya Dosunmu’s effort titled A Dinner with the Devil.

Though Bisi, Daughter of the River was very popular among the local cinema buffs, it was not much of a financial success. Adu was grateful that he had the late business mogul MKO Abiola as his sponsor.
Meanwhile, Adu made a brief foray into stage drama production when he collaborated with JP Clark and acted in his The Boat. This was in addition to directing stage plays and doing a skit titled Squandering of Riches for BBC at the PEC Repertory Theatre, JK Randle Hall in Onikan, Lagos. In this venue also, he oversaw the staging of productions like Our Dear Native Lord, Parcel Post, The Opportunity, Schools Out and the maiden public performance of Clark’s Wives Revolt.

Adu would later script all the sketches of A Squandering of Riches when it was shot on location in Nigeria and performed at the PEC Repertory. He was also one of the scriptwriters of the African Radio Drama Association (ARDA) that wrote the radio series titled Rainbow City. The series revolved around issues bordering on good governance and democracy, accountability and transparency, reproductive health issues and HIV/AIDS.

Through the BBC World Service, Adu scripted and acted in its award-winning radio drama series, titled Story Story – Voices from the Market, which was not only popular in Nigeria but also in many English-speaking African countries. He was part of the team that developed and wrote a BBC WST TV drama series Wetin Dey, which he also acted in.

Besides serving on a ministerial committee to harmonise the functions of the Nigerian Film Corporation and the Nigeria Films and Video Censors Board, he bagged Lifetime Achievement Award at The Zuma Film Festival, in 2008 for his contributions to acting, film production and leadership. This was 30 years after he was awarded the Member of the Order of Niger (MON).