JOSEPH Marcell beams as he looks back on a rich life well spent on the stage.

A classically trained actor renowned for his love of Shakespeare, his extraordinary career has taken him to extraordinary heights.

But he admits, while enjoying the sun at the stage door of the Oxford Playhouse this week, it has been one role in particular which has assured his fame – that of Geoffrey the Butler in hit 1990s US comedy The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

The part saw him playing alongside a youthful Will Smith and an all-African-American cast in the global NBC smash series telling the story of a street kid, West Philadelphia-born and raised, who is sent to live with his rich uncle and aunt in the wealthy Los Angeles neighbourhood of Bel-Air – with predictably hilarious results.

“You dream of a part like that when you are young,” he says, while taking a break between performances of his touring production of The School for Scandal, which has run all week until tonight.

“For sheer fame and notoriety, playing Geoffrey has certainly been a highlight of my career.”

The show may have ended almost 30 years ago, but Joseph, 77, is still instantly recognisable.

“If I walk into any room, I am recognised,” he smiles.

“It doesn’t matter where it is – from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe. And it’s a pleasure.”

The St Lucia-born actor who moved to Peckham, South London, as a child, has done much since, of course, starring in Othello and A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and in Much Ado About Nothing and King Lear with Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre – of which he is a board member.

He has popped up everywhere from EastEnders and Death in Paradise to Doctor Who – alongside the Daleks, no less. This year he brings his spark to BBC comedy Mammoth and the new Hellboy film.

But for now, he is packing in the crowds in a more traditional role – as Sir Peter Teazle in Sheridan’s mannered comedy, which has been delighting audiences in Oxford this week.

The School for Scandal has been described as ‘one of the greatest comedies ever written’. And Joseph agrees.

“It’s a modern take on a classic,” he says. “The language, settings, characters and themes are amusing – and at the time of the play’s first production that aspect of comedy had not been enjoyed by a British audience.”

In the story, Sir Peter believes his young wife is sleeping with someone else. She isn’t, but is starting to think that if her husband believes it, she may as well give it a go. After all, she surmises, if you’re going to cause a scandal, you might as well enjoy it.

The play – with its pokes at gossip and social mores – is deliciously naughty, outrageous and silly. And while this version is still a timeless masterclass in social satire and the art of gossip, Joseph admits this staging is different to previous productions.

“We are set in the 1950s,” he says. “Although we are not in wigs and frock coats, the sentiment of those times as best as we can imagine is fully respected. The characters are of a time gone by and, we are totally respectful to the language, because without that there is no play.”

So will today’s audiences be scandalised?

“I am not too sure of that,” he says. “But I am certain that within the world of the play a modern audience would empathise.

“Gossip and scandal to me is not the actual story, it’s the embellishments that happen in the retelling of the tale. We, a modern audience really do understand the importance of fact-checking.”

So what’s the best bit of gossip he has heard about himself?

“About myself? That I am an American actor. That I am married to an American woman from California and a British woman from Berkshire at the same time!”

And why should we come along? “Because I am in it!” he laughs.

Time has been kind on the fresh-faced Joseph whose charm and ready wit are quite intoxicating.

And while he proudly recounts his achievements in high culture and serious theatre, the conversation inevitably returns to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air?

So how did a young actor from the Caribbean and living in London find himself in the show?

“Well, I was touring the Universities of Southern California with an organisation called ACTER (Alliance for Creative Theatre Education and Research) which was created by Sir Patrick Stewart and Professor Homer Swander of UC Santa Barbara, under the auspices of The Royal Shakespeare Company.

“We were playing in Los Angeles in 1987 in a five-person production of Measure for Measure directed by Patrick. I played Angelo and three other roles. This flagship company was created for actors who had played leading roles in the plays of William Shakespeare and our presence in Los Angeles, especially under The RSC banner, was a theatrical event. Anybody who was anybody came to the theatre in those days.

“Then in 1990, Brandon Tarticoff of NBC and Quincy Jones decided to produce the show The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. They needed an English Butler and one of Afro-Caribbean heritage. Someone remembered me as Angelo, searched and located me, and then made me an offer which I would have been foolish to refuse.”

“So Sir Patrick Stewart created the space for me. And for that, I am very grateful.”

He laughs: “So it really is true what they say – you never know who is watching!”

The School for Scandal is at the Oxford playhouse today (Saturday, June 8). See