Saturday 20 August 2016

Britain is no longer a country for and says "Farewell" to its uncrowned 'King of Farce' and crowned 'Champion of the Disabled', Brian Rix

Brian, who elder citizens remember as a comedy actor in Whitehall farces on black and white tv and on stage in the 1960's and more recently as disability campaigner, has died at the age of 92.

He was born in 1924 in Cotingham in the East Riding of Yorkshire, the son of Fanny, who ran a good amateur dramatic society and was lead soprano in the local Operatic Society and Herbert, who ran a family shipping business and subsequently, oil company, in Kingston upon Hull.

As a boy, he was a talented cricketer, who wanted to play for Yorkshire County Cricket Club, but when at Bootham School in York, he decided to follow his sister, Sheila, into an acting career, He made the first step at the age of 18 during the Second World War in 1942, when on 'deferred service' from the Royal Air Force he worked in Donald Wolfit's itinerant Shakespeare Company.

He played Sebastian in 'Twelth Night' at St James's Theatre in London, gained repertory experience with the renowned 'White Rose Players' at the Opera House in Harrogate, then had a spell in the RAF before volunteering to work as a 'Bevin boy' doing war time service working in the coal pits near Doncaster.

Brian returned to the stage after the War and formed his own theatre company at the age of 23 in 1947 after talking his father and uncles, into putting up, the then, considerable sum of  £1,000 and
used £50 of the cash to buy an option on 'Reluctant Heroes' which became the first 'Whitehall farce' and 'number one' cinema hit in 1952, with him playing the gormless north-country Army recruit, Horace Gregory.

At 25, he married actress Elspeth Gray and remained with her, domestically and professionally for 64 years until her death in 2013 and worked alongside her in in the fifties and sixties for 16 years in his farces at the Whitehall Theatre, before he moved to the Garrick Theatre, breaking West End records in the process.

After his wife gave birth to their first child in 1951, he was summoned to her obstetrician's Harley Street rooms where, offering him a cigarette, the doctor asked: "Have you heard of mongolism? I am afraid that your daughter is a mongol. Will you tell your wife?"

This dramatically changed his life and, with Elspeth, he became involved in the world of learning disability after finding a complete lack of welfare support and education for their daughter who had Downs Syndrome, with the only care in the shape of a Victorian, run-down hospital where 'patients' were left to their own devices for hours on end.

He threw himself into fund raising for learning disability charities, became the first treasurer of the 'Stars Organisation for Spastics', which supported the then 'Spastics Society' and became first chairman of the 'special functions fundraising committee' of the then, 'National Society for Mentally Handicapped Children and Adults', which became 'Mencap'.

Brian presented more than 90 farces on BBC TV, with viewing figures regularly topping 15 million and in the early 1960s was its highest paid actor, but is rarely mentioned in retrospective programmes looking at the early days of tv because only 6 recordings exist in the BBC archive.

He became renown for losing his trousers and subsequently lost them at least 12,000 times in 26 years he was on stage, although less on tv in scenes, with his character innocently caught with his trousers down in the bedroom of a woman who was not his wife.

Brian produced 'Dry Rot' (left) in 1954 and saw it run for 4 years, followed by 'Simple Spyman' and 'Chase Me Comrade' with Ronald Bryden in the 'New Statesman' writing : 'There they are are: the most robust survivors of a great tradition, the most successful British theatrical enterprises of our time. Curious that no one can be found to to speak up wholeheartedly for them – no one, that is, outside enthusiastic millions who have packed every British theatre where they have played.'

We catch a glimpse of him at the age of 37 in the 1961 film  'The Night We Got the Bird'  :

He was described by Harold Hobson in the Sunday Times as : 'The greatest master of farce in my theatre-going lifetime', but received no theatrical awards and after 26 years of almost continuous performance in the West End, in January 1977, gave his final very emotional performance in 'Fringe Benefits' to a packed house on the stage where he started, the Whitehall Theatre.

With his stage career at an end, from 1978-82, with his daughter, Louisa, he presented the BBC TV series, 'Let's Go', the first designed specifically for people with learning disability and in 1980, became the Secretary-General of Mencap, then Chairman in 1988 and at the age of 76, President.

Brian entered the House of Lords as an apolitical cross bencher in 1992, campaigned ceaselessly on legislation affecting people with a learning disability , has been one of the most regular attenders , introducing numerous amendments to legislation associated with health, social welfare and education and saw his amendments to the 'Childcare Bill' extend statutory childcare provision for children with a disability from 16 to 18 years old and changes to the 'Electoral Administration Bill' lead to people with a learning disability being able to vote freely.

He served as the first Chairman of the 'Arts Council Monitoring Committee on Arts and Disability', founded and chaired the charity 'Libertas' which produced audio guides for disabled people at museums, historical buildings and  places of interest, gave up smoking in 1950 when he lost his voice during a matinee of 'Reluctant Heroes' and subsequently became a founding member of ASH, 'Action on Smoking and Health'.

Brian produced two autobiographies : 'My Farce From My Elbow' in 1974 and 'Farce About Face' in 1989 and 'Gullible's Travails', an anthology of travel stories by the famous for the 'Mencap Blue Sky Appeal' and for Mencap's 60th anniversary, produced 'All About Us! – The history of learning disability and of the Royal Mencap Society.'

In recent weeks, terminally ill, he wrote to Baroness D’Souza, Speaker of the House of Lords and said he hoped Parliament would act ‘as soon as possible’ to allow those with a terminal condition to be assisted to die. He pleaded for euthanasia to be legalised so that he might be allowed to ‘slip away peacefully’.

He wrote :
As a dying man, who has been dying now for several weeks, I am only too conscious that the laws of this country make it impossible for people like me to be helped on their way, even though the family is supportive of this position and everything that needs to be done has been dealt with. Unhappily, my body seems to be constructed in such a way that it keeps me alive in great discomfort when all I want is to be allowed to slip into a sleep, peacefully, legally and without any threat to the medical or nursing profession. 
I am sure there are many others like me who having finished with life wish their life to finish.’

It was typical of Brian, who had devoted his life to making people laugh and helping those with disability, that he should try to make the manner of his own death instrumental in bringing change for those who suffered and came after him.

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