Wednesday, 8 July 2020

Britain says "Farewell" to an old actor of stage and screen called Louis Mahoney, long-time champion of Afro Asian performing artists


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Louis, who has died at the age of 81, was born, the son of Princess and James, in 1938 in Bathurst (today Banjul), the capital city of the small, British West African colony of The Gambia. Today it has a population of 2.4 million, but when he was born it stood at 300.000. He modestly said that : "I came from a family – quite a large, sort of middle-class family, they were all professionals, doctors, lawyers, teachers." In fact, his father belonged to a prominent family who belonged to the Christian, Aku, Creole, minority ethnic group of Gambia and his father, James Mahoney, had been a leading merchant in the town.


When he was 6 years old his Uncle John, became, as Sir John Mahoney, the first Speaker of the National Assembly and his daughter, Louis elder cousin Augusta, married the first President of Gambia. Louis father himself Principal of St Mary's School in Bathhurst. Louis recalled : "I was a Wesleyan Methodist, I went to church, I used to listen to 'Sunday Half Hour' on the BBC World Service."


The Wesleyan church in question was on Dobson Street and from the age of 11 in 1949 he attended the 'Gambia Methodist Boys High School’  where "the Vice-principal was from Cornwall and we were very much like an English public school, so we sang some of the songs you would sing in public school and had different houses".
Louis was head of his house and also head boy. He said : "We did English history,  Clive of India, all that stuff" and "I used to play cricket, I was coached by George V. Gunn, who was a son of Gunn and Moore bats, he came from Nottinghamshire to The Gambia."

With the Second World War in progress, Dudley Pound, the First Sea Lord of the British Navy said : "Bathurst is of some naval value as a fuelling point for naval vessels of low endurance which cannot reach Freetown and the Admiralty is erecting oil fuel stores there." Louis recalled, as a small boy, being taken on board one of the Royal Navy ships in the harbour and "being put on one of those swivelling guns and having fun and being given chocolate. So there was a lot of warmth about these guys who were fighting a war and as I was growing up I took quite a lot of interest about what was going on".

Louis was seven years old when the War ended in 1945 and it is unlikely that he knew that General de Gaulle, leader of the Free French Army was, in 1943, in hiding in a house on the street where he lived and that the American President Roosevelt passed through Bathurst and paid de Gaulle a secret visit while on route to meeting Prime Minister Churchill in Casablanca. 
Roosevelt told his son, Elliott, who was travelling with him and "with real feeling in his voice” : “I must tell Churchill what I found out about his British Gambia today. This morning, at about eight-thirty, we drove through Bathurst to the airfield. The natives were just getting to work, in rags, glum-looking." Wages were 50 cents a day "Besides which, they’re given a half-cup of rice. Dirt. Disease. Very high mortality rate. I asked. Life expectancy—you’d never guess what it is. Twenty-six years. Those people are treated worse than the livestock. Their cattle live longer!”

It is small wonder that, at the age of 19 in 1947, having left school, Louis made the journey to Britain, ostensibly, to follow in the footsteps of his cousin John Mahoney and study medicine. Initially he enrolled to study at University College London and joined the University cricket team, as well as that of Ilford in Essex and "felt that he was was very much part of the culture here. So I didn't feel any racism of any kind. OK, there were one or two people who were idiots, but the majority of  people I knew were very nice and warm and together. So it was all very familiar to me, and I was therefore very involved in the way of life in England as a student." Having said this, he later recalled the days, at this time, when he was confronted by and used his athleticism to outrun National Front members in Ilford.

He then had a dramatic change of direction and decided "that perhaps I didn't like medicine, I wanted to become an actor and then went to drama school. This was in the ’60s." He recalled : " started off with medicine from the academic side for me it was a big jump for my family to leave medicine and decide to become an actor because, in The Gambia there was very little that was significant about actors, except seeing them in movies and very occasionally hearing them in a play on the World Service. So it was important for me to take seriously the profession of acting. So I then realised that there were in fact big hurdles to be jumped by anybody who was non-white – because there was an assumption : that the majority of the programmes that people were watching on television and a lot of the plays people were going to see in the theatre were mainly with white characters."


Louis enrolled at the Central School of Speech and Drama at the Embassy Theatre at Swiss Cottage and after graduation worked in provincial repertory theatre before joining the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1967, where he was seen in minor roles like that of the Lieutenant of General Aufidius in Ian Richardson’s 'Coriolanus', Ian Holm’s 'Romeo' and Estelle Kohler’s 'Juliet'. Louis initiated his career in film with small parts : in 1964 in 'Guns at Batasi' he was credited as 'soldier' and in the 1965 'Curse of Simba' , also known as 'Curse of the Voodoo', where he played an 'African expert' and 'The Plague of the Zombies' the following year where he was credited as the 'Coloured Servant'.

It was in these years that he became politicised by African politics and recalled : "I got very fired up though, because in the ’60s, you used to see what was happening in Southern Africa, with Rhodesia and the Selous Scouts going and bombing, killing people and I couldn't understand it. And in a way it was funny hearing the Prime Minister of Rhodesia, Ian Smith, saying ‘not in a thousand years will there be a majority black government in Rhodesia’". When he considered the British stance towards Rhodesia he said : "I’d always thought of white people, especially English people, as being very friendly and very much for fighting for the good of the world, for freedom, like they did in the Second World War. And I couldn't understand so I thought, ‘No, this isn't right’, so I started looking at perhaps areas where I could make some contribution."

He joined the Actors Trades Union Equity and was pleased with its policy which was "well supportive of going to work in South Africa and playing only in front of mixed audiences, not segregated audiences and I thought that was a good thing." By the time he returned to the Mercury in 1970 to play 'Friday' in 'Robinson Crusoe', a retelling by Keith Johnstone’s Theatre Machine, he had become acutely aware of the ingrained racial prejudice that limited non-white actors to token parts, often laced with socially endemic racism.

In 1972, he became the first Afro-Asian actor to be elected to Equity’s council and took responsibility for its Afro-Asian Committee, pointedly changing its previous designation for 'Coloured Actors'. He made his presence felt immediately, locking horns with outmoded thinking within Equity and taking a more public stance, with regular articles and letters in 'The Stage'.

In 1973, at the age of 35, he made his first appearance in BBC TV's 'Doctor Who' in 'Frontier in Space' as the newscaster and
the following year he featured in and episode the popular comedy series, 'The Likely Lads', entitled 'In Harm's Way' set in a hospital, where he featured as a hospital porter earning money to pay his way while studying for his PhD. In 1975 he played 'Dr Finn' in the controversial episode of the John Cleese comedy 'Fawlty Towers' entitled 'The Germans'.

Between 1974 - 76, when he served as a councillor on the Equity Council he heard that 'Ipi Tombi', a group of South African dancers and singers were touring Britain and it was drawn to his attention that some of them had been forced to sleep in the bus rather than the hotel.
He recalled : "Now, we wondered why this wasn't happening and we questioned it and we were told by one of the producers, a white South African : "All these people are used to sleeping in buses". And we got very furious, because in England that shouldn't happen. This was, in fact, the point at which I decided, right, no lip service to anti-apartheid." As a result he formally joined the Anti-Apartheid Movement.

He personally took up the case of 'Ipi Tombi' and "followed their progress and some of them decided they didn’t want to return to South Africa. I got to learn a lot about what their conditions were in South Africa and managed through the Union to get them a sort of refugee status. So I formed a theatre company with Mike Phillips, who was the brother of Trevor Phillips, the Head of the Commission for Racial Equality." https://vimeo.com/306171292#t=1m35s

They used their Black Theatre Workshop to help those members of 'Ipi Tombi' who stayed in Britain to undertake "to become involved in doing projects and maybe doing plays." Louis directed a play with Ipi Tombi and took it to a 'Black Festival of Arts and Culture in Lagos Nigeria'. "We came back we did this show in a theatre called the Greenwood Theatre and we then got an American guy who saw it and liked it and wanted us to come to the States. And within a month we went to New York, and we performed at the United Nations theatre, Dag Hammerskold Theatre, also in Chicago."

The issue of his involvement in the Anti-Apartheid Movement was raised when, while taking a Christmas holiday in Gambia, he met the First Secretary of the High Commission with whom he'd been at school who said : "Oh hello old boy, I see you've been giving a lot of trouble in London with the South Africans!’ I said ‘What do you mean?’ He said ‘Oh, they were checking, trying to find out whether you're Gambian or not." The South Africans in question were members of 'BOSS’, South Africa's Bureau of Special Security. It made him more cautious : "I wound down my involvement with South Africa, stayed in the sidelines but not up front."

Equity's ban on tv programme sales to South Africa was introduced in 1976 because of fears that South African broadcasters would discriminate against black and Asian actors by refusing to buy programmes in which they featured. It was thought this could influence British casting directors against choosing such actors. Louis recalled that the actor Marius Goring, who had been an Equity Councillor who had resigned his position because he was upset at the influence the Workers Revolutionary Party was having on the Union's support of the 1972 Miners' Strike "had decided to look at the rules of the Union, and went to the High Court for the interpretations of some of the rules. We weren’t sure what the reason for it was, but then it came out that he had got this bugbear of the ban on tv sales and the question of people being forced to play in front of mixed audiences. He felt that the right of the individual actors shouldn’t be tampered with by the unions."

Louis considered that this was a serious issue for Equity and him in particular. It was now the 1980s and serving the Union as its 'Afro-Asian Councillor' and his "particular remit was making sure that the welfare of non-white actors was being looked after by Equity". This had involved him keeping the Union informed as to who these actors were, which drama schools they were attending and keeping an eye on "productions the BBC were doing, whether they were reflecting the mixture of the population." He saw Marius Goring's attempt to reverse the cultural boycott of tv programmes to South Africa "made it a battle-cry for me, in knowing that we as a union were non-political and we couldn’t affiliate with the Anti-Apartheid Movement".

In order to continue the fight Louis and his supporters in Equity formed, the "selling programmes to South Africa became for us." Support came from Prunella Scales, Miriam Karlin and Glenda Jackson who had said that the boycott should stay "until the South African regime was dismantled in deed rather than words".
ostensibly non-political ‘Performers Against Racism’ which, by looking at racism in all its forms within the acting profession he could legitimately consider the disadvantage that the

In 1981, he made an appearance on the big screen again in 'Rise and Fall of Idi playing the arrested freedom fighter Ofumbi  and in 1987 as a
Leotho Government Official in 'Cry Freedom' which focussed on South African journalist Donald Woods who was forced to flee the country, after attempting to investigate the death in custody of his friend, the black activist Steve Biko. In relation to the director, Richard Attenborough Louis said : "A lot of people felt that he didn’t concentrate enough on Biko but more on Donald Woods. However, I was sympathetic to where he was going because there were a lot of people in America and the UK who didn’t quite understand what was happening in South Africa and so until they could see the mirror of themselves in South Africa they didn’t want to change."

Believing that Equity had become dominated by the far left, in 1984 the actor Derek Bond successfully stood for election as President of Equity and while he claimed to "abhor" apartheid, he believed that British actors were losing out on work by refusing to appear in South Africa, despite the cultural boycott and the United Nations blacklist of those who did go. In July 1984 he survived a motion calling on him to resign on the eve of a scheduled stage appearance in South Africa. The move was backed by actor Kenneth Williams, who recorded in his diary : "I spoke against Bond and said he should go as an individual not as president of Equity."

The following year, when it was revealed that Derek Bond had played in South Africa in front of an all-white boy’s school, Louis was instrumental in forcing him to resign as the President of Equity as Louis recalled it : "was all basically from me fighting him, and putting my neck on the line, as it were." 
It was a difficult time for Louis : "This then became a big issue, because having a President resign like that was like people thinking I stabbed him in the back, but you know, it was a question of him giving an assurance to the Council that he wouldn't break the policy and he did break the policy." 
He drew sustenance from a"meeting at a pub called, I think it’s called the Globe, in Baker Street, opposite Baker Street station, and we had people like Janet Suzman came to it and Julie Christie, and that showed the level of support of leading actors for our policy. And that gave me a lot of strength."

In 1985 he made his plea : "What we need is a concentrated effort to improve and increase the adoption of integrated casting" and two years later he was back on BBC TV in 1987 in an episode of the popular comedy 'Yes, Prime Minister' entitled 'A Conflict Of Interest' where he played the Burandan High Commissioner. In the same year he featured 'The Lenny Henry Show' as Lenny's 'Uncle Jake', a tailor.


More seriously, in 1988 he featured in the large-scale Dutch tv mini-series directed Eric Oosthoek, 'The River I Swam', centred on international occupation against a background of the political situation in Mozambique with him in the role of the writer, NGala. In 1992 Louis played the character, Jahman, in 'Runaway Bay' which focussed on a property developer planning to start construction at the expense of a beach, but who was prevented from doing so all the time turtles are using the beach to lay their eggs.
In the BBC sitcom tv series 'Health And Efficiency' set in St James's General Hospital, Louis featured in the 'Dr Death' episode in 1995 as the patient, Mr Tambo with the late Earl Cameron in the role of Mr Tambo Senior.

In 1994 at the age of 56 Louis was elected for his two year tenure as Vice-President of Equity and he recalled : "I got involved with the International Federation of Actors, FIA, so actors, unions from America, Australia, Europe, Denmark, Sweden and so on. We had meetings to talk about general policies and a lot of those unions were very impressed with the stance we had at Equity on apartheid and South Africa and I’m sure that what we did was adopted by some of them. I can’t specify exactly."

In addition : "There was also an interesting period where the Greater London Council, GLC, were very aware of career advisory officers going to schools and discouraging black kids from applying to drama school, to become actors, because they were saying well you don’t see any of them on the box or whatever so what's the point – a chicken and egg situation. So that fired me up again to say look, let’s look at the situation and I got involved in Equity in the National Council for Drama Training>" 

Meeting Culture Secretary, Virginia Bottomley in the 1990s and trying to win financial support for the theatre in the regions told her : ""You might find this strange, but I care very much about the brass bands in the North-East of England’, and then gave a little story about brass bands and their significance and so on, and how we thought, in the colonies, how fantastic it was to see. Then suddenly it was "Oh, I didn't realise it was that important" ".

Louis was back on the big screen again in 2005, in 'Shooting Dogs', directed by Michael Caton-Jones and starring John Hurt and based on the experiences of BBC news producer David Belton, who worked in Rwanda during the Rwandan genocide. He played Sibomana, a Rwandan priest and journalist, a human rights activist and a founder of the 'Rwandan Association for the Defense of the Rights of the Person and of Public Liberties', which recorded human rights violations occurring in Rwanda and published them in a report.

He returned to Dr Who in 2007 in 'Blink' in which he played an elderly Billy Shipton. When the female lead, Sally, had met the young police officer DI Billy Shipton, played by Michael Obiora, the pair seemed to share a spark. Unfortunately for Billy he became a victim of the malign Weeping Angels and was sent back to 1969 and Sally ended up meeting him again, but he the frail old man played by Louis.

Louis' stage career which had taken him to the National Theatre, Oxford Playhouse, The Gaiety, Dublin, the Young Vic, the Royal Court Theatre and on the Royal Shakespeare Company World Tour of Romeo and Juliet brought him to 'Truth and Reconciliation' at the Royal Court Theatre in 2011. Directed by Debbie Tucker Green he played in Rwandan recriminations with Ashley Zhangazha.

In the short, drama, fantasy 'Jonah' in 2013, Mbwana and his best friend Juma are two young men with big dreams, whose dreams become reality when they photograph a gigantic fish leaping out of the sea and, as a result, their small town blossoms into a tourist hotspot. Louis plays the old Mbwana who meets the fish again, when both of them are forgotten, ruined and old and he decides only one of them can survive.

Two years later at the age of 77, in the TV mini series, 'You, Me And The Apocalypse' in which a group of ordinary people learn that an eight-mile-wide comet is on a collision course with Earth and hunker beneath the town of Slough to watch the end of the world on television, Louis played Cardinal Anderson.

Three years later in 2018 in the short crime drama, 'Rodney', he played the title character with pet cemetery in his back garden. In the same year in the spin-off from the 2002 hit TV series, 'The Story of Tracy Beaker' based on the best-selling novel by Jacqueline Wilson called 'The Dumping Ground', Louis played, as Henry Lawrence, the grandfather of Charlie Morris played by Emily Burnett who lived in a children's home, the 'Dumping Ground'.

On the stage again, at the age of 80 in 2018 he appeared in the the National Theatre Live and Alan Bennett's hospital drama 'Allelujah!' Finally, as a finale to his career on the small screen, in 2019 he appeared in the BBC drama, 'The Split' as Bishop Tonythe elderly cleric who proposed to swan around the world pursuing backet list adventures and divorce hi unsuspecting wife of 48 years simply because "I can".

In the 1970s, when Louis had learned that the South African Security Service was taking an interest in him he'd reflected :
"These were the various areas of danger that were there, but it didn’t deter me, in the sense that I always felt that standing up for fairness, for equality. There were lots of real people that were shy to come out and when they knew that somebody else had come out and tried to do something, they also would come out and support it. And that's exactly what happened."


In 2013, at the age of 75, Louis appeared in the Young Vic/ Royal Court Co-production of 'Feast' in which Rufus Norris conveyed how the values of Yoruba beliefs spread across the world. Louis played 'Papa Lega', the Haitian Vodou, who in tradition, acted as an intermediary between the gods and humans and whose origins can be traced back to West Africa and incidentally, the lands of Louis own roots.

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