The actor Louis Mahoney died at the end of June. He was 81. He was known to Doctor Who fans for two stories of the classic era – Season 10’s Frontier in Space and Season 13’s Planet of Evil – and one of the seminal stories of the modern era: Series 3’s Blink. But Doctor Who was just a small part of the man’s career. He was one of the first black actors to appear with the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), he co-founded the Black Theatre Workshop, and was a vice president of the actors’ union, Equity.
Mahoney was born in 1938 in The Gambia, West Africa to a large middle class family of professionals, including doctors, lawyers, and teachers. In 1957, he travelled to the UK to study medicine. He soon abandoned that calling, however, and instead enrolled at the then Central School of Speech and Drama. After graduating, he worked with the Colchester Repertory and the Mercury Theatre, and the Watford Palace Theatre, before joining the RSC in 1967. There, he had small roles alongside Ian Richardson and the recently departed Ian Holm. Later, he returned to the Colchester Mercury to play Friday in Robinson Crusoe.
It was during this period that Mahoney became conscious of the ingrained racism in British society and how it curbed the number and quality of parts open to black actors. In 1972, he was elected to the council of Equity and soon made his mark. Asked to chair its presumably well-meaning ‘Coloured Actors Committee,’ he immediately renamed it to the ‘Afro-Asian Committee,’ pioneering progressive thinking in the organisation that would doubtless be demeaned today as ‘woke’. He founded Performers Against Racism to defend Equity’s policy of only performing in South Africa to mixed audiences. As he recounted in an interview in 2013,
…during the ’70s, there was a group called Ipi Tombi, these were a group of South Africa dancers and singers who came over… and information came through to us that this group that had arrived… rather than stay in a hotel, some of them had to sleep in a bus… and we were told by one of the producers, a white South African, ‘All these people are used to sleeping in buses’, and so on. 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 – 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.
It was during the 1970s that Mahoney played the newscaster in Frontier in Space and Ponti in Planet of Evil. This was during a period in the show’s history when non-white faces were vanishingly rare. He also famously appeared as a doctor in the Fawlty Towers episode, The Germans and guested on an episode of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?
In 1976, with the writer Mike Phillips and the actor Taiwo Ajai-Lycett, Mahoney launched the Black Theatre Workshop and used it as the basis for helping some of the members of Ipi Tombi who stayed in Britain to become involved in projects and plays. The workshop later became a platform for African writers and performers.
In the 1980s, Mahoney had roles in films such as Omen III: The Final Conflict, The Rise and Fall of Idi Amin, Cry Freedom, and White Mischief. Off stage, he helped found Performers Against Racism, which included luminaries such as Glenda Jackson and Prunella Scales, to campaign against Equity lifting its ban on selling programmes to South Africa. As Mahoney recounted,
[The South African Broadcasting Corporation] came over to England to try and get Equity to reverse the ban on TV sales… But they made a specific request that if they were going to buy British programmes we had to understand that the black actors in the programmes had to be servants or gardeners, like they are in South Africa. Which said to us, here was a question of determining what roles black actors should play in an independent BBC or ITV … and purely for sales to South Africa that should change. We said no, and the union said no.
In the ’90s, Mahoney took on several stage roles, notably again with the RSC, in Romeo & Juliet. Then, in 2007, Mahoney, made his final and most significant contribution to Doctor Who, playing the older Billy Shipton in Blink. In a touching scene opposite Carey Mulligan as Sally Sparrow, he recounted some of his life since their first meeting (for him) nearly 40 years previously. ‘Look at my hands,’ he tells her, ‘They’re old man’s hands. How did that happen?’ Sally sits with him for all the time he has left, until the rain stops.
Later, Mahoney would appear in Captain Phillips, Holby City, and at the Bridge Theatre as Neville in Allelujah! Earlier this year, he was seen in BBC One’s The Split. On his passing, Equity, to whom he had given so much, issue a statement:
We are saddened to learn of the death of former Vice President Louis Mahoney. Louis was a passionate activist on behalf of Equity UK and led the union’s fight against racism and apartheid for many years.
Now the rain has stopped. Life is short, and he was hot.
Louis Mahoney, 8th September 1938 – 28th June 2020.