Louis Mahoney (1938-2020): Trailblazing Doctor Who actor and fearless campaigner

A prolific presence on British screens, from Bond to Bergerac, Mahoney was outspoken in his belief that the inclusion of black characters in mainstream TV would help to positively influence the general public’s view of Britain’s black community.

9 July 2020

By Stephen Bourne

Miss Marple: A Pocketful of Rye (1985)

Louis Mahoney’s list of screen credits is impressive. The IMDb lists almost 100 film and television appearances from 1962 until his final role in the second season of BBC television’s The Split (tx 11 February 2020). Many of the titles are familiar: Danger Man, Dixon of Dock Green, Jason King, Z Cars, Live and Let Die, Crown Court, Miss Marple, Cry Freedom, The Lenny Henry Show, Bergerac, The Bill, One Foot in the Grave and London’s Burning.

In one year alone – 1975 – he was seen on BBC television in The Fight Against Slavery (as Olaudah Equiano, the former slave who became an abolitionist), Fawlty Towers (in the controversial episode ‘The Germans’) and Doctor Who. In fact, Mahoney’s career was so long he appeared in Doctor Who as three different characters in three different stories: Frontier in Space (1973), Planet of Evil (1975) and the brilliant Blink (2007).

It’s hard to imagine how Mahoney found the time and energy to also maintain a career in radio and the theatre (most recently in Alan Bennett’s Allelujah!) and work tirelessly as a campaigner for better treatment of black actors in Britain. For many years he was also active in the anti-apartheid movement. And yet, in spite of achieving so much, Mahoney never became a ‘star’. He was a hard-working, dedicated character actor who made an impression in each role he played, however small.

In 1999, when he was featured in the BBC drama series Harbour Lights, Ben Dowell described him in The Stage as “a highly talented maverick… young at heart, slightly mischievous”.

Doctor Who: Planet of Evil (1975)

Mahoney, born in The Gambia in 1938, spent more than two years as a medical student in the early 1960s before turning to acting after his father’s death cut off his funding. In the 1970s Mahoney began publicly campaigning for a wider range of roles for black actors. He did this for over 25 years through the actor’s trade union Equity and their Afro-Asian committee (previously the Coloured Actors Committee before he renamed it).

In 1975, in an article in The Stage entitled ‘Racist beliefs ‘endemic’ amongst white population’, he blamed several high-profile sitcoms on British television for holding back progress: “The mass media are inevitably enmeshed in the system of forces which shape race relations in Britain and, therefore, concern for racial equality in multi-racial Britain would have prevented comedy programmes such as Till Death Us Do Part, Love Thy Neighbour and Curry and Chips from being transmitted… these programmes tend to enhance prejudice and exacerbate racial discrimination.”

In 1983, two years after the Brixton uprisings, Mahoney addressed an Equity conference on integrated casting at the Barbican Centre in London. In his speech he drew attention to the failure of two popular drama series to include black characters. Mahoney believed that the inclusion of black characters in mainstream television drama would help enormously to positively influence the general public’s view of Britain’s black community.

Mahoney said that, when the BBC’s Doctor Who sometimes goes to outer space, “There is an assumption that there are no blacks in outer space. What arrogance to suggest that only white people are there! It is that lack of conceptual thought that worries me.” Turning his attention to Granada television’s Coronation Street, he said: “if a black family was introduced into ‘that’ programme – I have no need to mention the name because everyone knows it – that family’s relationship with the rest of the Street could shape the nation’s attitude and help effect a multi-racial society. That happens to be one of the few programmes, I believe, that has a strong influence on the British way of life and if that could be done, I am positive that the attitudes in the streets would begin to change.”

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Mahoney concluded by quoting Salman Rushdie who said that, after the Second World War, Germany cleansed itself of Nazism: “Rushdie said the trouble with the British is that they have forgotten to wash out their colonialism and it still stays with them. It is up to the people who make programmes to examine that statement and decide if it is true because, if it is, then it is time to flush it out, cleanse it away. Britain is not a country of one race, it is a country of various people from all over the world.”

Cleo Sylvestre, recipient of Screen Nation’s 2019 trailblazer award for her career in British film and television, was also a member of Equity’s Afro-Asian committee in the 1970s. Cleo worked alongside Mahoney on the committee as well as making occasional stage and screen appearances with him, most recently in 2018 in Allelujah! Cleo remembers Mahoney as a “fearless campaigner”. She adds: “He was quite fiery and passionate. As a person he was kind, fun, always well-dressed and up for a good discussion. He was a devoted family man and was thrilled with his grandchildren, but he was unassuming about his achievements.”

Louis Mahoney died at the age of 81 on 28 June 2020.

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