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Raise a glass for pioneering actor Louis Mahoney

Tributes to actor who led anti-racism campaigns (and liked a beer at the bar)

09 July, 2020 — By Tom Foot

Louis Mahoney in Fawlty Towers

LOUIS Mahoney, who has died aged 81, was a pioneer of black actors and a tireless anti-racist activist.

On the screen, Mr Mahoney, who lived in Hampstead, was perhaps best known for a playing a doctor called to sedate hysterical hotel owner Basil in Fawlty Towers. But he was a familiar face too for many years around pubs and restaurants of Hampstead – particularly his local, the Wells Tavern.

His funeral will take place today (Thursday) and friends and family will meet in Hampstead High Street and Church Row at 3pm to watch the hearse go past and applaud.

The Wells Tavern’s operations director, Stuart Holms, said: “Louis was an old friend of ours. We have had the pub since 2003 and I’m sure he was a fan before we took over. Louis was truly one of Hampstead’s unique characters who are sadly fading away. He would always have a huge smile on his face for the staff and an infectious laugh.

“He was a true gent and one of a kind and will be greatly missed by all our staff and customers who knew him.”

Mr Mahoney, who lived in Willow Road, had appeared as a black television newscaster in vintage episodes of Dr Who long before they were employed in real life on the BBC.

Born in the Gambia, West Africa, Mr Mahoney came to this country in the 1960s to study medicine – but switched to train at the Central School of Speech and Drama in Swiss Cottage. He helped to found the Performers Against Racism and the Black Youth Workshop that provided a platform for fledgling actors.

He was elected to the council of the actors union Equity and campaigned for “colour-blind casting” and demanded Sir Cameron Mackintosh employ Afro-Asian actors in Miss Saigon in the early 1990s.

Mr Mahoney was chairman of Equity’s Afro-Asian committee where he tried to persuade broadcasters and drama schools to reform their attitudes to overcome what he described as “big hurdles to be jumped by anybody who was non-white”.

He later became vice president of Equity for two years from 1994 – more than a decade after quitting the elected council over its refusal to oppose apartheid. One of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s first black actors, his film credits included Richard Attenborough’s 1987 ­drama Cry Freedom, and 2013’s Captain Phillips.

Bas Scott, who lives in Belsize Park and used to drink with him in the Holly Bush pub, recalled going to Leicester to see him perform in As You Like It, adding: “I remember more than once he used an anecdote about his father. He was very proud of the fact that in the Second World War General De Gaulle had to go to Dakar, and for security reasons he went through the Gambia.”

“He was put up by Louis’ father, who was a kind of pillar of the community out there. He loved telling that story.”

This Is England scriptwriter Jack Thorne said: “Louis Mahoney was one of those actors who could carry a whole world through his eyes. Perhaps because he led such an extraordinary life.”

The Royal Court Theatre put out a statement describing him as “a brilliant actor and the most wonderful human being”.

Rex Cowan, who lives in Gayton Road and knew Mr Mahoney for 50 years, said: “Louis made people better. When as a trainee doctor to cure their bodies. When he became an actor to lift up their spirits. But his real genius was to be a warm hearted outgoing man who talked to everyone and cheered up everyone, knew everyone.”

His agents, Waring and McKenna, said: “Louis paved the way for many actors who followed: a lifelong activist and champion of anti-racism. His warmth and good humour will be sorely missed. A celebration of his life will follow.”

Equity added that he was “a passionate activist and led the union’s fight against racism and apartheid for many years”. Mr Mahoney’s final stage appearance was in Alan Bennett’s drama Allelujah! at the Bridge Theatre in 2018.

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