Thursday 27 October 2016

Tributes to theatre stalwart who became campaigner on learning difficulties

Published 20/08/2016 | 15:21

Lord Rix pictured in 1997
Lord Rix pictured in 1997

Lord Rix, the master of West End farce who went on to become a leading campaigner for people with learning difficulties, has died. He was 92.

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Mencap, the charity of which he remained president until his death, said the one-time actor-manager beloved by theatregoers died on Saturday morning.

The peer, who knew he was suffering from a terminal illness, recently wrote to the Speaker of the House of Lords, Baroness D'Souza to appeal for a change in the law to legalise assisted dying so he could "slip away peacefully".

Mencap chief executive Jan Tregelles said: "Lord Rix was a beloved colleague and friend to so many people with a learning disability and their families.

"His unique charm, personality and passion have been invaluable in helping Mencap grow into the UK 's leading learning disability charity, and with his passing the charity has lost a very dear friend."

Once a fixture in the West End appearing in innumerable Whitehall farces, Lord Rix was a tireless champion of people with learning disabilities after his eldest child, Shelley, was born with Down's Syndrome.

After becoming a life peer in 1992, he spoke regularly in the Lords on the issue, voicing his frustration that he was unable to do more for his daughter who died in 2005.

Previously an opponent of assisted dying because of concerns people with learning difficulties may become the unwilling victims of euthanasia, in an interview with the Press Association earlier this month he described how his experience with terminal illness had led him to change his mind.

"I have wrapped up my affairs and I am ready to go and I can't do anything but lie here thinking 'Oh Christ, why am I still here?' They won't let me die and that's all I want to do," he said.

"I have no fears of dying because it will put an end to this misery, this pain and discomfort. I am constantly woozy and hazy but I can't sleep.

"I think it's wrong that people like me are stranded like this. I'm not looking for something that helps me only, I'm thinking of all the other people who must be in the same dreadful position."

Brian Rix was born into a wealthy Yorkshire family in 1924, the son of a successful shipowner father and a mother who was a producer of amateur dramatics.

He joined a touring company as a trainee actor at 18 and made his first West End appearance in Twelfth Night in 1943, but his burgeoning theatrical career was disrupted by the Second World War in which he saw service in the RAF and down the mines as one of the Bevin Boys.

After the war he formed his own repertory company, serving his apprenticeship in Ilkley, Bridlington and Margate before taking Reluctant Heroes, one of his early productions, to the London's Whitehall Theatre in 1950 - the start of a brilliant association which was to last for nearly three decades.

His shows, featuring the likes of Tommy Cooper and Sid James, were hits on stage and television, while he earned a reputation for his trousers always falling down.

He became increasingly involved in campaigning for people with learning disabilities and in 1980 he became secretary general of Mencap, going on to become the organisation's chairman in 1988.

He was made a CBE in 1977, followed by a knighthood in 1986 and a life peerage in 1992, sitting in the Lords as a cross-bencher

Mencap chair Derek Lewis said: "Through his tireless campaigning he brought about vastly improved life opportunities for those with learning disabilities compared with the situation when his daughter was born with Down's Syndrome.

"He will be greatly missed but his extraordinary achievements leave us all with the inspiration to continue his vital work."

Mark Atkinson, the chief executive of disability charity Scope, said: "We are very sad to hear the news that Lord Rix has died.

"Lord Rix worked passionately and tirelessly to improve society for disabled people. He will be remembered for the great contribution he made to the disability sector.

"Our thoughts are with his family and loved ones at this time."

Baroness D'Souza said: "We feel a sense of profound relief that Lord Rix is no longer suffering. I will write to his family remembering his significant contributions both within and without the House of Lords and offering our deepest sympathies."

Press Association

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