Monday 20 January 2020

Obituary: Brian Rix

Actor, manager and mental-health campaigner, whose name became synonymous with the 'Whitehall farce'

Man and Wife: Brian Rix and his wife Elspet Gray, who became his co-star and fellow campaigner
Man and Wife: Brian Rix and his wife Elspet Gray, who became his co-star and fellow campaigner Newsdesk Newsdesk

Lord Rix - Brian Rix - the actor-manager, who died last weekend, aged 92, was known for his numerous appearances in what came to be known as 'Whitehall farces' and as a campaigner on behalf of disabled people.

The actor, who became synonymous with dropped trousers, asinine clerics and adulterous couples, insisted that in fact he lost his trousers far less frequently than others in the cast.

"It was usually somebody else who dropped them," he said. "I simply became associated with trouserlessness."

His productions ran at the same London theatre for so long during the 1950s and 1960s that the term 'Whitehall farce' entered the theatrical vocabulary as surely as Aldwych (also in London) farce had done 30 years earlier.

Under his management and with him in some gormless role or other, Reluctant Heroes (1950) by Colin Morris, Dry Rot (1954), Simple Spymen (1958) by John Chapman, and One For The Pot (1961) by Ray Cooney and Tony Hilton ran for at least three years apiece. Other hits included Cooney's Chase Me Comrade and Bryan Blackburn's Come Spy With Me.

He insisted on a part in every farce he produced (even if it meant writing one in) and as an actor-manager his early experience in Donald Wolfit's Shakespearean troupe had taught him how to hold a company together in good times and bad. He knew exactly what the customers wanted and if the critics did not always share his idea of what that was, the public confirmed his taste, which was never marred by snobbery or intellectual pretence.

As an actor, though, Rix was unable to honour the first law of farce, which is gravity. He could not disguise his enjoyment - which, paradoxically prevented him, in the eyes of the critics, from being very good. He loved to play simple-hearted northerners, stammering their way dim-wittedly out of tight corners. But he was unable to do deadpan, so his scrapes did not look as serious to him as perhaps they should - and his obvious pleasure in his work sometimes infected other members of his company.

He had a shrewd eye for a new farce, however, and his ideas for reshaping scripts, and his respect for sharp timing over moves and dialogue, made him a most capable director. In the contrivance of comical 'business', he had few rivals.

He gained recognition outside the theatre when he took over the post of secretary-general of Mencap (The Royal Society for Handicapped Children and Adults) in 1980.

Through his showbusiness connections, he turned the job into a high-profile exercise in raising funds and increasing public awareness of the problems faced by the handicapped. He was passionately committed to this work and occasionally outspoken.

In 1987, he became embroiled in a press story involving the case of a 17-year-old girl who had the mental age of five. Lord Justice Dillon ordered that the girl be sterilised to prevent her from becoming pregnant.

Rix sparked controversy when he angrily speculated on television about whether "the girl in this case was to be spayed like a bitch".

In spite of his commitment to the charity, however, Rix never quite shook off the image of farceur.

He produced and appeared in more than 70 farces.

The son of a ship's outfitter, Brian Rix was born at Cottingham, near Hull, East Yorkshire, on January 27, 1924, and educated at Bootham School, a Quaker institution in York.

His father, Rix recalled, was "passionately fond of cricket" and his mother was "besotted by the theatre".

His elder brother and sister were "too sensible to take to acting" but he and his younger sister Sheila (who as Sheila Mercier would later play Annie Sugden in Emmerdale Farm) "succumbed to the charms of the stage".

When Brian was 18, in 1942, his father determined that he should attend Oxford and become the family's first cricket Blue. Brian, however, wanted to join the RAF and, defying his father, was accepted for pilot training, deferred for 10 months.

To fill in time, he went on tour with Donald Wolfit's company. He remembered that he had "three lines in Lear for three pounds a week".

After being deferred again, Rix appeared in a season at the St James's Theatre. He then had a stint with Ensa and performed in repertory at the White Rose Theatre in Harrogate. By 1945 the demand for pilots had abated somewhat and Rix realised that he would not be trained to fly. Instead he spent several months as a Bevin Boy, mining in Wales.

After working with Wolfit, Rix decided that he wanted to be "not simply an actor, but an actor-manager". In 1948, he formed a repertory company at Ilkley and Bridlington and, the next year, a second company at Margate.

Then he came across the script by Colin Morris which was to form Reluctant Heroes.

He tried it out at the Spa Theatre, Bridlington, with himself as Gregory, a slow-witted Lancastrian, and in 1950 moved it into the Whitehall.

In 1940, Rix had met and married Elspet Gray, who appeared in Reluctant Heroes. Despite problems convincing the Whitehall management that the show would be a success, Reluctant Heroes opened to capacity houses, prompting one critic to observe: "A farce is now running at both ends of Whitehall." In 1951 the Rixes' first daughter, Shelley, was born. Rix recalled feeling "totally shocked and horrified" when told by the doctor that she was "a mongol". At the time, Rix recalled, medical advice was: "Put her in a home and forget about her." Shelley was placed in a small residential hospital.

Rix never lost the feeling of "degradation and anger" at having his daughter "certified". "Down syndrome children are not mentally ill," he said. "They are handicapped but perfectly sane."

Reluctant Heroes continued at the Whitehall Theatre, and in 1952 the BBC televised a 15-minute excerpt. This was the first showing of a West End play on television and the effect on ticket sales was astonishing.

"We had packed houses and 76 standing at every performance," Rix recalled.

Over the next 20 years, he appeared in numerous farces for the BBC and two series, Dial Rix and Six of Rix.

After four years of Reluctant Heroes, Rix was suffering from what he described as ennui. Dry Rot opened at the Whitehall in 1954. The show was another success.

By the 1960s, Rix had become such a fixture at the Whitehall that he decided to buy the theatre. The owner, however, was disinclined to sell to him and the theatre was bought by Paul Raymond.

In 1964, Rix moved his company to the Garrick. After a season of repertory farce (which failed because nobody knew which play was being performed on a given date), Rix reverted to staging a single farce. Let Sleeping Wives Lie opened in 1967 and ran for two years.

Growing tired of performing every night, Rix became theatre controller of a company which ran the Regent, the Duke of York's and the Astoria theatres.

In 1980 he applied for the post of secretary-general of Mencap. At first, the charity turned him down. He believed that it "did not want to be associated with a fly-by-night actor who dropped his trousers". But later that same year, Rix took up the post.

His high-profile approach and links with showbusiness soon brought results. When he joined Mencap, the turnover was approximately £2.5m. By the time he stepped down after seven years, it was £16m. He became chairman in 1988 and, in 1998, president.

Rix decided to return to the stage in 1988, appearing briefly in Downhill All the Way, but critics felt the show lacked sparkle. At the end of the year, however, he was back on familiar ground, with a revival of Dry Rot at the Lyric.

Throughout his career, Rix was puzzled by the gulf between the tastes of his audiences and those of the critics and it was perhaps this lack of sophistication which gave his Whitehall enterprise its homely zest.

He was proud to have become, from being an untrained actor in the provinces, a leading theatrical figure in the West End. In 1986, he received a knighthood. He was created a life peer in 1992 and from 1986 to 1993 he was on the Art Council's Drama Panel.

Rix wrote two volumes of ribald autobiography of characteristic gusto and two theatre histories.

His wife, the actress Elspet Gray, died in 2013 and his daughter, Shelley, died in 2005. He is survived by two sons and two daughters.

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