As one of the first regular Black actors on our TV screens in the 60s, Rudolph Walker OBE is still loved throughout Britain today. He became a household name with Love Thy Neighbour – one of the first hit comedies to explore race and relationships – and is still popular in the role of Patrick Truman in EastEnders, which he joined in 2001. He has played a number of roles in between the years, and there is more to Walker than meets the eye. Keep The Faith caught up with him just after he’d celebrated his 80th birthday.
“I am full of life, full of beans and blessed to be alive!” quips Walker, who celebrated his birthday in September this year. Born in Trinidad to a single parent, with two younger sisters, living in a one bedroom accommodation with no electricity or running water, he says they struggled as a family, yet “it was fun growing up.” He declares himself to be an adventurous child, an avid boy scout whose love for cricket has continued to the present day.
Walker honed his talent in the dramatic arts in primary school. His first play was not very different from those of schools within the UK: playing a wise man in the Christmas nativity. “I remember my mum made my costume, and I can remember how excited I was…”Walker went on to act throughout his school years until he became the leading actor in a well-respected dramatic arts group called ‘The Company of Players’.
A founder member of the ‘Trinidad Theatre Workshop’, Sir Derek Walcott was a St Lucian-born poet and playwright, and received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992. Walcott was one of a number of mentors, who supported and influenced Rudolph, including Bermudan-born actor, Earl Cameron CBE (Baby Father TV series, Inception 2010).
Cameron was one of the first actors to break the colour bar in British TV in 1951, and Guyanese-born Carmen Munroe is a female Black actress, who has secured top TV roles since 1962 in theatre, dramas and sitcoms, such as Mixed Blessings and Desmonds. Walker is quick to point out that these are the real legends, and he is determined these forerunners should not be forgotten as groundbreaking history makers.
Looking back on a prolific, successful career, Rudolph Walker knew it was important to build a long-lasting legacy. Back in the 70s, he founded the Rudolph Walker Inter-School Drama Awards (RWiSDA) out of a concern that young people didn’t have much to do after school and could get into trouble. Young people needed opportunities to develop their confidence, life skills and creativity, not just to become actors, but for any career or path a young person aspired for their future. “Kids talked about their problems, for instance, being harassed and getting into trouble at school, and we saw a positive change.”
The format is simple: young people decide to enter the competition, and ask their school for permission to compete. They write, direct and act in the short play, with the leading plays selected for the grand final. Each group is allocated a leading celebrity mentor from the world of TV, theatre and film. At the grand final, they act out their play in front of a live audience, then winners are selected by celebrity judges in four categories: Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Script and Best Production. After the 70s, the competition was stopped, but thankfully, recommenced in 2001, with schools coming from all over the UK to compete.
Walker has the respect of his fellow actors, and they are only too willing to give up their time to mentor, judge or support. For the participants it is life-changing, with young people on the verge of exclusion from school having their lives turned around. “Young people cannot believe that celebrities will come and mentor them, and it goes much deeper than acting.”
Walker has set his sights on the competition going international, involving the Caribbean and Africa in the future. In addition to this, Walker will present a role model award to surprised recipients every year. This is to be awarded to any young person, who has gone the extra mile in their community, school or home. Past recipients have been young carers, fundraisers, and young community leaders, those who despite their circumstances or abilities contribute to society or family in a positive way.
Walker describes himself as passionate: “I believe every door can be opened to you. Go into a career where you will be happy. Be honest with yourself and remember you reap what you sow!” He grew up not being afraid to visit any church wherever he was, to go and pray. He has visited many different denominations. “My faith has influenced me, taught me right and wrong. It comes from deep within.”
In addition to collecting his OBE at Buckingham Palace, and being particularly proud of taking a leading role in the TV drama series, Black Silk, which was based on the true life lawyer, Rudy Narayan, earlier this year, Walker was voted by his peers to be the recipient of the TV’s Outstanding Achievement Award at the British Soap Awards, receiving an overwhelming standing ovation. There are too many moments and stories to tell, however, so you’ll have to wait for the autobiography!