Entertainment, Film and Music
Interview: Rudolph Walker, OBE
The Eastenders star, Rudolf Walker talks to Promota’s Beauty & Arts Editor Clare Eluka about his success on the screen. CE: What bought you to London in 1960? RW: I came in September of 1960 to be exact. Just coming up to my 21 birthday. I was a very young man who had never left the island of Trinidad apart from sailing over to Tobago. It was an extraordinary feeling because I arrived in Britain and I said to myself, I am here to face whatever happens. There was no panic, I had this confidence. Nothing fazed me, not even the cold weather coming in the autumn. Somebody would say “Rudolph, It’s snowing outside” and I would look and say “Oh, Yes it is” and thought nothing of it.
CE: So you did come here with the mindset of a citizen, and not of a tourist?
RW: Yes. Many people may have landed here and wanted to go sightseeing in Trafalgar Sq or Buckingham Palace, but I said to myself “ I’m here, I can see that when I’m ready.” But even with that mindset, you must remember that at that time, racism was rampant. When you walked down the streets of Islington and saw another black man you would say “Hi Brother”, because they were few and far between. This was a time when you would frequently see the signs ‘No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs’. You get on a bus and a person who sat next to you would get off so there was an empty seat next to you. But yet, no-one would sit next to you. I look back and laugh about it, as I would think – More room for me! (Laughs)
CE: How did you seek acting work in the 60’s. What was it like for a black actor in that decade?
RW: I was a compositor in Trinidad and used this trade as my daytime work whilst I took acting classes at night. I started getting small parts and walk-on parts that came about through writing letters. In the 60’s, a lot of black actors would go for auditions and we would be told we were not experienced enough. How do you get experience without being given a job? So, I wrote to every single director in the BBC, ITV and across the board, every single one until I got the part in the theatre as Fable. I also went to Bristol and Birmingham with Repertory Theatre.
CE: Where did your desire to perform come from?
RW: From primary school in Trinidad, as a 5-year-old child I was very shy. But every time I was put on a stage I would come alive and perform. I later discovered that my mother read poems whilst I was young. It is my strongest belief that a child’s most precious and prevalent time of life is between 0 – 7 years old. This is where a child absorbs its surroundings and environment. I guess I absorbed my mothers’ literary interests. I came from a single parent family. She brought us up in a very Victorian disciplinary environment where you were given serious licks for anything. Something that I challenged her about in later life.
CE: Talk to us about the controversial TV Drama that catapulted you into becoming a household name with your role as Bill Reynolds in Love Thy Neighbour.
RW: For the first time ever, it was a show with a black man on prime time British TV. It was challenging for many reasons, but it became a point of conversation for the public. I would go into schools in Brixton and kids would be shouting and screaming with happiness. The role of Bill Reynolds was not an Uncle Tom role, it was a new era: you hit me, I’ll hit you back. It signified the end of the “Yes Ma’am, no Ma’am” roles we had previously seen our black actors playing, and to their credit – because they laid the foundation for me in Love Thy Neighbour. It was controversial, but it was fun. It was fun playing the role.
CE: The show must have broken a lot of social barriers. Do you think things have changed between black and white Britain since the 70’s? RW: One thing that I need to point out is that, Love Thy Neighbour was not supposed to solve the racial or social problems. It was done for pure entertainment,.It was a TV show and the aim is to entertain, not to be seen as a solution to the problem. I personally think we went backwards. I hoped that the show would have shown that black actors are capable of playing leads. Instead, black actors are forced to go over to America to make it big and then come back here and get the red carpet treatment.
CE: Why did you decide not to go the American route?
RW: Somebody had to stay and fight. When I had the chance, I had a young family and there was no way I was going to uproot them as I wasn’t fond of the lifestyle in America. I’m glad I didn’t go to America; I applaud all the young black actors who have gone over there and want to go. I encourage them to do it. If you are 100% certain you have the ability, go ahead and become an international star.
CE: Do you think we have gone backwards?
RW: I think things are too politically correct. Everyone is scarred to say the wrong thing. Back home in Trinidad, we poke fun at each other. In Ghana, I have so much fun and banter with people as it reminds me of Trinidad. There is still a lack of respect for our achievements. I think the lack of respect starts with ourselves. We need to respect our fellow brothers – our failures, successes and achievements.
CE: Over the years, what would you say were your achievements?
RW: My two children and my grandchildren. My wife and the work she is doing. The most memorable achievement was playing a role in the theatre in a production called the King of England at Theatre Royal Stratford East, for which I won an award for best actor. And Black Silk, eight one hour BBC Drama which should have gone on to become a regular series.
CE: You’ve been playing Patrick Truman for 10 years. Are you still enjoying it?
RW: I love it. I genuinely am exited every time I go to the studio and find it challenging and enjoyable. The day I don’t enjoy it anymore, I’ll want to get out. I laugh with the other actors and can be silly and crack jokes, but, when I get on set, I’m very strict on myself and take it very seriously. I’ve turned down many jobs over the years. I set myself a standard. Money was secondary; the role/ part was my first interest. I would do theatre plays that paid next to nothing and turn down TV work that paid more, just because I loved the theatre script.
CE: You are an OBE. How did you feel when you received the award?
RW: It was my peers who actually endorsed the award, so it was an honour of them to do that for me, but for me. It was the reaction of my kids that really was special. It was them saying ‘look at my dad’ which is the memory I will always have.
CE: Your wife (Dounne Alexander) has set up Joining Hands in Health. Tell our readers more about the cause.
RW: In May 2010 Dounne launched a nationwide online petition called THE NATION SPEAKES –‘NO’ Not In My Name’, exposing EU legislations which poses the greatest threat to our health (our children and future generations), plus the survival of many cultural foods, holistic practices and health businesses. Centuries of ancient wisdom will also be written out of the history books and lost forever. The petition is to create public awareness and needs 35 million (UK) signatures by December 2010, to stop this before 2011. Joining Hands in Health is a great phrase; it is the thing that binds us humans together – our health. We need to go back to traditional foods as nature’s ‘natural’ raw materials are being neglected. I’d like to encourage everyone to please visit the website www.joininghandsinhealth.com/petition and SIGN UP today, plus tell all your family and friends to do the same.
CE: If you were not an actor, what else do you think you would have done?
RW: I would have become a barrister. It wasn’t a Plan B. I knew I would always become an actor that was my definite plan. But the great thing about acting is that you can indulge in all the other roles on screen; you can play a social worker or a doctor for a few months and whilst I was playing a barrister in Black Silk, I thought to myself; I could have been a damn good barrister.
CE: What is your connection to Africa?
Have you visited much? RW: I would love to be able to get time off and go to Ghana. I love Ghana. The memories I have there are very strong, it reminds me of home in Trinidad. I have been to Zambia, Nigeria of course. I would love to go to Sierra Leone. Growing up in the Caribbean, with the European teachings, you were always told that Africans lived in trees. It wasn’t even until later in life, that I went to see it for myself and realised that there was a big misconception. I feel as though we are all the same. When I see all the pain and the suffering, I feel the pain and suffering. They are my people. Africa is where our salvation lies. Until a nation of Africans become self-sufficient, we will continue to have problems. A strange thing happened to me in Ghana, when I went to visit Takoradi, which is on the coast. We were driving and I started describing the roads, what was coming up next, as if I had been there before. It was like I was coming home, I just knew that place as if it was my home. One night it was too late to go home. There was this old woman and I chose to stay at her place. She asked me “are you sure? You know, I have no hot water, if you want to bathe, you will have to use the stand pipe”. I said “ Yes, please!”, which is what I did. In the morning, she gave me a wrap, a calabash, and bucket. I threw off my wrap and in my birthday suit, I threw the water over me. I felt completely at home, it was heaven. I have visited there many times and I love the people.
CE: What’s next for Rudolph Walker? Writing or producing?
RW: No, not at my age. If young people want me to act in their films or give them advice for their projects, I will encourage them to do anything they want to do.
CE: When will your autobiography be finished?
RW: Hopefully by the end of the year. I have been writing it for years and I sometimes have writer’s block. My wife keeps telling me that what I have written is great and to hurry up and finish it. So hopefully, I will get someone to help me shape it and get a manuscript together and publish it next year. The working title is: “I Walked the Walk. A play on my name and a statement.