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Obituary: Actor Thomas Baptiste – ‘a leading figure in Britain’s post-war, cultural landscape’

Thomas Baptiste in Have You Now, or Have You Ever Been (1976)

Born in British Guiana (now Guyana), Thomas Baptiste came to London in 1950 to study agriculture but instead became a leading figure in post-war Britain’s fast-changing cultural landscape.

He achieved early success as a singer but refused a Royal Academy of Music scholarship to pursue an acting career, appearing in Summer Song, Eric Maschwitz’s musical portrait of the composer Antonin Dvorak, at Manchester’s Opera House in 1955.

The following year he shared a stage with John Gielgud in Noel Coward’s Nude With Violin, first in Dublin, then on tour and subsequently in the West End at the Globe Theatre.

He began the 1960s opposite Vivien Merchant in Harold Pinter’s The Room at the Royal Court and was seen in a number of plays dealing with racial politics, notably Joel Wyman’s apartheid South Africa-set Return to Mirredal (Edinburgh Lyceum, 1962), George Sklar’s examination of civil rights in the US And People All Around (Bristol Old Vic, 1967) and fellow Guyanan Norman Beaton’s musical about West Indian immigrants, Sit Down, Banna (Worthing Connaught, 1968).

That same Worthing season saw him powerfully challenging castings norms as George alongside Isabelle Lucas’ Martha in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. He was equally impressive in Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones on tour in 1973 and his Paul Robeson in Eric Bentley’s Have You Now, or Have You Ever Been (Bush Theatre, 1976) was applauded by The Stage for its “majestic presence and unswerving sincerity”.

Memorable later stage appearances included Derek Walcott’s Remembrance (Tricycle Theatre, 1990) and Herb Gardner’s two-hander with Alan Dobie, I’m Not Rappaport (Wythenshawe Forum, 1991).

On television, he was the first black actor to appear in Coronation Street (in 1963), appeared in plays by Alun Owen and Barrie Keeffe and was a regular in the first all-black soap opera, Empire Road, in 1978.

Active within Equity throughout his career, co-founding its Afro-Asian committee, he once took The Stage to task, in the late 1960s, for an editorial on the blind colour-casting debate, which was then beginning to make itself felt.

Thomas Baptiste was born on March 17, 1929 and died on December 6, 2018, aged 89.

Baptiste’s letter to The Stage in February 1963 (click to enlarge)

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