Brian Rix, Lord Rix, who has died aged 92, devoted his life almost equally to stage farce – as one of the most brilliant comic actors in the postwar years – and to campaigning for people with learning disabilities. He was successful at both. In the theatre, both in management and on stage, his name became synonymous with the “Whitehall farces”, named after the London venue and with plotlines usually involving a lie, a comic deception and someone being caught with his trousers around his ankles. Rix also ran repertory companies and presented more than 90 farces on television in the 1960s – to huge audiences – starring the big names of the day, such as Dora Bryan, Sid James, Sheila Hancock and John Le Mesurier.
Then, as the father of a child with Down’s syndrome, he changed the direction of his life and became a campaigner and fundraiser for people with learning disability, in particular for the charity Mencap. He was its secretary general for seven years from 1980, and by the time he left the role, Mencap – and learning disability in general – had a much higher profile in the UK. He served as Mencap’s chairman, 1988-98, then its president until his death.
Born in Cottingham, east Yorkshire, Rix was the son of Herbert, a Hull shipowner keen on cricket, and his wife, Fanny, who loved amateur theatre. He maintained that being the youngest of four children meant he always had to fight for attention. His sister, Sheila, later Sheila Mercier, became an actor before him and is well known for her part as Annie Sugden in Emmerdale Farm.
When Brian was four, the family moved to Hornsea, on the coast. Rix was sent as a boarder to Bootham school, in York, but hated it, admitting later to being a “precocious brat”. He had an instinctive flair for self-projection that did not help with his academic studies. His father wanted him to go to Oxford to distinguish himself as a cricketer, but the second world war broke out and Rix became a pilot, navigator and bomb-aimer with the RAF. Then, faced with a 10-month wait before he was called up for duty, he wangled himself a tour with Donald Wolfit in King Lear and worked for Ensa (the Entertainments National Service Association). Further deferred, he took to rep in Harrogate.
By the time he was demobbed in 1947, remembering Wolfit as an actor-manager he decided that this was the role for him. His father and two uncles shelled out £900, and Rix put in £100 of his own, to hire the King’s Hall, Ilkley. Appearing in his first production there, the American farce Nothing But the Truth, he found the door through which he was supposed to enter the stage blocked and had to come in through the window of what was supposed to be a New York 28th-floor apartment. The £1,000 investment produced a £3,000 loss, but luckily a season of Babes in the Wood at Bridlington kept him afloat.
It was at Bridlington that he laid the foundation of his future success as a shrewd picker of farces. He alone saw the commercial potential of the forces play Reluctant Heroes, which had been turned down by all the leading managements. By the time it reached London at the Whitehall theatre in September 1950, taking over from the long-running Worm’s Eye View, Rix had made himself a force to be reckoned with in theatre management. He was to be associated with the Whitehall theatre for 25 years.
In 1952 Reluctant Heroes became one of the first West End plays to be partly televised. As a result, there were huge queues outside the Whitehall. Rix negotiated a contract with the BBC that lasted 17 years. The TV work included a number of Sunday Night Theatre productions under the Brian Rix Presents banner in the late 50s and early 60s.
Management was the art that mattered to him. For years he put on and appeared in the most noted farces of the West End, including Dry Rot by John Chapman, who had understudied him in Reluctant Heroes. Rix also appeared in the film of Dry Rot (1956), one of 11 film credits.
For three years, 1977-80, he became controller to the ragbag of theatres run by the new masters of farces and musicals, the cinema owner Laurie Marsh and the playwright Ray Cooney. He vowed never to work as a subordinate again.
Around this time, an activity that had been secondary to his stage work started to take over. In 1949 he had married the actor Elspet Gray; the first of their four children, Shelley, was born with Down’s syndrome. Rix had already done some work with the Stars Organisation for Spastics (now the Stars Foundation for Cerebral Palsy) and in the late 70s, after 30 years of almost non-stop farce production and acting, he felt “the audience was going to get bored because I was getting bored,” he said in an interview with the Guardian in 2014. He threw himself instead into fundraising for learning disability charities, and in 1978 he began the Let’s Go! TV programmes for people with learning disabilities – he made 40 of them.
In 1979 a job advert in the Guardian caught Rix’s eye, for the position of Mencap’s secretary general. He applied and was initially turned down, but was later accepted and started work in 1980. Those who thought Rix might be a humorous figurehead misjudged his passion and his management skills. His first act was to get the heads of the many departments together for one of the usual conferences – to tell them that such unwieldy meetings would be redundant in future, as he proposed to create four group heads. He visited regions, local societies, schools and adult training centres.
He was not in the slightest bit afraid of controversy. In 1987 he clashed with Lord Hailsham, the lord chancellor, over the involuntary sterilisation of a 17-year-old girl with learning disabilities; even years later, Rix could not bring himself to say anything good about the man. Ministers who were late in living up to promises received blunt, if polite, letters or deputations.
Once he moved on from the secretary general role to became chairman of Mencap, he was able to resume his theatrical career with a revival of Dry Rot at the Lyric theatre in 1989. But he tore a muscle on the opening night and received mixed notices. From 1986, Rix served as chairman of the Arts Council of Great Britain Drama Panel, resigning in 1993 over cuts being made to drama.
He was appointed CBE in 1977, was knighted in 1986 and in 1992 was made a life peer. In 2006 he voted against a bill on assisted dying because of concerns that it might be misused in relation to people with learning disabilities, but in recent weeks had written to the speaker of the House of Lords urging a change to the law “as soon as possible” to allow “the many people who find themselves in the same situation as me to slip away peacefully”.
Shelley died in 2005, and Elspet in 2013. Rix is survived by three children, Louisa, Jamie and Jonathan.
David Brindle writes: What drove Brian Rix to campaign so tirelessly, and so effectively, for people with learning disabilities was a burning anger at their marginalisation by society. Never did he forget how he and Elspet had to fight pressure from the establishment – and family – to place their young daughter Shelley in a spartan institution and walk away.
Some present-day disability-rights activists have mistakenly seen Rix as an apologist for residential care. It is true that he was concerned at the isolation of some disabled people living in the community, following the rundown of the long-stay hospitals, but it was under his chairmanship that Mencap laid plans for Golden Lane Housing, which today provides homes for more than 1,700 people with support needs. He believed that learning disabled people should live in family-sized groups, rather than alone.
As its secretary general for seven years, he modernised Mencap and raised its turnover sixfold. As chairman for 10 years thereafter, his proudest achievement was to drive through the constitutional changes that created a national assembly, made up of people with learning disabilities, their families and carers, and that gave majority control of the charity to elected trustees, of whom at least one must be a person with a learning disability.
In the Lords, as a crossbencher, Rix spoke and lobbied on learning disability and autism at every opportunity. He was shocked by the Winterbourne View scandal in 2011 and deplored the “monstrous” treatment of 1,300 people subsequently found living in similar “assessment and treatment” units in a reinvention of long-stay care.
• Brian Norman Roger Rix, Lord Rix, actor-manager and learning disability campaigner, born 27 January 1924; died 20 August 2016
• Dennis Barker died in 2015