Mona Hammond, trailblazing black actress who ranged from Lady Bracknell to Blossom Jackson in EastEnders – obituary

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As Blossom Jackson in EastEnders - BBC
As Blossom Jackson in EastEnders - BBC

Mona Hammond, the Jamaican-born actress, who has died aged 91, is best remembered as the grandmotherly Blossom Jackson in EastEnders – but she did much else besides, with scene-stealing performances on television, radio, films and the stage.

As co-founder, in 1986, of the Talawa Theatre Company, she set out to combat what the company’s website called the “lack of creative opportunities for black actors and the marginalisation of black peoples from cultural processes”.

The Talawa (the name comes from a Jamaican patois saying “Me lickle but me talawa”, meaning I’m small but strong) set out to promote black talent and give black actors work they were being denied by mainstream theatre companies – including Shakespearean roles. It is now one of Britain’s leading black companies.

Mona Hammond first appeared in Albert Square in 1986 playing the minor part of Michelle Fowler’s midwife, before being cast as Blossom Jackson when she arrived to live with her grandson Alan and his common-law wife Carol at No 25, after her Wapping flat was burgled.

A wise, comforting presence who lent a sympathetic ear to Carol’s many travails, she worked in the caff and had a brief romance with lothario Jules Tavernier, before embarking on a relationship with the local barber and Holocaust survivor Felix Kawalski, with whom she moved to Israel in 1997.

Mona Jackson, front, right, with fellow EastEnders cast members, at the National Television Awards at the Royal Albert Hall in October 1997 - TV Times via Getty Images
Mona Jackson, front, right, with fellow EastEnders cast members, at the National Television Awards at the Royal Albert Hall in October 1997 - TV Times via Getty Images

Soap opera scripts do not always bring out the best in actors, but Mona Hammond never played her roles with anything less than total commitment. In January 2004, for example, the Telegraph’s radio critic Gillian Reynolds marvelled at the conviction she brought to the “thankless role” of Mabel Thompson, the West Indian mother-in-law of rural vicar Alan Franks (John Telfer) in The Archers:

“She whisks the character off the drawing board of political correctness, gives her life and breath (even when she is looking in the village shop for improbable sauces) and last week delivered to Luke, the runaway junkie taken in at the vicarage, a speech about love, hope and the essence of Christianity that utterly transformed the paper words.”

Yvonne Brewster, a co-founder of the Talawa company, recalled being asked by Peter Brook at a directors’ workshop how she would know when she had succeeded. Recalling Mona Hammond’s performance as the Fool in an all-black production of King Lear, she replied: “When I forget I know the actor. Mona is a dear friend of mine – I used to look after her baby son. But I stood at the back one night, and forgot I knew her. I was just watching the Fool.”

She was born as Mavis Chin on January 1 1931 in Jamaica to a Chinese father and Jamaican mother. She moved to London in 1959 on a scholarship and worked for Norman and Dawbarn Architects. While there she attended evening classes at the City Literary Institute and won a scholarship to Rada.

Mona Hammond in rehearsals for the George Bernard Shaw play 'The Black Girl in Search of God' at the Mermaid Theatre, London, in 1968 - Bob Aylott/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Mona Hammond in rehearsals for the George Bernard Shaw play 'The Black Girl in Search of God' at the Mermaid Theatre, London, in 1968 - Bob Aylott/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

After graduation in 1964, she began her career in theatre – the stage was always her favourite environment – and changed her name to Mona Hammond as a way of avoiding being stereotyped.

In 1972, among other roles, she played Lady Macbeth opposite Oscar James in Peter Coe’s groundbreaking Black Macbeth at the Roundhouse, in which the action was shifted from Scotland to an unnamed African country.

Peter Coe with (from top) Mona Hammond Oscar James And Merdel Jordine during rehearsals for his Black Macbeth - Chris Barham/ANL/Shutterstock
Peter Coe with (from top) Mona Hammond Oscar James And Merdel Jordine during rehearsals for his Black Macbeth - Chris Barham/ANL/Shutterstock

She also spent two years at the National Theatre in productions including Fuenteovejuna and Peer Gynt, directed by Declan Donnellan, and The Crucible. She went on to star in many plays by black writers and in Tawala productions including the role of Lear’s Fool, a part she played as a schizophrenic – with black and white make-up split down the middle.

She had a phenomenal attention to detail. When playing Lady Bracknell in an all-black production of The Importance of Being Earnest in 1989, she spent hours getting the twist in the wrist right for her fan, although, as she confessed, she could not understand how her character could be so concerned about a handbag when there was a child in it: “That was the thing I thought I could bring to the play. I talked about the baby, and played down the handbag. I still don’t know if I did the right thing.”

At the same time she developed a thriving television career, with early appearances in shows such as Softly, Softly (1968) and The Troubleshooters (1969) then The Sweeney, Casualty and numerous other series, including a cameo in Coronation Street.

She also had many roles in sitcoms, including the popular Channel 4 black family comedy Desmond’s (1989-94) in which she played the dippy Auntie Susu, who becomes engaged to Porkpie (Ram John Holder) before being deported back to Jamaica. She reappeared in the show’s spin-off Porkpie (1995-96), turning up out of the blue, after finding out from the West Indian Times that Porkpie had won the Lottery.

Other roles include Grandma Sylvie Headly in The Crouches (2003–05), a sitcom about a south London family who have generational tensions.

In Channel 4’s dramatisation of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2002) she stole the show in the first episode as a Jehovah’s Witness waiting in vain for the End of the World - as described in the Book of Revelation – and in a phone call from the US.

In Death in Paradise (2011) she played a Voodoo priestess who predicts her own murder. She also appeared in the Doctor Who episode “Rise of the Cybermen” in 2006.

Her film credits included Manderlay (2005) and Kinky Boots (2006), and in 2008 she was Old Mother, a sort of earth mother figure in Roland Emmerich’s epic 10,000 BC.

In 2010 she made a brief reappearance as Blossom Jackson in two episodes of EastEnders.

Mona Hammond in 2007 - Television Stills/BBC
Mona Hammond in 2007 - Television Stills/BBC

In later years she moved to the actors’ retirement home Brinsworth House where, in December 2018, she welcomed a pregnant Duchess of Sussex on a visit.

Mona Hammond was appointed OBE in 2005, won the Ebony Lifetime Achievement award of Birmingham’s annual Black International Film Festival in 2011 and in 2018 was awarded the Women of the World Lifetime Achievement Award for her theatre career and for her work with the Talawa company.

Her marriage to Michael Saunders was dissolved and she is survived by a son.

Mona Hammond, born January 1 1931, died July 4 2022

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