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Tony Armatrading was a versatile actor who appeared widely on British television since the late Seventies and who later crossed the Atlantic to find success in America. Armatrading, who has died aged 59, began his career at a time when there were still far too few black actors on the small screen, a disparity which has still to be fully rectified.
Anthony Armatrading was born in 1961 in Birmingham, one of six children to Beryl and Amos Armatrading, a carpenter, who had settled in Britain from the Caribbean in the Fifties.
Starting his career backstage, he was part of the crew at Birmingham Repertory Theatre as head flyman, responsible for the moving and placement of scenery on stage. His introduction to acting, and to television, came through a chance meeting by his sister, the singer-songwriter Joan Armatrading. At lunch with the producer Peter Ansorge she had heard that he was seeking a character for a role in Empire Road and intimated that her brother might be a good fit.
Empire Road (1979) was a pioneering black drama series, written by Michael Abbensetts, which ran for two years. With a predominantly black cast, writers and directors, the soap opera endeavoured to illustrate the lives of an ethnically diverse group of neighbours on a street in Birmingham. Armatrading played Carlton, a teenager, in a single episode of the programme.
Although young and still inexperienced, Armatrading was bitten by the acting bug and soon went on to seek out other roles on television, radio and stage.
His radio debut was in The Wasted Years, a poignant and emotional drama about the choices open to Solly, a 16-year-old boy and the only black face in his school class. The play, written by Caryl Phillips and produced by Vanessa Whitburn, won a Giles Cooper Award when it was broadcast in 1984.
Then, in Grange Hill, that favourite of children’s TV in the late Seventies and early Eighties, Armatrading played Mr McCartney, a music teacher.
Returning to his beloved stage, at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Armatrading worked with directors such as Trevor Nunn and Adrian Noble, playing the ghost Banquo in Macbeth and Tybalt Capulet in Romeo and Juliet.
In the classic British romcom Notting Hill (1999), he shone in the part of the security guard, protecting the location at which Anna Scott (Julia Roberts) is filming a period drama. Armatrading allows William Thacker (Hugh Grant) to visit the star on set to win back her heart.
Armatrading took a leading role in Colour Blind (1998), the three-part mini-series adaptation of Catherine Cookson’s book. He is James Paterson, the black husband of a privileged white woman during the First World War and into the Twenties.
In 1999 he moved to Los Angeles with wife Suzan Crowley, whom he had married two years previously. Using his new-found proximity to the heart of American showbusiness, he guest-starred in television series such as NCIS and Providence, the NBC medical drama created by John Masius. In season four of Prison Break, first shown in 2008, he plays Solomon Okela, a United Nations attache and leader of the anti-company movement.
Although based in the US, Armatrading made a memorable return to the UK for Big White Fog, a forgotten gem of American theatre penned by Theodore Ward. Written in 1937 and premiered in Chicago, the play had not been seen here until 2007 when it was staged at the Almeida Theatre, north London, with Armatrading as a salesman turned landlord.
A reviewer for the London Evening Standard commented: “I doubt if there exists any more enthralling or important play about the struggle of blacks to survive in pre-Second World War America than Big White Fog. It is that rare dramatic thing: a drama which extends one's awareness of life, resounding with justified anger and passion.”
Since 2012 he had taught Shakespeare at California Institute of the Arts, as part of the organisation’s BFA course and was co-chairman of Bafta’s New Media Committee. As a lover of animation and computer games, he was pleased to be chosen to voice the character of Xalek in the multiplayer game Star Wars: The Old Republic.
Armatrading’s last role was as Claypool in two episodes of Hawaii Five-O, a contemporary adaptation of the classic television series, broadcast last year. He had been diagnosed with cancer. The news of his death was broken by his friend the actor Tim Bentinck who said in tribute: “I had the privilege of being his best man, and loved him dearly. He was a wonderful actor and a true friend.”
He is survived by his wife, actress Suzan Crowley.
Tony Armatrading, actor, born 30 November 1961, died 10 May 2021