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Zia Mohyeddin, actor who played Tafas in Lawrence of Arabia and devised Britain’s first Asian TV soap opera – obituary

Dame Sybil Thorndike as Mrs Moore, Zia Mohyeddin as Dr Aziz and Virginia McKenna as Miss Adela Quested in the BBC Play of the Month (Nov 1965), A Passage To India - bbc/Ian Coates
Dame Sybil Thorndike as Mrs Moore, Zia Mohyeddin as Dr Aziz and Virginia McKenna as Miss Adela Quested in the BBC Play of the Month (Nov 1965), A Passage To India - bbc/Ian Coates

Zia Mohyeddin, who has died aged 91, was an actor born in what is now Pakistan and trained in Britain in the 1950s; he made his name in both countries as an actor, a reciter of poetry and as a director and producer.

In Britain he was best known for his debut role in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) as Peter O’Toole’s Bedouin guide Tafas, who ends up being shot dead by rival Bedouin Ali (Omar Sharif) for drinking water from the wrong well, at the end of one of the most memorable screen entrances in film history.

Two years earlier, in his West End debut, he originated the role of Dr Aziz, wrongly accused of assaulting Adela Quested in the Marabar Caves, in the stage adaptation of E M Forster’s A Passage to India.

The play ran for 302 performances, winning plaudits from critics including Kenneth Tynan, who insisted in the Observer that Mohyeddin should be seen in Shakespeare. When in 1965 he reprised the role in an all-star BBC TV version, with Virginia McKenna as Adela, the Telegraph singled out Mohyeddin for particular praise.

Later he conceived, produced and starred in Family Pride, Britain’s first ever Asian soap. Broadcast over 51 episodes on Channel 4 in 1991-2, produced by Central TV and set in the Midlands, it followed the lives of three prosperous families – the Bedis, the Rizvis and the Lais – and proved a showcase for Asian talent in the UK.

The series, Mohyeddin explained, was not “ghetto television”: “There are people for whom life is a struggle and there are other people who have worked hard to achieve success... I don’t want to concentrate on problem stories or victim stories [or] produce something which is full of social comment and is regarded as worthy”.

Mohyeddin played self-made millionaire Balbir “BB” Bedi, head of a business empire who lives in J R-style luxury in Birmingham’s stockbroker belt. One critic observed that while some might dismiss the serial as “Howards’ Way with saris”, it was refreshing to watch a modern British soap that “highlights a largely middle-class, educated and enterprising community”.

Zia Mohyeddin played BB, a self-made millionaire, in Family Pride, 1991 - ITV/Shutterstock
Zia Mohyeddin played BB, a self-made millionaire, in Family Pride, 1991 - ITV/Shutterstock

Zia Mohyeddin was born in Lyallpur, British India (now Faisalabad, Pakistan), on June 20 1931 into an Urdu speaking family. His father Khadim, was a mathematician, musicologist, playwright, and lyricist.

After studying at Government College, Lahore, Zia travelled to England in 1953 to train at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

Mohyeddin went on to make numerous appearances, mainly in small roles, on stage and screen, including in Fred Zinnemann’s Behold the Pale Horse (1964). He was a former slaver in Basil Dearden’s war epic Khartoum (1966) and a doctor in Peter Hall’s first feature film, the trippy Work Is a Four-Letter Word (1968), though in 1961 Hall had abruptly fired him days before he was due to open as Romeo at Stratford.

In the late 1960s Mohyeddin returned to Pakistan where he founded and ran an Arts and Dance Academy, and hosted a popular talk show, but returned to Britain in the late 1970s following differences with the military regime of General Zia-ul-Haq.

Mohyeddin, second from left, with Patrick McGoohan, centre, in 'Someone is Liable to Get Hurt', an episode of Danger Man, 1966 - ITV/Shutterstock
Mohyeddin, second from left, with Patrick McGoohan, centre, in 'Someone is Liable to Get Hurt', an episode of Danger Man, 1966 - ITV/Shutterstock

Moving to Birmingham, he produced the multicultural programme Here and Now (1986 89) for Central Television and continued to work as an actor, appearing in the Granada Television series The Jewel in the Crown (1984), Ken McMullen’s Partition (1987) and Jamil Dehlavi’s Immaculate Conception (1992).

In 1989 he played the father of a young Muslim girl living in Leicester fighting the forces of fundamentalism in Shalom, Salaam, a series of one-hour plays broadcast on BBC Two. Conceding that the series would cause controversy in the Muslim community, he observed: “The only intelligent way to look at it is that if you live in this country, you have to play the game by the rules of this country.”

In 2005, the then President of Pakistan Pervez Musharraf invited Mohyeddin, who also travelled widely giving Urdu poetry and prose recitations, back to Pakistan to found the National Academy of Performing Arts in Karachi. He remained its President Emeritus until his death.

Mohyeddin was married three times. With his first wife Sarwar Zemani he had two sons. With his second wife, Naheed Siddiqui a Kathak dancer, he had another son. With his third wife, Azra Zaidi, he had a daughter.

Zia Mohyeddin, born June 20 1931, died February 13 2023