Tony Armatrading obituary

<span>Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Tony Armatrading, who has died aged 59 of cancer, was a big, warm-hearted actor in the second wave of black British performers who began to make an impact in theatre and television in the mid-1970s. Before relocating to Los Angeles in 1999, he had three busy seasons with the Royal Shakespeare Company and featured impressively in contemporary black theatre classics at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, and the Tricycle (now the Kiln) in Kilburn.

His debut role came in the BBC’s first (and still only) black drama series, Empire Road, in 1979. His elder sister, Joan Armatrading, had been invited to record a title song, but the BBC at Pebble Mill in Birmingham could not afford her fee (the reggae band Matumbi took the gig and had a big hit); over lunch with the show’s producer, Peter Ansorge, who was having trouble finding a teenager for the Blues in the Night episode, she suggested he take a look at her little brother.

Anthony, as he was known early on, was just 17 and working backstage at the Birmingham Rep, where he soon became head flyman. Having played his Empire Road role, for the rest of the series he spent time with the cast – which included Norman Beaton, Corinne Skinner-Carter, Thomas Baptiste and Joseph Marcell – and worked with the crew; he became one of the gang.

Tony Armatrading with Niamh Cusack in Catherine Cookson’s TV miniseries Colour Blind, 1998.
Tony Armatrading with Niamh Cusack in Catherine Cookson’s TV miniseries Colour Blind, 1998. Photograph: ITV/Rex/Shutterstock

He was interested in all aspects of production, as a fine jazz musician – he played keyboards and bass guitar, and Jelly Roll Morton on a national tour of a dramatic biography, Jelly Roll Soul, in the 1980s – and a technical geek, too, as he proved later in LA.

In 1981 he made his National Theatre debut in Michael Rudman’s exuberant Caribbean production of Measure for Measure (the authority figures Escalus and the Provost were played by white actors) and then signed up for a year in 1982 on the TV series Angels, created by Paula Milne, about student nurses, followed by a 1985 stint as the music teacher Mr McCartney in Grange Hill.

Born in Birmingham, he was the second youngest of six children of Amos Armatrading, a carpenter, who had emigrated in the 50s from St Kitts with his wife, Beryl (nee Benjamin), from Antigua, a cousin of the Lib Dem peer and entertainer Floella Benjamin, first going to Cornwall, before settling in Birmingham.

Tony was educated at the Central grammar for boys, whose alumni include Tony Garnett, the BBC Play for Today producer, and the actors Nicol Williamson and, contemporary with Tony, Kevin McNally. He was popularly known as “Ant” until he grew much bigger and became “Fly” (a larger insect than an ant). He excelled at rugby and, outside school, ice-skating and drama classes, and was a lifelong supporter of Birmingham City FC.

The central passage of his career were the three seasons (1986-89) he spent with the RSC. He was a noble, steadfast Banquo to Miles Anderson’s feverish Macbeth, directed by Adrian Noble, and played Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet, directed by Terry Hands, and Orsino in Twelfth Night, on regional tours.

For the opening 1986 season in the Swan theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon he was a stalwart: Trevor Nunn directed Thomas Heywood’s The Fair Maid of the West (with Imelda Staunton as a barmaid turned pirate, Simon Russell Beale and Sean Bean) as a joyous Elizabethan romp; and he experienced the more sober-sided John Barton’s scrupulous textual excavation of Aphra Behn’s The Rover, alongside Jeremy Irons, Imogen Stubbs and Sinéad Cusack.

Tony Armatrading in 1981.
Tony Armatrading in 1981. Photograph: ANL/Rex/Shutterstock

Either side of these seasons came a tense and brooding performance – he had the most beautifully modulated, rolling vocal delivery – as the emigrating trolley-bus driver Ephraim in Errol John’s 1958 play Moon on a Rainbow Shawl at Stratford East in 1986; and, in one of August Wilson’s century cycle works, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, at the Tricycle in 1990, a truly devastating performance as Herald Loomis, a migrant mystery man in a Pittsburgh boarding house of 1911.

He returned to the Tricycle in Pauline Randall’s fine 1996 production of Wilson’s Two Trains Running (1969) as a haunted bank robber drawn inexorably towards the Black Power movement on the street outside a Pittsburgh diner.

On television, he took a leading role in Jane Howell’s compelling South African drama Return to Blood River (1994) alongside McNally, Samantha Bond and Frances Barber, and starred in a three-part miniseries of Catherine Cookson’s Colour Blind (1998) as the black husband of a white Geordie (Niamh Cusack) on industrial Tyneside during the first world war. The couple had met and married while he was docked, as a merchant seaman from Sierra Leone, in Liverpool. The trouble started when he went home with her to meet the family.

On film, he made small, but telling, contributions to Philip Noyce’s The Saint (1997), starring Val Kilmer, as a customs officer; and to Roger Michell’s Notting Hill (1999), as a security guard keeping tabs on Hugh Grant trying to access the set of a period drama starring Julia Roberts.

Propelled by these screen credits, and newly married in 1997 to the actor and producer Suzan Crowley (his best man was his best friend, the actor Tim Bentinck), he decided to try his luck in LA. This worked up to a point. He guest-starred in many big, networked TV series – The Philanthropist (with James Purefoy), NCIS (with Chris O’Donnell and Linda Hunt), Sheena (“queen of the jungle”) and Providence, about a plastic surgeon and his dysfunctional family on Rhode Island. But only for the occasional episode.

He loved the life, and the sunshine, and he had British friends, Ralph Brown and Jenny Jules, nearby in the hillside neighbourhood of Los Feliz. He and Suzan acquired US citizenship. Putting his RSC experience to good use, he taught Shakespeare at CalArts (California Institute of the Arts) and created a small multimedia company in London with corporate clients. He taught himself computer animation and CGI. He voiced Xalek in the Star Wars video games. His final role was in the re-booted television series of Hawaii Five-O in 2020.

However, we saw what we had been missing for several years when he returned to London, and the Almeida theatre in Islington, in 2007. The play was a forgotten classic, Theodore Ward’s Big White Fog (1937), a precursor to Wilson’s Pittsburgh chronicles in charting a southside Chicago family’s fortunes (and lack of them) across the 20s through the Depression.

Armatrading gave a radiant, sharp-witted performance as a salesman who becomes a slum landlord, advocating beating the system by joining it. He was locked in ideological conflict with Danny Sapani’s heavily politicised labourer, his brother-in-law. On a tiny stage pulsating with two dozen actors in Michael Attenborough’s finely orchestrated production, and alongside Sapani, Jules, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Clint Dyer, he really was back where he belonged.

He is survived by Suzan and his siblings, Everett, Carl, Joan and Andrew. Another sister, Jackie, predeceased him.

Tony (Anthony) Armatrading, actor, born 24 August 1961; died 10 May 2021