Exclusive Interview With Rudolph Waker (Patrick Trueman)

By Larry Jaffee

As my luck would have it, my plane was just landing at Heathrow the evening of 27th of September while Rudolph Walker’s 70th birthday bash was in full swing at the other end of sprawling London at the Hackney Empire. Unfortunately I learned of the black-tie event, which was a benefit for his new foundation, too late but good mate Sylvester Williams, who EastEnders fans know as ‘Mick the jazzman,’ managed to put in a good word for me at the party with Walker (Patrick Trueman) to land an exclusive interview with the Walford Gazette.

There’s little doubt that his character over the past eight years has injected some much-needed humour to Albert Square’s proceedings. Despite his advanced years, this sage’s sly wink suggests someone who, based on his life’s experiences, knows how to enjoy a good time and not take life too seriously, but still have compassion for his fellow man or woman. Words to live by.

A few days later I receive an email from Rudolph to meet him Monday at 2 p.m. at The Crypt, St Martins-in-the-Field Church, Trafalgar Square. Not as scary as it sounds, the church’s café turned out to be the perfect meeting place.

Walker is anxious to discuss the launch of his new foundation, whose aim is to provide disadvantaged youths with the same kind of opportunities he’s received during his illustrious acting career on stage (including some time with the Royal Shakespeare Theatre Company) and television, which includes far more than EastEnders. On telly, he co-starred in Love Thy Neighbour, the groundbreaking, 1970s Britcom that dispelled racial stereotypes, and The Thin Blue Line, a 1990s Britcom starring Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean) about a dysfunctional police station that also played on American public television. “The House of Commons also wants to have an ‘official’ launch [of the Rudolph Walker Foundation] next year. It’s quite nice to get that sort of accolade,” he says, humbly. Among the guests at his Hackney gala were EastEnders colleagues including Steve McFadden (Phil Mitchell), Nick Bailey (Anthony Trueman), Shane Richie (Alfie Moon) and Jake Wood (Max Branning, but we Yanks know his voice better as the Geico gekko).

“The problems that I had when I came over here (England) in 1960 still are true. Young actors still have problems getting access to do their thing. You’re restricted. Venues are not controlled by people of colour. That’s extremely difficult for a young actor or director coming out of film school. They don’t have access to cameras, editing suites. Some have very little money and want to do a 10-minute or 15-minute documentary to kick-start their career. The foundation will give them the opportunity to at least get their foot in the door.” A pet peeve of Walker’s is all the negative news that’s reported on a daily basis. He would also like to make sure that young people who make their contributions to their communities are recognised in the media for doing so. “The foundation will honour them, either through a monetary reward or a special dinner.

This isn’t the first time Walker has practiced what he preaches in terms of educational philanthropy. In the 1970s he started a drama competition between two high schools in Brixton, south London. “A high percentage of black kids were getting picked up by police, having problems with their parents,” he explains. Rudolph devised an after-school programme in which groups of six or seven kids would write their own short plays, and among themselves appoint a director. Since then, he’s visited schools all over Britain.

According to his plan, the foundation will also offer courses for young people who think they might like an entertainment career, but they “need an extra push incentive. They need someone to guide them.” The classes will be not only in acting, but also dancing and building self-esteem. Walker says his aim is to help disadvantaged youths to “discover themselves.”

Walker admits it’s a “little scary” about now having to deliver the aims of the foundation to help disadvantaged youths, and but that goes along with the territory and he’s determined to see it through. When I suggest to Rudolph that Patrick Trueman has provided some much-needed comic relief to EastEnders, and he must be doing something right. Although EastEnders over the course of its nearly quarter century has had black male patriarch character types – Tony Carpenter (Oscar James) and Jules Tavernier (Tommy Etyle) come to mind – most of these families have been short-lived and merely pass through The Square, whereas Patrick has become a fixture.

“Before joining [EE], I told the producer [comedy] is an area I would like to explore [with the character] because there was not enough of it [in the show]. [Patrick] treats a lot of things with a certain amount of humour. His way of escaping a problem is to find something funny to do or say or sometimes to get himself out of a tight corner. That’s really the sort of foundation. I try to put as much humour as possible into the character.”

Since he had already achieved success in the theatre and on television, “I didn’t go into EastEnders ‘to be discovered.’ But the huge success of EastEnders is phenomenal. There’s no two ways about it. It’s quite something.”

Among his storylines Walker says he enjoyed the one that involved whether Anthony or Paul was his real son.

I tell him that my favourite scene of Patrick’s involves his friendship with Jim Branning (John Bardon) when they start dancing to classic reggae song “The Israelites” by Desmond Dekker, and how Jim the character has undergone such a transformation. When he was first introduced, Jim was basically a white racist who ridiculed his daughter Carol for being involved with a black man (Alan Jackson). But Jim ends up becoming best of friends with Patrick. I note to Rudolph I spoke with John a few days earlier, and it was good to hear he was slowly recovering from his stroke and back occasionally at the studio for episodes.

“They had plans to develop that relationship and go onto some exploits, but because of [John’s] illness that’s been put on hold for the time being,” Walker notes. He’s amazed to hear that U.S. public TV audiences have just recent viewed the episode in which Jim and Patrick’s homemade still blows up and burns Jim’s face, an accident that occurred on EastEnders more than five years ago. “Wow, you’re really behind,” he adds.

In early 2009, a controversy over an episode of EastEnders that featured an all-black cast left Walker unimpressed, and at the time he declined to provide the media with a comment. “I didn’t want to buy into the fact that it was an all-black cast. So what? Nobody talks about when there’s an all-white cast, which happens 90% of the time,” he explains, adding that he wasn’t aware that the episode had an all-black cast. “When you’re involved in a storyline, you don’t have time to read all the scripts. You obviously concentrate on your scenes.”

The storyline in that episode dealt with the 1958 race riots in London’s Notting Hill, in which Patrick tells his family of his experiences as a young black man at the time.

Rudolph himself came to London in 1960 from his native Trinidad. “I was aware of the protests. There was an aftermath, and several other protests up and down the country: Bristol, Birmingham, London.” He has a solution to the root cause of the world’s problems that remain today: “Having respect for each other as human beings. That’s a lesson we seem to be moving further and further away from as a race as people. Until we do that we are going to have problems right across the globe.”

He’s hopeful that the election of Barack Obama is more than a token gesture. “There’s a side of me that’s cynical. I suppose you don’t get to 70 without being cynical.”

Patrick/Rudolph Facts

Patrick waltzed into Walford suspiciously soon after his estranged wife's death and quickly made his mark on the Square. With his trademark trilby cocked to one side, his taste for Caribbean rum and an eye for the ladies, trouble is always just round the corner. Most likely to say: “Yeah man! Now don’t go stressin’ yourself, man!”

His philosophy is explained in a nutshell on his website: “An Actor’s life for me is one which keeps you creative; forever developing, growing, flourishing and enriching, yourself and others. Therefore you cannot afford to become complacent or relaxed for too long… hence retirement is never a choice; you simply go on to ‘the end.’”

In 2005, Rudolph Walker also starred in a BBC comedy called Crouch about the ups and down of a contemporary black family in London. The show also featured Mona Hammond (EastEnders’ Blossom Jackson), who also appeared in the 1985 British eight-part drama series Black Silk, in which Walker played the title role of a barrister. Wrote critic Carl Gardner in The Listener of Black Silk: “This is the story of a privileged, black male and his attempt literally to take on the institutions of the law, to play the role, to dress up, to mimic, to integrate… It’s a logic, based on the notions of personal achievement, which never had much credence in Britain – and which is irrelevant to 99% of blacks in this country in 1985, when black communal self-identity is the order of the day.”

Respect Your Elders

“We went up and down country doing plays in church halls and town halls. It was great because I got to rub shoulders with actors like Earl Cameron and Edric Connor. It’s important to emphasise that this earlier generation of actors made an important contribution, just as we made and are continuing to make our contribution. I think one of the sad things is that there’s a tendency now to criticise the older actors and to accuse them of playing certain types of roles, be they so-called Uncle Tom roles or whatever. What people don’t understand is what that generation was going through professionally was just a stage. We must acknowledge that they made their contribution. The youngsters are where they are today because of what actors before me, and actors like me, have been doing.” –Rudolph Walker, interview with Stephen Bourne, in Black and White in Colour: Black People in British Television Since 1936 (London: British Film Institute, 1992), p. 77.

For further reading:

The Colour Black: Black Images In British Television, Editors Therese Daniels and Jane Gerson (London: British Film Institute, 1990)
Black in the British Frame: Black People in British film and Television 1896-1996, Stephen Bourne (London: Cassell, 1998)

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