Obituary: Pauline Henriques

IN 1946 Pauline Henriques became the first black actress to appear on British television when she appeared in Eugene O'Neill's American theatre classic All God's Chillun' Got Wings. The BBC television service was still in its infancy when this historic broadcast was made from Alexandra Palace.

"It was wonderful because theatre came into the sitting rooms of television viewers," she later recalled,

but for an actor it was tremendously difficult to do because everything was transmitted live. Videotape didn't exist in those days, so nothing was pre-recorded. Also, we only had one television camera and it was static. It was fixed to the studio floor and didn't move. So the actors had to remember to keep in shot all the time, and yet a sort of magic came out of this chaos.

Born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1914, Henriques arrived in Britain with her family when she was five. Her father, Cyril, was a wealthy merchant who wanted his six children to have an English education. One of Pauline's brothers, also Cyril, became Lord Chief Justice of Jamaica, and was knighted in 1963. Another, Fernando, was President of the Oxford Union in 1944 and became Professor of Social Anthropology at Sussex University.

The entire Henriques family were passionately interested in the theatre, and Pauline gained early acting experience when the family gathered together to read plays at home. In 1932, at the age of 18 and encouraged by her parents, Pauline joined a drama course at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. "I had an English accent, which was perfect for `classic' roles," she remembered.

The course lasted for one year, and I appeared in many school productions, but I had to play my parts in white face, including Lady Bracknell and Lady Macbeth! I went along with it because I was very anxious to learn my craft, and to be taken seriously as a dramatic actress.

You see, I couldn't sing or dance, and dramatic roles were non-existent for black actresses, so I had to "white up" to gain experience. However, after leaving drama school, although I was keen to continue playing strong dramatic parts, I finished up with comic black maids and one line - "Yessum. I'sa coming!" - which I learned to express about 18 different ways.

She eventually found work as an actress and broadcaster with BBC radio. During the Second World War, in 1943, the BBC launched the series Caribbean Voices on their West Indian Service. It ran for 15 years and many Caribbean writers took part, including the Trinidadians George Lamming and Samuel Selvon. Henriques's other dramatic work on BBC radio included plays by Caribbean writers such as the Jamaican Sylvia Wynter (Under the Sun, 1958, and The University of Hunger, 1960) and the Trinidadian Andrew Salkey (The Dry Time, 1959).

Away from the BBC, Henriques found theatre work much harder to find. In 1947 an American play with a black cast, Anna Lucasta, successfully transferred from Broadway to His Majesty's Theatre in London. The production ran for about two years, and offered understudy work to several British black actors like Henriques. In pursuit of her craft, she organised the understudies into the Negro Theatre Company, which staged several productions.

Henriques's biggest break in the theatre came in 1950 when Kenneth Tynan cast her as Emilia in his Arts Council tour of Othello. This production also featured an impressive performance by the African-American actor Gordon Heath as the Moor. "I loved the excitement of working in the theatre but I felt I could do better," said Henriques.

I had a voice but it wasn't until Kenneth Tynan cast me in Othello that I discovered what a wonderful thing it was to act in a Shakespeare play on the stage, and speak those marvellous lines. For five months we travelled over 3,000 miles through the Midlands, the North of England, Scotland and Wales, playing on every type of stage from No 1 theatres to miner's welfare halls. We encountered every type of audience, and it was a most exciting experience.

In 1956 she acted in another ground-breaking production, this time a BBC television drama documentary, A Man from the Sun, which portrayed the lives of Caribbean settlers in post-war Britain. "There hadn't been anything else like that written about black people for television," she said,

and John Elliot's script was very alive and real. The cast picked up the spirit that Elliot had put into it. He was very concerned about getting it right so he allowed us a lot of freedom in our interpretation.

In 1949 she had married, as her second husband, Neville Crabbe, and in the 1950s, now known as Pauline Crabbe, she started giving her attention to social work. She had tired of playing American maids and decided she needed a full-time career. She took a job with the London Council of Social Service which trained her in the care of the elderly. The first job she saw advertised, however, was to counsel adolescents. She worked in that field for the next 40 years, first with the National Council for the Unmarried Mother and Her Child, then with the Brook Advisory Centres.

Dr Fay Hutchinson was the Senior Medical Officer at the London Brook Advisory Centre when Crabbe became their Secretary in 1971. Hutchinson remembers it as a dramatic time. In 1969 abortion had become legal, and Crabbe insisted that anyone requesting an abortion should have counselling. Until then, it had been a medical decision. "Pauline also insisted that any expectant mother under the age of 16 should be counselled to find out, for instance, if they were being abused. So Pauline was instrumental in developing the use of counselling at Brook and, since that time, counselling has become an integral part of Brook Advisory work."

She was also an impressive lecturer, "and she always insisted that the medical profession treat young people with respect. The first time I heard her talk, I was spellbound."

In 1966 Crabbe became Britain's first black woman magistrate, and in 1969 she was appointed OBE.

In recent years she was featured in several television documentaries, including the BBC's Black and White in Colour (1992), a history of black people in British television, and Channel 4's Faces of the Family (1994). She also kept active running a playwriting group for the University of the Third Age near her home in Brighton.

Pauline Clothilde Henriques, actress, broadcaster and magistrate: born Kingston, Jamaica 1 April 1914; Welfare Secretary and Deputy General Secretary, National Council for the Unmarried Mother and Her Child 1957-69; OBE 1969; Conciliation Officer, Race Relations Board 1969-71; Secretary, London Brook Advisory Centre 1971-76, Senior Counsellor 1976-80, National Vice- Chairman 1980-86; married 1936 Geoffrey Henebery (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1948), 1949 Neville Crabbe (one son; marriage dissolved 1960), 1969 Joseph Benjamin (died 1995); died Brighton 1 November 1998.