Tribute to Lord Rix

22 August 2016

Peter Handby Peter Hand

Over the weekend we heard the sad news that, after a period of illness, Lord Rix (of Whitehall) had passed away.

I had the privilege of working with him in a public affairs role at Mencap, while he was the charity’s energetic president. As an active member of the House of Lords, he was the strongest advocate in parliament for people with a learning disability, and clearly the most respected too.

Within days of working with him I was taken aback by his energy and prolific workload, and was instantly impressed with the passion and commitment shown by this retired actor-manager. It was as if the older he got — he was in his early 80s by this time — the more passionate he was to improving the life chances of people with a learning disability.

Lord Rix never approached life half-heartedly, and fully immersed himself in the task — or more usually the many tasks — at hand. As a way of working, it was highly infectious and very rewarding.

Lord Rix was a pioneer, not only in the success of his Whitehall farces through the new medium of television, but by using the powerful allure of fame to achieve positive change in society. He was the first celebrity in the age of television to achieve this remarkable feat.

After a successful and rewarding career in the theatre, film and television, he subsequently became secretary-general, chairman and then president of Mencap. I suspect ‘retirement’ in the traditional sense was never really on Lord Rix’s agenda.

I recall one meeting with a government minister, who upon arrival removed from his briefcase a book about the history of farces — one of many written by Lord Rix — and duly asked for it to be autographed. Ever the gentleman and displaying his signature charm, Lord Rix duly obliged with a flamboyant signing of his name and message of goodwill.

If the minister concerned had deemed this gesture a skilful attempt to disarm this Peer of the Realm, he was to be sadly disappointed. With the ink on the page still wet from the tip of Lord Rix’s pen, he proceeded to make his various points directly — with his usual charm — and was not sidestepped by such flattery. Lord Rix was there because he had a job to do — and proceeded to do so.

It was this life-long association with Mencap which was to have the greatest impact, in helping to transform the lives of people with a learning disability. By using his celebrity status to promote a cause and not himself, Lord Rix set the gold standard by which a public profile can achieve a far greater public good.

I believe this will undoubtedly be one of his many legacies, and I hope this will bring some comfort to his family and close friends during this period of grieving for the loss of a truly great and inspiring man.

Peter Hand is the public affairs manager at Leonard Cheshire Disability and worked as the senior public affairs officer at Mencap, 2009-2012.

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