Mona Hammond, who has died aged 91, was a trailblazer for black actors in Britain who co-founded the Talawa theatre group before finding television stardom in EastEnders as Blossom, matriarch of the Jackson clan.
Her EastEnders character moved in with her grandson, Alan, and his partner, Carol, at Dot Cotton’s former Albert Square house in 1994. While giving support to Alan (Howard Antony) as he went through a string of jobs and to Carol (Lindsey Coulson) whenever she needed a sympathetic shoulder to cry on – as well as Carol’s four children – Blossom worked at the Bridge Street cafe alongside Kathy Beale (Gillian Taylforth).
She enjoyed a platonic friendship with a neighbour, Jules Tavernier (Tommy Eytle), another wise head, before sharing deeper feelings with Felix Kawalski (Harry Landis), a Holocaust survivor who tracked down his sister to Israel. In 1997 Blossom took up his offer to join him there.
Hammond said she was leaving EastEnders after three years through nervous exhaustion caused by the programme’s production schedule. She returned to the soap briefly in 2010 for the funeral of Blossom’s great-grandson Billie, Alan and Carol’s only child.
Before joining EastEnders, Hammond had made an impression on screen with a handful of appearances dotted throughout the five-year run of the sitcom Desmond’s (1989-94). She played Aunty Susu, the obnoxious older sister of Shirley (Carmen Munroe), who was married to the Peckham barber of the title played by Norman Beaton. They formed a distinguished triumvirate of actors who had led the way for black performers in Britain.
Hammond’s character in Desmond’s, who had arrived on a visit from Jamaica, was portrayed as the “dream girl” of Desmond’s old friend Porkpie (Ram John Holder) and became his fiancee, but was eventually deported back to her home country. Hammond then appeared in two episodes of the spin-off sitcom Porkpie, flying back from the Caribbean – where she had married another man and stolen his savings – after hearing of Porkpie’s £10m lottery win.
Hammond was born Mavis Chin in Tweedside, Jamaica, her surname deriving from her father’s Chinese heritage. In 1959 she moved to Britain on a scholarship and worked for Norman and Dawbarn architects. Keen on acting, she attended evening classes at the City Literary Institute, London, for two years and won a scholarship to Rada, graduating in 1964.
Changing her name to Mona Hammond to avoid being typecast, she made her professional debut the following year at the Everyman theatre, Liverpool, in Jack of Spades, a musical written by Beaton and Ken S Hignett.
She played Gillian, the girlfriend of Danny Daniels’s immigrant encountering racism, social deprivation and being beaten up by the police after arriving from Guyana. The Times described the play as “courageous”.
Hammond first came to the attention of London theatre critics when she took the title role in The Black Girl in Search of God (Mermaid theatre, 1968), based on George Bernard Shaw’s book of short stories. Then, at the Roundhouse in 1972, she played the wife of Oscar James’s title character, restyled as Mbeth, in The Black Macbeth – the first all-black version of Shakspeare’s play – directed by Peter Coe. It was set in Africa instead of Scotland, among the Barotse tribe of what is now Zambia, and featured African and West Indian actors. In 1989 she played Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest, performed at the Tyne theatre, Newcastle, Bloomsbury theatre, London, and Cork Opera House.
This was for Tawala, the company that Hammond had founded three years earlier, with Carmen Munroe, Yvonne Brewster and Inigo Espejel, performing black versions of plays written for white actors, as well as original productions. Its name comes from a Jamaican word meaning gutsy and strong.
For Talawa’s 1994 production of King Lear at the Cochrane theatre, London, Hammond played the Fool as a split personality – with her make-up applied down the middle of her face.
By then she was also breaking through on television. Having had many one-off parts and appearing in Play for Today productions of In the Beautiful Caribbean (1972) and Victims of Apartheid (1978), she acted the proud mother of the black British detective featured in Wolcott, a groundbreaking 1981 ITV mini-series. Four years later she had a regular role in the legal drama Black Silk as Marjorie Scott, estranged wife of the barrister played by Rudolph Walker.
She made her first appearance in EastEnders in 1986, as a midwife delivering Vicki Fowler, the daughter of Michelle (Susan Tully). In 1988 she was in Coronation Street for a handful of episodes as Mrs Armitage, unhappy at her daughter Shirley moving in with Curly Watts.
Several of Hammond’s later TV roles were as grandmothers, including in the three-generational West Indian family sitcom Us Girls (1992-93), the Bafta-winning children’s series Pig Heart Boy (1999) and the family drama The Crouches (2003-05), with Walker as her husband.
Her other soap opera role was on radio as Mabel Thompson, mother-in-law of the motorcycle-riding accountant-turned-vicar Alan Franks (John Telfer), in The Archers for a short run (2003-04), with brief return visits in 2008 and 2009. In 2005 she was appointed OBE.
Hammond’s marriage to Michael Sanders (1965-87) ended in divorce. She is survived by their son, Matthew.