If you were a television viewer of Sri Lanka during the late 70s, you will definitely remember a British sitcom titled ‘Mind Your Language’. This program was so popular at the time that even though most television viewers in Sri Lanka were Sinhala monolingual, they watched it without fail.
The program presented an English class which consisted of students from various countries, but didn’t have a good command of English speech. So, each character was etched in viewers’ minds by their fanciful pronunciation and use of English. One such very funny character among others in it was Ranjeet Singh, a Sikh from the Punjab region in India.
Ranjeet Singh was most popular among viewers because of his catchphrase “A thousand apologies” apart from his neatly-trimmed black beard and moustache and his Sikh turban. In his role, he works in the London Underground, and sometimes threatens people with his kirpan (a digger used by Sikhs) hidden under his belt. Due to religious and cultural differences, he and Ali Nadim, a Pakistani Muslim in the show, hate and confront each other.
Though people around the world loved the character Ranjeet Singh, few knew until his death that the Sikh character in the drama was played by Sri Lankan actor Albert Moses. Indian fans never believed that Ranjeet Singh was played by a Sri Lankan – their obituary reports to Moses attest to this fact. Anyway, as this talented artiste’s fourth death anniversary falls on September 15 it is good to trace back his life.
Albert Moses becomes a Sikh
Albert Moses was born on 19 December 1937 in Gampola, Kandy. He was a Christian by religion and started to work at the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya after leaving the school. But it wasn’t an art related job and thus, he moved to India where he acted in several Bollywood movies in the 1960s. He not only acted, but also produced and directed his first film when he was in India. Next, he moved to Africa from India, where he undertook work on documentaries.
From there, he moved to London to study theatre and drama, and launched his career as a television actor in the early 70s. First, he played small parts in several television series, and one day during this time he spotted an advertisement in a newspaper calling for aspiring actors to audition for the role of a Sikh in ‘Mind Your Language’.
He appeared in the audition and outdid native Sikhs to take the role of Sikh – Ranjeet Singh. As he had spent time with his Indian-Sikh friends when he was in India, it was not a difficult job for him to play the particular role. He observed his Sikh friends’ manners and culture and the way they spoke before taking part in the audition. He also learnt to tie the turban of Sikhs. This was how Albert Moses became famous Ranjeet Singh in the ITV sitcom Mind Your Language (1977–79, 1986).
All three media
Albert Moses acted in all three visual media – stage, television and film. When looking at the multitude of roles he played, it is very difficult to fathom how an actor from a small island went so far. There are only stage plays that he acted in: Freeway – National Theatre, Phædra Britannica – National Theatre (with Diana Rigg) and Long March to Jerusalem – Watford Palace Theatre.
But his appearance on television is a long list: ‘Queenie’ (Hollywood mini-series with Kirk Douglas), ‘On the Buses’ (London Weekend Television), ‘Warship’ (BBC television drama), ‘Robin’s Nest’ (Thames Television sitcom), ‘Mind Your Language’ (London Weekend Television sitcom – nearly 50 episodes broadcast between 1977 and 1986), ‘Juliet Bravo’ (BBC television drama), ‘The Jewel in the Crown’ (Granada Television – 4 episodes, with Charles Dance, OBE), ‘The Little and Large Show’ (BBC television comedy), ‘The Benny Hill Show’ (Thames Television comedy), ‘Boon’ (ITV Central drama), ‘The Bill’ (talkback Thames television drama – five episodes), ‘Never the Twain’ (Thames Television sitcom), ‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: The Man With The Twisted Lip’ (Granada Television), ‘London’s Burning’ (London Weekend Television drama), ‘Tandoori Nights’ (Channel 4).
His movie appearances are also a very long list: ‘White Cargo’ (1973, as an Arab), ‘The Man Who Would Be King’ (1975, A John Huston film with Sean Connery, Michael Caine and Christopher Plummer – as Ghulam), ‘Stand Up, Virgin Soldiers’ (1977, EMI – as an Indian shopkeeper), ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ (1977, James Bond film – as Barman), ‘What’s Up Nurse!’ (1978, a Derek Ford sex comedy – as the first Asian), ‘Carry On Emmannuelle’ (1978, Rank – as Doctor), ‘The Awakening’ (1980, Columbia Pictures – uncredited), ‘An American Werewolf in London’ (1981, a John Landis movie – as Hospital Porter), ‘The Great Quest’ (with Oliver Reed), Pink Floyd: ‘The Wall’ (1982, Alan Parker film – as Janitor), ‘Octopussy’ (1983, James Bond film – Saddrudin – as an undercover British agent in India), ‘Al-mas’ Ala Al-Kubra’ (1983 – as an Indian officer – uncredited), ‘Scandalous’ (1984, with Sir John Gielgud and Pamela Stephenson – as Vishnu), ‘The Little Drummer Girl’ (1984, EMI, a George Roy Hill film – as Green Grocer), ‘Foreign Body’ (1986 – as Paramedic #2), ‘The Second Jungle Book: Mowgli and Baloo’ (1997, Columbia Pictures – as Conductor), ‘East Is East’ (1999, a BAFTA award-winning Film 4 production – as Abdul Karim) and ‘The Snarling’ (2018 – as Hospital Patient).
Script writer, producer and director
He also wrote many scripts for television. They are The Seventh Commandment (a television drama), Side by side (a television comedy), Don’t talk to strangers (a television thriller) and The Jokers (a television drama). And also he has produced 13 episodes of Mind Your Language; produced and directed Gabriella (a television film produced on location in Malta). And he hosted, produced and directed a talent contest variety show.
Apart from this, he has published children’s books such as ‘Tales from India’, ‘The hawk and the turtles’ and ‘Mustapha Mouse goes to the city’. And there is also a poetry book consisting of 87 poems to his credit.
Only his close associates knew that Albert Moses was a great social worker. He was the trustee and patron of the Ivy Trust, a children’s charity in London. He volunteered at a local hospital and volunteered at a local school, running a film workshop for children. He also volunteered to work at a local retirement home. And he was a retired voluntary teacher from a local college, teaching English to foreign students.
He also held the post of chairman of the Asian, Caribbean, Oriental and Asian Artistes of EQUITY. And he was an ex-governor of a St Albans school as well. Moreover, he was on board of directors for a St Albans theatre company, a past member of the London regional committee of ITV under the chairmanship of Lord Lipsey and a past chairman of the St Albans Film Society. All their immense services to the public helped him to earn a Knight of the Order of St John.
A multi-talented artiste
Moses was a multi-talented artiste, trained in fencing, dancing, singing, motor-cycle stunts, karate and judo. He was proficient in many languages, including Arabic, Tamil, Sinhalese, English, German and Sanskrit. All in all, he was the perfect artiste. If he had written his autobiography, especially his extraordinary journey from a small island to Hollywood cinema, it would have been a manual for all the young artistes seeking a place in the world cinema.
Albert Moses died on September 15, 2017 in London, three months before his 80th age. His body was brought to Sri Lanka and buried at St. Andrew’s Church cemetery in his native Gampola.
So, “A thousand thanks” Moses not just a “A thousand apologies”. He not only entertained us but also took Sri Lanka to the world arena.