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Sylvia Syms

Sylvia Syms
Sylvia Syms
Sylvia Syms

Sylvia Syms (Wikipedia)

Sylvia Syms In her second film, My Teenage Daughter (1954), she played Anna Neagle‘s troubled daughter. In 1958, she starred in the film Ice Cold in Alex (alongside John MillsAnthony Quayle and Harry Andrews); that same year she appeared in the English Civil War film, The Moonraker. She played opposite Dirk Bogarde in the film Victim as the wife of a barrister, who is a closet homosexual in 1961; the film was thought to have broadened the debate which led to the decriminalisation of homosexual acts in private. In 1962, she played Tony Hancock‘s wife in The Punch and Judy Man. The film also featured her nephew, Nick Webb.

Other comedies followed, such as The Big Job (1965) with Hancock’s former co-star Sid James, but it was for drama that she won acclaim, including The Tamarind Seed (1974) with Julie Andrews and Omar Sharif, for which she was nominated for a British Film Academy awardMy Good Woman in 1972 was a husband-and-wife television comedy series which ran until 1974 with Leslie Crowther. At the same time, she was one of two team captains on the BBC‘s weekly Movie Quiz, hosted by Robin Ray. In 1975, she was the head of the jury at the 25th Berlin International Film Festival. In 1989, Syms appeared in the Doctor Who story “Ghost Light“.

Sylvia Syms died in January 2023.

Telegraph obituary in January 2023:

Sylvia Syms, veteran British actress who made her name in films including Ice Cold in Alex and Victim – obituary

She was hailed as the most beautiful star of her generation and became known for her portrayals of spirited heroines

ByTelegraph Obituaries27 January 2023 • 4:39pm

Sylvia Syms: 'The thought of having to be beautiful all the time frightened me,' she said when asked why she had turned down offers from Hollywood
Sylvia Syms: ‘The thought of having to be beautiful all the time frightened me,’ she said when asked why she had turned down offers from Hollywood CREDIT: Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Sylvia Syms, the actress, who has died aged 89, was one of the brightest stars of British cinema in the 1950s, when she specialised in sassy, stubborn, heroines in films from the classic war drama Ice Cold in Alex (1958) to Victim (1961); in later years her roles ranged from Margaret Thatcher and the Queen Mother to Olive, the no-nonsense dressmaker in EastEnders.

Sylvia Syms shot to stardom playing Anna Neagle’s stroppy daughter in the 1956 box-office hit My Teenage Daughter, and was hailed as the most beautiful star of her generation when she appeared in Ice Cold in Alex as an Army nurse who joins a group of British soldiers (Harry Andrews, Anthony Quayle and John Mills) in an arduous trek across the deserts of North Africa during the Second World War.

In Ice Cold in Alex with, l-r, Harry Andrews, Anthony Quayle and John Mills
In Ice Cold in Alex with, l-r, Harry Andrews, Anthony Quayle and John Mills CREDIT: Collection Christophel/Alamy

Other early triumphs included the marriage-breaking secretary in Woman In A Dressing Gown (1957), for which she won a Bafta nomination; the earnest sister of a young tearaway forced to yield to Herbert Lom’s lustful desires in the sentimental crime drama No Trees In The Street (1959), which earned her another Bafta nomination; a stripper girlfriend in Expresso Bongo (1959), a send-up of ’50s British pop, memorable for her (dubbed) rendition of a song called Nausea that rhymed “Meistersingers” with “shyster singers”; and as the white daughter daring to marry a Jamaican in Flame In The Streets (1961).

Other notable credits included Conspiracy of Hearts (1960) and The World of Suzie Wong (1960).

She insisted on taking the role of the loving wife of a barrister (Dirk Bogarde) forced to confront his homosexuality in Victim after several other actresses had rejected the role. The film was far ahead of its time in tackling the taboo of homosexuality, and played an important part in helping to change social attitudes. “I’d always been involved in politics,” she recalled, “and I was appalled by the ridiculous attitude to gay people. Of course I’d met a few by then.”

But Sylvia Syms never made any money out of these early appearances. She had signed a contract with Associated British Films for a weekly fee of £30 (she later discovered they had been hiring her out for £1,000 a week – with no royalties). When many of her early films were reissued in a “British Greats” series, she received a postcard from Bogarde: “Isn’t it great to be great? Wouldn’t it be great if they gave us a penny for each showing?” 

And when the National Film Theatre ran a retrospective of her work in 2004, she confessed that it merely reminded her that she had been paid a pittance for her early films.

Nor did her fame endure: her talent for vanishing inside the skin meant, as she put it, that she was never “instantly recognisable as me”. As it was, she was frequently mistaken for the actress Sheila Sim, the wife of Richard Attenborough, somewhat to her chagrin – “She’s even older than me!” she pointed out.

With Dirk Bogarde in Victim
With Dirk Bogarde in Victim CREDIT: Moviestore Collection Ltd/Alamy

Early on, Hollywood came calling, but Sylvia Syms turned them down – “The thought of having to be beautiful all the time frightened me.” Instead, she chose the comparative penury of life as a British actress and marriage, aged 22, to her childhood sweetheart.

Sylvia Syms was born in London on January 6 1934. Her father, Edwin, was a trade unionist and civil servant. She had a difficult childhood. While she was evacuated during the Second World War with her older brother and sister, her mother Daisy was hit during an air raid and suffered a severe head injury, later taking her own life when her daughter was 12. Sylvia described her death as a “loss that was not properly dealt with at the time” which resulted in a near-breakdown.

Two years later her father remarried and it was her stepmother Dorothy who did the most to try to help Sylvia through her difficulties, sending her to a therapeutic centre in the West Country, though she continued to be afflicted by bouts of depression throughout her life.

After training at Rada, Sylvia Syms began her career as an assistant stage manager before landing a small role as a princess in Shaw’s The Apple Cart, with Noël Coward, in 1953. She understudied Mai Zetterling, cut her rep teeth in Bath and Eastbourne, appeared in Charley’s Aunt with John Mills and starred with Tony Britton in The Romantic Young Lady. She was soon talent-spotted by Associated British Films and signed to a contract, starting with My Teenage Daughter.

Many of the films in which she appeared, such as The Moonraker (1958) and Bachelor of Hearts (1958), were run-of-the-mill stuff. She played girls in uniforms and nuns, and a “virgin” in The Virgins of Rome (“A Thousand Tempting Beauties… they Fought Like Ten Thousand Unchained Tigers!”), a Cinecitta production during the filming of which she had to be rescued from the clutches of an amorous producer by Jack Palance – and cracked a vertebra while trying to perform a stunt.

Longing to settle down and start a family, Sylvia Syms married her childhood sweetheart Alan Edney, a businessman, when she was 22. Her first baby was stillborn and a daughter lived for only two days. She subsequently adopted a son and then gave birth to another daughter, the actress Beatie Edney.

In Expresso Bongo (1959), Val Guest's portrayal of the seamier side of the pop scene
In Expresso Bongo (1959), Val Guest’s portrayal of the seamier side of the pop scene CREDIT: Everett/Alamy

She remained the family’s main breadwinner: “I’d be at the studios through the day working, then come home to Barnes to be with my husband,” she recalled. In the 1970s she appeared in a television sitcom, My Good Woman, with Leslie Crowther and Richard Wilson, and almost won a Bafta best actress award for The Tamarind Seed (1974, with Julie Andrews and Omar Sharif).

She had roles in numerous mini-series and Miss Marple stories, was a regular on Peak Practice for a couple of years, and took stage roles in Shakespeare, Osborne, Ibsen and Albee.

In 1989 she divorced her husband after she discovered he had been having an affair with a colleague. But she continued to keep herself busy, appearing on television in everything from Doctor Who and Casualty to The Jury and Rev, and played Margaret Thatcher three times – first on stage, then on television in Thatcher: The Final Days (ITV, 1991) and in Half the Picture (1994).

Sylvia Syms as the Queen Mother with Helen Mirren as her daughter in The Queen (2006)
Sylvia Syms as the Queen Mother with Helen Mirren as her daughter in The Queen (2006) CREDIT: Maximum Film/Alamy

She was a headmistress in Shirley Valentine (1989); did an outstanding cameo turn as a blowsy landlady in Mike Hodges’s I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead (2003); was cast as the Queen Mother in Stephen Frears’s film The Queen (2006); and played a bad-tempered old woman forced into an old folks home by her family in Is Anybody There? (2009). Her most recent television appearance was in 2019 in Sally Wainright’s historical drama Gentleman Jack.

Sylvia Syms was appointed OBE in 2007.

In later life she became involved in running a company, Words and Music, that stages themed anthologies, with Jenny Agutter, Jenny Seagrove and the guitarist Simon James. She was also an active supporter and fundraiser for Age UK.

Her children survive her

Shortly after the end of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher‘s period of office in 1990, Syms portrayed her in Thatcher: The Final Days (1991), a Granada television film forITV, which dramatises the events surrounding her removal from power. She later recreated the role on the stage. From 2000–03, she played Marion Riley in the ITV comedy-drama series At Home with the Braithwaites and in 2002, she featured in the serial The Jury and contributed “Sonnet 142” to the compilation album When Love Speaks. ForStephen Frears‘ The Queen (2006), she was cast in the role of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother with Dame Helen Mirren who, as her daughter, Queen Elizabeth II, won anOscar for her performance. She also appeared in The Poseidon Adventure (2005), an American TV film with a negligible connection to the 1972 feature film. She has also taken up producing and directing.

In 2009, she appeared in the film Is Anybody There? alongside Michael Caine and Anne-Marie Duff and in the ITV1 drama series Collision. In 2010, she guest-starred as a patient in BBC1’s drama series Casualty, having played a different character in an episode from 2007. Syms had also appeared as another character in Casualty’s sister seriesHolby City in 2003. Since 2007, Syms has had a recurring role in BBC One‘s EastEnders, playing dressmaker Olive Woodhouse. Her most recent appearance in the role was on 20 July 2010. In 2010, Syms took part in the BBC’s The Young Ones, a series in which six celebrities in their seventies and eighties attempted to overcome some of the problems of ageing by harking back to the 1970s. Ms  Syms is the current narrator of the BBC Two programme Talking Pictures.

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