Sylvia Syms





It was her portrayal of a Second World War nurse in Ice Cold in Alex (1958) that elevated Sylvia Syms to the top rank of British actresses.

Starring John Mills and Anthony Quayle and shot in the Libyan desert, she recalled it as the toughest assignment of her career. “There were holes in the ground instead of proper lavatories and we used DDT fly repellent as hairspray. I’m amazed we didn’t all die,” she recalled. “But my co-stars were all proper grown-up men who had served in the war and they were like uncles to me.”

At the time she was on a studio contract that paid £30 a week and she noted wryly that she made more money when a scene was later turned into a Carlsberg advert than from the picture itself.

A more recent notable role was as the Queen Mother in Stephen Frears’s film The Queen (2006)
A more recent notable role was as the Queen Mother in Stephen Frears’s film The Queen (2006)

Formidable women became her stock-in trade, from playing the Queen Mother to portraying Margaret Thatcher. Yet in a long career encompassing 50 feature films and even more television appearances, the role that gave her the greatest satisfaction was that of a long-suffering middle-class housewife in the 1961 film Victim. It was a part which nobody else would touch.

The film told the sympathetic tale of a closeted homosexual London barrister, played by Dirk Bogarde, and the problems his sexuality caused for his wife, played by Syms. She was 27 and one of British cinema’s rising young stars but bravely chose to ignore those who advised her that the film could wreck her burgeoning career.

 At the time homosexuality was illegal in Britain and Basil Dearden, the film’s director, conceived “ Victim” as “an open protest”…Syms shared his mission. A friend had committed suicide after being outed and she had seen first-hand how theatrical friends such as Sir John Gielgud feared the law as a blackmailer’s charter. “I knew that many much more famous actresses than me had turned the part down,” she said. “But I wanted to do it because I wanted the law changed.”   The British Board of Film Censors, which had declared that “to the great majority of cinemagoers, homo- sexuality is something which is shocking, distasteful and disgusting”, demanded multiple cuts to the film before eventually agreeing to its release with an “X” certificate.
She starred opposite Dirk Bogarde as the wife of a closeted gay man in the landmark film Victim (1961)
She starred opposite Dirk Bogarde as the wife of a closeted gay man in the landmark film Victim (1961)

In the event Victim was both a critical and a box office success and a review in The Times opined that the film made a case which was “reasoned and just” and invited “compassionate consideration”.

Although it took another six years before the law was changed, the film was a landmark in destigmatising attitudes and helped to pave the way to the cautious liberalisation of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act which exempted from prosecution men who were 21 or older who had consensual sex in private.

 Syms remained inordinately proud of the film and recalled how she had begun her career in a pre-emancipated age in other ways.   As a young actress who required a method of birth control so she could continue to work, she had been forced to take her marriage certificate with her to the Marie Stopes clinic.   Victim helped to mark out Syms as a trailblazer for what the British Film Institute called “a new breed of female actor”, which also included the likes of Julie Christie and Lynn Redgrave, intelligent and outspoken women who, as Syms put it, were determined not to be “pretty, available and treated like shit” and who rejected the “assumption that because you were blonde and an actress, you were available”.   A committed socialist who once quoted Karl Marx at a press conference, it was perhaps ironic that her famous role in later life came when she took the lead in Thatcher: The Final Days, ITV’s 1991 drama about the events leading up to the Conservative prime minister’s defenestration.

Perhaps it was the feminist spur of being the only woman in a 28-strong cast, but Syms played the part with a wonderful empathy and later reprised the role on the stage. “I wasn’t a great fan when she was in office, but it’s no good taking your prejudices with you if you’re going to get inside a character’s head,” she said. “Playing Thatcher made me realise what terrible disloyalty her cabinet showed to her. I did feel rather sorry for her, not in a sentimental way, but because I was shocked at what happened to her.”

 By then Syms was on her way to become a grande dame of British acting, although she was swift to dismiss the notion. “I haven’t done the great things,” she insisted in old age.   Still she is remembered as one of the most loved of British actors.
As Margaret Thatcher in 1991
As Margaret Thatcher in 1991

“I’ve only been to the National [Theatre] once. I’ve never felt that I had the respect that some people have had. I’m not dame material, really.”

While Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and Helen Mirren became dames, Syms had to settle for an OBE and even that she pointed out, was “for charity work and nothing to do with my career”. She was a patron of Age UK, worked with cerebral palsy charities and was an ambassador for Intermission Youth Theatre, an arts project for troubled young people from deprived areas.

At her investiture at Buckingham Palace in 2007, she wanted to ask the Queen if she had seen her portrayal of the Queen Mother a year earlier in Stephen Frears’s film The Queen.

In the end she bit her tongue, concluding that it was not the done thing “to embarrass Her Majesty by saying, ‘What did you think of me in that?’ ” Throughout her career she exuded a strange mix of feistiness and self-doubt. The offer of a substantial advance to write her autobiography was turned down on the grounds that she was “not interesting enough”. If she had written it she suggested that she would have titled it “Who The F*** Is Sylvia”

 Yet she was still acting into her late 80s, although she complained that she was only invited to play mother-in-law types or gaga old ladies.“I wouldn’t mind having a part where I could be as I am — sharp, intelligent, wicked,” she said. “But I’m horrified when I look at pictures now and see a fat old lady with a bulging face. I was extraordinarily beautiful back then but I didn’t know it.”   For many years she was treated for acute depression, partly arising from difficult personal circumstances. She lost her mother when she was 12 and at 22 she married her teenage sweetheart Alan Edney.   “He was the first person that really made me feel like he loved me. It was the first time I felt really safe,” she said.
After her wedding in June 1956
After her wedding in June 1956

After their first child was stillborn and a second, Jessica, died at two days old, Syms was convinced that she was unable to have children and the couple adopted a son, Ben Edney, a teacher.

 To her surprise, a year later she fell pregnant and gave birth to a daughter Beatie Edney, an actress, best known for Highlander and the TV remake of Poldark.. Her two children survive her but her marriage to Edney ended in divorce in 1989 after he admitted to having a child by another woman.   Sylvia May Laura Syms was born in Woolwich, south London, in 1934, the youngest of five children to Daisy (née Hale) and Edwin Syms, a civil servant and trade union activist. She grew up in nearby Eltham and was briefly evacuated to Wales when the war broke out.   Back in London she was educated at a convent school but her mother, an auxiliary nurse, was injured in an air raid and was never the same again, taking her own life in 1946.   Her father remarried and her stepmother, whom she called Aunt Dorothy, nursed her through a breakdown, sending her on a residential art therapy course, which was almost unheard of at the time, and which Syms credited with saving her own life.

After studying at Rada, the actress Anna Neagle took Syms under her wing and got her a part as her troubled offspring in the film My Teenage Daughter (1956). The pair worked together again a year later in No Time for Tears and she received a Bafta nomination for best actress for her performance in Ted Willis’s kitchen-sink drama Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957).

Although she was routinely described in the tabloid press as a “blonde bombshell”, she suffered from low esteem and never thought of herself as beautiful. “Film directors told me, but I just thought they wanted to get into my knickers,” she said.

She resisted the casting couch and when a film producer pursued her to her hotel room while shooting on location the 6ft 3in frame of Jack Palance stepped in to defend her.

Despite a career résumé in which she played melodrama, adventure and comedy with equal aplomb and starred alongside everyone from Orson Welles and Michael Caine to Tony Hancock and Cliff Richard, she remained modest to the end.

“I don’t think anyone sits in a casting and says, ‘Sylvia Syms, my God!’ I’m too ordinary,” she said. “They just think, ‘She’ll do’.” As she did for much of her life, she was yet again underselling herself

The Times obituary in 2023

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