The super Sylvia Syms still shines on screen – aged 80

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AS the veteran actress prepares to star in a new television drama, we look back at one of the great acting careers.

It is hard to believe that Sylvia Syms celebrated her 80th birthday this year. In the mind’s eye she is still the strikingly beautiful young English rose who became one of the brightest stars of our national cinema in the 1950s. Ice Cold In Alex with John Mills is just one of her fondly remembered films in a career that has seen her appear opposite a who’s who of greats from Julie Andrews and Orson Welles to Michael Caine and Helen Mirren. 

Youth and beauty pass but real talent never fades and that’s why Sylvia is still active as a vibrant and versatile character actress. In more recent years her roles have ranged from Margaret Thatcher and the Queen Mother to Olive, the feisty dressmaker in EastEnders, via television appearances in everything from Casualty to The Jury and Rev.

Next month Sylvia co-stars with 21-year-old supermodel Cara Delevingne in television drama Timeless, a poignant story of two women from different generations united by their experience of losing loved ones at war. Cara has the same qualities as the young Audrey Hepburn, with whom she also worked, she said.

Sylvia was younger than Cara Delevingne when she left Rada and began her fi lm career as the rebellious offspring of Anna Neagle in My Teenage Daughter. She quickly became a star in a whirl of leading roles and fan magazine adoration but was never content to settle for the superficial and never tempted to try her luck in Hollywood. “The thought of having to be beautiful all the time frightened me,” she claimed.

Sylvia strove to play women of substance and roles that reflected the grittiness of real life. Early triumphs included the secretary in Woman In A Dressing Gown, the white daughter daring to marry a Jamaican in Flame In The Streets, a stripper girlfriend in Expresso Bongo and the groundbreaking Victim opposite Dirk Bogarde, in which she played the loving wife of a barrister forced to confront his homosexuality. It was a role that many did not want to play in a fi lm that ultimately helped to change social attitudes and the law.

The public image of Sylvia has always been that of a strong and forthright woman. She has been happy to stand up for her beliefs and confidently challenge a fi lm and tele vision world in which older women become invisible. In more recent years she has revealed the vulnerability behind that image, discussing a lifelong battle with depression and the lingering sadness over the death of her mother when she was just 12 years old.

Sylvia was born in London in 1934. Her father Edwin was a trade unionist and civil servant. She was evacuated during the war with her older brother and sister. Her mother Daisy was hit during an air raid and suffered a severe head injury, later developing a brain tumour. Sylvia has described her death as a “loss that was not properly dealt with at the time”. Two years later her father remarried and it was her stepmother Dorothy who did the most to try to help her through those difficult years.

“When I left school at 16 I had a near breakdown,” Sylvia revealed in one interview. “Dorothy saved the day, sending me to a revolutionary place in the West Country where I did art therapy – making pottery and painting – and spoke to a therapist every day. It was an extraordinary concept in 1951. It meant that at last I could express all my feelings. It was wonderful, I was able to sail into Rada in a strong frame of mind.”

Bouts of depression have dogged Sylvia through some of the darkest times of her life. She married teenage sweetheart Alan Edney when she was 22 and longed to start a family. Her first baby was stillborn and a daughter called Jessica lived for only two days. She subsequently adopted baby Ben, who became a teacher, and then gave birth to Beatie, who followed in her mother’s footsteps. The combination of trying to maintain a career and be a good mother proved the hardest of all. “You can’t have both,” she claims. “It’s a myth to say you can.”

She divorced Alan after more than 30 years of marriage. He had been having an affair with a colleague and they had a daughter. In 2008 Sylvia said: “I had come to regard him as the most honourable of men. The shock about the affair was that he hadn’t told me about it before. I now realise he lied about many things. Looking back I think if we had stayed together I would probably have killed myself. He had power over me in a very odd way.”

Work has been a constant source of comfort and therapy. Sylvia received Bafta nominations for Woman In A Dressing Gown, No Trees In The Street and The Tamarind Seed and appeared in a string of films from Absolute Beginners to Shirley Valentine and Oscar-winning The Queen.

On stage she played Gertrude to Ian Charleson’s Hamlet at the National Theatre and her many television credits also include The Saint and Holby City.

Sylvia has been a tireless supporter of charities, especially Age UK, and when she received her OBE in 2007 it was as much for her services to drama as for her charity work. When she was starting out in the 1950s Sylvia was acutely aware that acting careers don’t necessarily last and how much beautiful young women were at the mercy of others. “The behaviour of many successful men in the fi lm industry to young women at that time was terrible,” she claims.

She had a very different role model in mind. She took inspiration from Dame Sybil Thorndike, a highly respected veteran of stage and screen renowned for her dedication to her craft and her generosity towards other performers.

“I thought that’s what I want,” Sylvia recalls. “I want to go on working when I’m an old lady and have that kind of jolliness and respect, which she had. She was just incredible.” Fifty years later her wish has more than come true and a co-star such as Cara Delevingne might look to Sylvia Syms as her role model for the future. Isn’t it past time that she should be Dame Sylvia Syms?

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