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She was brought up in London by her mother, Laureen Sylvestre, a cabaret artist at the Shim Sham Club, who was born in Yorkshire. She was educated at Camden School for Girls and also attended the Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts. Her West End debut was at Wyndham's Theatre in Wise Child (1967) by Simon Gray, in which she starred alongside Sir Alec Guinness and was nominated most promising new actress. She was the first black actress in a leading role at the National Theatre in The National Health (1969) by Peter Nichols. She did several seasons with the Young Vic Company, including Molière’s Les Fourbieres de Scapino on Broadway and a tour of Mexico. She has subsequently worked in many regional theatres, including the Theatre Royal, Lincoln, the Theatre Royal, Brighton, the Theatre Royal, York, the Derby Playhouse and the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry. On the fringe she played Phaedre on the Edinburgh Fringe in 2007 and Rosa Parks, Josephine Baker and Wangari Maathai in Alison Mead's A Century of Women at Leicester Square Theatre ( 2011). She appeared with Antony Sher in his play I.D. (2003) at the Almeida Theatre, toured with English Touring Theatre in Far from the Madding Crowd (2008) and with Northern Broadsides in its 2010 production of Medea. Children’s theatre work includes seasons at the Unicorn Theatre and the London Bubble Theatre Company.
Her television appearances include Ken Loach’s Up the Junction (1965), Cathy Come Home (1966) and Poor Cow (1967), as well as appearances in the original Till Death Us Do Part, Z-Cars, Callan, Doctors, New Tricks, The Armando Iannucci Shows, Chambers, The Bill, Who Do You Do and A Bird in the Hand, a Tube Tales episode directed by Jude Law. After a brief appearance as a factory worker in soap opera Coronation Street in 1966, she became the first ever regular black British female character on British TV, in the original series of Crossroads, playing Meg Richardson’s adopted daughter Melanie from 1970-72. She was also a regular in Grange Hill, Happy Families and presented Play School and Merry-Go-Round.
Her film credits include The Smashing Bird I Used to Know (1969), Till Death Us Do Part (1969), My Lover My Son (1970), The Alf Garnett Saga (1972), Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987), The Love Child (1988), The Punk (2003), Kidulthood (2006), and she has made several shorts with director Isaac Julien, including The Attendant (1992) and Vagabondia (2000), which was shortlisted for that year’s Turner Prize.
Her acclaimed one-woman show The Marvellous Adventure of Mary Seacole has been performed at numerous venues, including the House of Lords, the National Portrait Gallery, the Mercury Theatre, Colchester and the Mill Studio at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford.
She has also reviewed for The Listener magazine and the Times Educational Supplement and contributed a chapter to Theatre in a Cool Climate (Amber Lane Press, 1999). A former council member of Equity, the British actors' union, she has been on the board of the Young Vic, Hoxton Hall, Quicksilver Theatre for Children and the Free Form Arts Trust, as well as a judge for RIMA (Race in the Media Awards) and Croydon Warehouse Theatre's International Playwriting Competition.
In 1964 she released a single, "To Know Him Is to Love Him", produced by Andrew Loog Oldham and backed by The Rolling Stones. After Brian Jones left the Rolling Stones in 1969, she agreed to rehearse with his new band but abandoned music to concentrate on her theatre and television work.
Her godparents were composer Constant Lambert, Labour peer Tom Driberg and Daria Hambourg. She married Ian Palmer in 1977 (d. 1995) and they had three children, Zoë (founder of the urban apiary project the Golden Company and also a TV presenter for Globetrekker and Fierce Earth), Lucy and Rupert.
- Cleo Sylvestre at the Internet Movie Database
- Cleo Sylvestre interview at crossroadsnetwork
- Theatre Archive Project interview with Cleo Sylvestre