|Sir Donald Sinden|
Pinewood Studios publicity shot, circa 1956
|Born||Donald Alfred Sinden
9 October 1923
St Budeaux, Plymouth, England, UK
|Died||12 September 2014
Romney Marsh, Kent, England, UK
(m. 1948–2004, her death)
|Children||Jeremy Sinden (1950–1996)
Marc Sinden (b. 1954)
|Awards||KB; CBE; FRSA; D.Litt; D.Arts;
Evening Standard Awards Best Actor;
Society of West End Theatre Awards Actor of the Year;
Drama Desk Special Award;
BAFTA (3 nominations);
Tony Award Best Actor (nomination);
Gielgud Award for Excellence in the Dramatic Arts (posthumous)
Sinden made his first stage appearance at the amateur Brighton Little Theatre (of which he later became President) in 1941, stepping into a part in place of his cousin Frank, who had been called up to war and so was unable to appear. Offered a professional acting part by the Brighton impresario Charles F. Smith, he made his first professional appearance in January 1942, playing Dudley in a production of George and Margaret for the Mobile Entertainments Southern Area company (known as MESA) and in other modern comedies, playing to the armed forces all along the South Coast of England during World War II and later trained as an actor at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art.
In the 1940s, in Hove, Sinden befriended Lord Alfred Douglas (known as "Bosie"), who had been Oscar Wilde's lover. On 23 March 1945, he was one of only two people who attended his funeral. He is believed to have been the last living person to have known Douglas.
Rank Organisation and Pinewood Studios
After the critical and financial success of his first screen leading role in The Cruel Sea, made by Sir Michael Balcon for Ealing Studios in 1953, in which he co-starred and received top-billing with Jack Hawkins, Sinden was contracted for seven years to the Rank Organisation at Pinewood Studios and subsequently starred in 23 movies, many of them notable British films of the 1950s and early 1960s, including Mogambo; Doctor in the House; Above Us The Waves; The Black Tent; Eyewitness; Doctor at Large; The Siege of Sidney Street and Twice Round the Daffodils.
Sinden became popularly associated with his character of "Benskin" in the Doctor film series as the duffel-coated medical student, regularly failing his finals and spending most of his time chasing pretty nurses, accompanied by his trade-mark "wolf-growl".
Sinden was the recipient of several "audience-based" awards during this period, including "The actor who made most progress during 1954". In 1956, a profile was written on him which stated:
In the three years since his début in The Cruel Sea, the un-temperamental Sinden has moved steadily up the British film ladder until people are noticing, not without surprise, that he is suddenly one of the country's prime box-office favourites. It's as though he arrived on tiptoe. He is not colourful or flamboyant, yet he has his niche in public favour, as a recent poll proved: British women-folk voted him "The face we'd most like to see across our breakfast table." This defines with a certain accuracy the sure, dependable appeal of the man who, so far, has shared star billing with some other more boisterous male idols. He has usually been left, crestfallen and jilted, in the last reel.
In 1949, he appeared in The Heiress at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket opposite Ralph Richardson and Peggy Ashcroft, directed by John Gielgud. In his Sky Arts documentary series Great West End Theatres, Sinden said that the play ran for 644 performances (19 months) and he was the only member of the cast not to have missed a performance: "As the play is the longest run in the [Haymarket] theatre's history, I therefore gave more consecutive performances in this theatre than any other actor since it was built in 1820." The management gave him an engraved silver ashtray as a present in recognition of the fact, which he showed in the episode.
Theatre being his first "love", he was a noted farceur and won best actor awards for his appearances in the Ray Cooney farces Not Now, Darling (1967); Two into One (1984) and Out of Order (1990). In 1976 he was nominated for a Tony Award as Best Actor for his performance on Broadway as Arthur Wicksteed in Alan Bennett's comedy Habeas Corpus. His other notable leading performances in the commercial theatre included roles in productions such as There's a Girl in My Soup (1966); In Praise of Love (1973); An Enemy of the People (1975); Present Laughter (1981); The School for Scandal (1983); The Scarlet Pimpernel (1985); Major Barbara (1988); Diversions and Delights (one-man show as Oscar Wilde, 1989); That Good Night (1996) and Quartet (1999).
Sinden was a leading figure in the fight to launch the Theatre Museum in London's Covent Garden in the 1980s. In 2007, Sinden embarked on a UK, European and American theatre tour to talk about his life, work and anecdotes in An Evening with... Sir Donald Sinden. Produced by his son Marc, this included, on 8 November 2007 as part of Marc's British Theatre Season, Monaco, a performance in front of Prince Albert of Monaco (the son of Grace Kelly, his co-star in the film Mogambo) at the Théâtre Princesse Grace, Monte Carlo.
Royal Shakespeare Company
Joining the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre company in 1946, Sinden was an Associate Artist of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) from 1967. Outstanding among his many notable stage appearances for the RSC, both at Stratford-upon-Avon and in London's West End (usually at the Aldwych Theatre), was his performance in 1963 as the Duke of York in The Wars of the Roses opposite Peggy Ashcroft as Queen Margaret.
Other notable performances by Sinden for the company were as Lord Foppington in The Relapse in 1967; Malvolio in Twelfth Night (opposite Judi Dench as Viola) in 1969 and again with Judi Dench and her husband Michael Williams in 1974, as Sir Harcourt Courtly in London Assurance (Albery Theatre).
After the production transferred to New York in 1975, Sinden became the first recipient of the newly established Broadway Drama Desk Special Award. Sinden sought and received advice about the character's costume and mannerisms in the role from the Regency novelist Georgette Heyer.
For the 1976 Stratford season and then at the Aldwych Theatre in 1977, Sinden won the Evening Standard Award as Best Actor for his performance in the title role of King Lear (with Michael Williams as the Fool). Meanwhile he was also portraying in repertory, Benedick (regarded as "the most admired Benedick in living memory") opposite Judi Dench's Beatrice in John Barton's highly acclaimed 'British Raj' revival of Much Ado About Nothing, and in the same time frame also rehearsing the third season of the LWT sitcom Two's Company with Elaine Stritch during the daytime and filming the show at the studio in front of a live audience on Sunday evenings. He claimed "RSC money isn't very good compared with a normal commercial theatre rate. I was on their 'star' salary, which meant it worked out at about £47 per performance! You work for them 'for the honour' of doing the greatest classical plays, not for the money, so you have to make up the financial short-fall somewhere".
In 1979 he played the title role in Othello, directed by Ronald Eyre, becoming the last 'blacked-up white' actor to play the role for the RSC. Everyman editor and critic Gareth Lloyd Evans noted that his interpretation was "not…about colour or racialism" but one that illuminated the character's personal tragedy.
Great West End Theatres series
In 2013 Sinden presented a documentary series called Great West End Theatres, which describes the history and stories associated with each of the 40 London theatres. Directed and produced by his son Marc, it was to be released as a 40-part DVD and Sky Arts TV series, with the first 10 episodes showing on Sky Arts 2 during the autumn of 2013.
In their review of the series, the British Theatre Guide said "Sir Donald's gorgeous plummy tones are a joy to listen to whatever he is saying but when he is extolling the virtues of one of his own favourite theatres, the pleasure is heightened. At his first entrance, he announces that he is "tingling with excitement" which is just what one wants from a tour guide. Soon enough, so are viewers."
The Daily Telegraph review states "Great West End Theatres is a lovely documentary series, made by the director Marc Sinden. Its star, and – it transpires – the best documentary frontman of all time, is his actor-father: Sir Donald Sinden, 90 years old next month. Sir Donald has been let loose and the effect is enchanting beyond belief. It is also, at times, incredibly funny. One has the sense of a lifetime spent in this world, being poured out for our delight like glasses of vintage champagne.
Sinden achieved wide fame with the television-viewing public in 1963 through the Associated Rediffusion series Our Man at St Mark's. His other featured television roles included guest-starring as the Colonel in the "Many Happy Returns" episode of the cult 1967 series, The Prisoner.
After starring in the 1971 series The Organisation, he co-starred in 1975 in the London Weekend Television situation comedy Two's Company, in which he played an English butler, Robert, to Elaine Stritch's American character, Dorothy. Much of the humour derived from the culture clashes between Robert's very stiff-upper-lip Britishness and Dorothy's devil-may-care New York view on life. Two's Company was well received in Britain and ran for four seasons until 1979. The programme was nominated for a 'Best Situation Comedy' BAFTA in 1977. Stritch and Sinden also sang the theme tune for the opening credits to the programme, which received a BAFTA nomination. They each received a BAFTA nomination in 1979 for 'Best Light Entertainment Performance' and the show received two additional BAFTA nominations that year.
In 1981, Sinden starred in the Thames Television situation comedy, Never the Twain. He played snooty antiques dealer Simon Peel who lived next door to a competitor Oliver Smallbridge (played by Windsor Davies). The characters hated each other and were horrified when they discovered that their son and daughter were to be married - thus meaning they were related. Despite a lack of critical acclaim, the series proved to be popular with audiences and ran for 11 series until 1991. One episode in 1990 (A Car by Any Other Name) had Sinden being literally picked up by two police officers who were played by his own actor sons, Jeremy and Marc. His wife, Diana, appeared in the last episode.
In 1988 he presented a documentary series on BBC TV about his love of The English Country Church, inspired by his grandfather's architectural drawings and watercolours. Sinden was spoofed on Spitting Image, the 1980s British satirical television programme in which famous people were lampooned by caricatured latex puppets. For example, when his puppet, sitting in a restaurant, summons a waiter and asks "Do you serve a ham salad?" the waiter replies "Yes, we serve salad to anyone". From 2001 to 2007 he played the part of senior judge (and father-in-law of the title character), Sir Joseph Channing in Judge John Deed and is the voice of Totally Viral.
Sinden's distinctive voice was heard frequently on radio, including as Sir Charles Baskerville in a Radio 4 adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes story The Hound of the Baskervilles. He starred in multiple adaptations of John Dickson Carr's Dr. Gideon Fell mysteries, including The House on Gallows Lane, The Hollow Man and Black Spectacles, To Wake the Dead, The Blind Barber and The Mad Hatter Mystery.
Sinden wrote two autobiographical volumes: A Touch of the Memoirs (1982) and Laughter in the Second Act (1985), edited the Everyman Book of Theatrical Anecdotes (1987), wrote a book to coincide with his BBC TV series The English Country Church (1988) and a collection of "epitaphs and final utterances" titled The Last Word (1994).
In reply to a question from an audience member during a performance at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre of An Evening with... Sir Donald Sinden, he said he had worked out that, apart from "gaps before the next job started", he had only had a total of five-weeks unemployment between 1942 and 2008. In 2002, the purpose-built theatre in Tenterden, Kent was named the Sinden Theatre.
On 9 October 2012, he celebrated his 89th birthday and his retirement after 30 years as the longest-standing President of the Royal Theatrical Fund (founded by Charles Dickens in 1839) with a celebration lunch for 350 guests at the Park Lane Hotel, London which was compered by Russ Abbott and the charity auction was conducted by Jeffrey Archer. Leading the tributes was Jean Kent, who had co-starred with Sinden in Bernard Delfont's 1951 stage production of Froufrou and letters from Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Albert of Monaco were read out, with speeches from Julian Fellowes, Ray Cooney and Gyles Brandreth.
Sinden received, posthumously, the Gielgud Award for Excellence in the Dramatic Arts at the Guildhall, London during the 2014 Theatre Awards UK ceremony, held on 19 October. The award was collected on his behalf by his son Marc Sinden.
Sinden was born in St Budeaux, Plymouth, Devon on 9 October 1923. The middle child of Alfred Edward Sinden and his wife Mabel Agnes (née Fuller), he had an elder sister (Joy) and a younger brother Leon (born 1927, also an actor). They grew up in Ditchling, where their home, "The Limes", doubled as the local chemist shop.
According to his second autobiography, while investigating his family genealogy he discovered that the only previous relatives who were also members of the theatrical profession were the Victorian brother and sister act of Bert and Bert and Topsy Sinden, who were distant cousins. Topsy achieved "some fame as a 'skirt dancer' and première danseuse at the Empire Theatre of Varieties in Leicester Square."
He was colour blind and suffered from asthma, which prevented him from joining the armed forces during the Second World War and suffered from negative buoyancy, meaning that he was unable to float or swim in water, which was discovered while filming The Cruel Sea when the ship was sinking. Co-star Jack Hawkins saved him from drowning in the open air water-tank at Denham Studios.
He died at his home in Wittersham on Romney Marsh, Kent, on 12 September 2014, aged 90, from prostate cancer which had been diagnosed several years earlier. The participants at his funeral in St John the Baptist Church, Wittersham were Dame Judi Dench, his grandson Hal Sinden and Sir Patrick Stewart. The eulogy was read by Lord Archer. An Honorary Life Member and Trustee of the Garrick Club in London, which he joined in 1960, he was buried in a coffin painted in the Club's 'salmon and cucumber' colours.
Sinden was married to the actress Diana Mahony from 3 May 1948 until her death from cancer aged 77 in 2004. The couple had two sons: the actor Jeremy Sinden (born 1950), who died of lung cancer in 1996 and the film director and West End producer Marc Sinden (born 1954). Donald Sinden had four grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.
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- The Last Word (1994) ISBN 0860518922
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