Ah, the hell of being imprisoned by an image. Mr Sinden has been acting for 53 years, but resides, as far as the public is concerned, in a kind of Ham Heaven, his left eyebrow permanently raised in consternation, his burly frame bulging with dismay, his mouth working in a frantic series of pouts and moues, his voice spouting some rhotic nonsense about "crrrrrenellations". A technically brilliant comic actor whose career started in the histrionic era of Wolfit and Richardson, he sometimes seems like a living museum exhibit, doomed to be imitated by young comedians with not a micron of his exuberance. He is, therefore, keen to stress his versatility. "I've been very fortunate. I've been in most branches of my job," he says. "I've been in theatre, films, television, radio, tragedy, comedy, farce - I've been in a musical and in music halls, in pantomime, I was once ringmaster in a circus. I remember once saying, in a television interview, that the only things I hadn't been in were the opera and the ballet. Two days later, I got a call from Lord Harewood, of the English National Opera, saying 'Would you like to be in Ariadne auf Naxos?'" He chuckles, an opulent, port-savouring, squire-of-the-manor cackle.
That still leaves ballet. Did he still entertain hopes...? "Well actually, you know, there is such a thing in the ballet world as the 'stalking part'. Nothing to do with pestering people in the street. It's for elderly ballet dancers, playing, you know, the father of the princess, and they go striding around the stage introducing the leading man to the leading lady, stalking, you see, but not actually dancing..."
We met at the Garrick Club, of which he is an enthusiastic, glad-handing member and a senior trustee. He's a large, rumbustious figure who, when standing beside you, seems to fill up the whole drawing-room. He moves around with blithe agility for a man who's recently acquired a prosthetic hip joint.When seated, he tilts forward in his chair and drops his voice to an urgent, conspiratorial whisper. Indeed, he often seems to be plotting about something, his glance tilting this way and that, as though on the lookout for coastguards, while that voice, that extraordinary construction of posh vowels and ballistic consonants, fills the air with Billy Bunter noises: "I... I... I... uurrrrrgh...I said, what do you mean? Ach!... I... I... wurrrgh..." It's a riveting performance and one waits patiently for a chance to meet the man behind it all.
The voice, it seems, was not the product of his days at the Rank organisation, (where he made 28 films in eight years), it came from private tutors. "I was just starting out as an actor, 18 or 19, and I knew I had a few deficiencies. The voice was then a little mousey-coloured, so I went to a voice teacher called Leslie Charteris Coffin. He told me I was a bass, and encouraged me to be [he puts on a Paul Robeson growl, like the rumble of an underground railroad] croaky. And I went out on the Downs with a chum and a copy of the script and anything he couldn't hear, he'd mark on the script and I'd do it again. And so I learnt to project my voice 200 yards. And then when I got my film contract in 1952, they said, the only thing wrong is your voice. It's too deep. And sent me to another voice coach to have it raised..."
His versatility has kept him in work for half a century, without any conspicuous "resting" breaks, apart from a disastrous three-week career dip in 1961. He'll be back in the West End, barring accidents, in February in a new play by NJ Crisp called That Good Night (after Dylan Thomas's poem, "Do not go gentle...") produced by his son, Marc. More immediately, he is appearing tomorrow night in a theatrical one-off charity gala at the Savoy called Glad Rags, in which some unlikely thesps and hoofers (including David Soul, TV's Starsky from the Seventies cop show, and the Tiller Girls) will do uncharacteristic things. It's being performed in memory of Donald's son Jeremy Sinden, who died at the end of May.
He was 45. It was cancer. Sinden Jnr, a large, pop-eyed chip off the old block, specialised in playing pompous military types whose self-importance was subverted by their vulnerability. He was a memorable Boy Mulcaster in the Granada's Brideshead Revisited, and a wonderfully vainglorious Toad, the road-hog hero of Alan Bennett's Wind in the Willows at London's Old Vic, which he played night after night, knowing it was probably his last role.
It is the hardest imaginable cross to bear, for a parent to lose a child; one's thoughts fly to King Lear, holding Cordelia in his arms and howling "Thoul't come no more..." And one steels oneself to ask Mr Sinden about his son's death; but curiously his response sticks doggedly to acting. "It was terrible. He'd just reached it, just made it. My wife and I went to his first night as Toad, at which he was bloody marvellous, and afterwards we said, 'Every part Charles Laughton ever played is Jeremy's. Everything Robert Morley did would be right for him'. He was never a real juvenile lead, you see, never Dirk Bogarde. He was just ready for it all. And then, just at that moment, it hits. Christ!" He brushed away a tear.
Did that mean Donald remembered his son best in a performance? Or as a forty-something man? Or as a little boy? "Oh as a 40-year-old, because he was such a good father. And you could rely on Jeremy for anything; he'd just drop what he was doing and be round to help. He had an enormous generosity of spirit." Since Jeremy's cancer was diagnosed in September last year, eight months before he died, had anything good come out of that period? Had the family drawn closer? Sinden furrowed his brow. "No," he said firmly, and surprisingly, "No, oddly enough. You never quite know what to say to somebody, do you?" But you were his Dad... "Yes but he never talked about it. He just didn't want to and wouldn't. He talked to his brother, Marc, about things he wanted done, far more than to me. Otherwise he tried to pretend it wasn't happening and wanted to talk about ordinary things." Were there things you wished you'd said to him, or wished he'd said to you?" Sinden's face is all puzzlement, as though searching for an appropriate emotion. "But we never stopped saying such things all our lives. It would have been nothing new to say such things. We adored each other. We're a family of huggers and cuddlers. We're very close. I've no regrets about the things I didn't say."
Feeling there must be something more to say, I asked: what do you think you taught Jeremy? Mr Sinden remains firmly in the realm of the practical and talks about this or that actorish skill he passed on to his son. Did Jeremy's death change the way he felt about the way the world works? Or about Fate? Or his own mortality? "Oh... it's all part of life's pageant, isn't it? Everything that happens changes you imperceptibly. It's too early to say if... No, it's too difficult to answer that one." And then we're on to senility and whether King Lear had Alzheimer's, and the moment for acquiring insights into Mr Sinden's inner life has passed.
A pattern emerges, of a man both simpler and more curiously complicated than you'd bargained for. He's a premier-league anecdotalist who never gives after-dinner speeches ("No! No!"); a former film-star associate of Clark Gable, Grace Kelly and Marilyn Monroe ("She was so silly ...") who has not been to the cinema in years, because he gets distracted by the editing and cannot follow the plot; despite his chronic asthma, he smokes Silk Cut as if the supply were running out, but refuses to smoke on screen or stage for fear of being a bad influence; he has written two volumes of memoirs, and is working on a third, but whinnies like a thoroughbred at the prospect of it ever becoming an autobiography. "That has to be so much about soul- searching. All that [he briefly turns into a fainting aesthete] What's- it-all-about? stuff. I don't want to know." One has to conclude that he is either amazingly shy of advancing thoughts of any kind, or else that this most big-hearted of British stage icons is happy to display the intellectual depth of a bacon sandwich.
We switched, with relief, to talking about what he knows all about: acting. He reflected on actors in the past, like the young Joan Collins at the Rank charm school. "A very pretty girl, but very, ah, ordinary. If you'd asked me at the time who you'd put your money on - well it wouldn't have been Joan more than anybody else." But then talentlessness doesn't debar you from getting on. "I was in Habeas Corpus 10 or 12 years ago, in New York. A stellar cast, but the young juvenile was hopeless. Drove us all mad. Couldn't time a laugh to save his life. Kept missing his entrance - early on, early off. Good God. We'd get together in a little group and say, What are we going to do about him? He was the last person in the world you'd put money on to succeed." Sinden raised an eyebrow. "Well?" I asked. "Richard Gere," said Sinden.
He talks with feeling about the Actors' Benevolent Fund, whose committee he sits on (as did Jeremy) to help actors who've fallen on hard times through age, infirmity or the perils of fashion. Sinden does not worry about the latter. There may be a dearth of plum roles for septuagenarians (he's already done his Lear, 20 years ago) but he happily anticipates working well into the future. "When I was a young actor, there was a set way of doing restoration drama, of doing 18th century drama, of doing Oscar Wilde. Nowadays, nobody would say you should play, say, Pinter the same way you'd play Ayckbourn or Ray Cooney. They require three quite different approaches. Since I realised that, I decided I wanted to have a go at as many different playwrights as possible. I've done Beckett - I was Willie in Happy Days. Now I'd love to do Pinter - especially that one Gielgud was in, No Man's Land. So he didn't feel stuck in the public's imagination as the Chortling Old Sweetie? "Oh no, no," he said with heat. "I've been doing lots of different things. I haven't played myself chortling in years."
Like an ever-rolling stream, Mr Sinden's anecdotes and charming stories tumble over the rocks and stones of his life - over illness, bereavement, changing fashions, the scoffing of Private Eye and Spitting Image, the pain of old age. He is a man of puzzling innocence, whose very actorishness, you feel, has distracted him from knowing much about himself. "I like being puzzled," he says. "I'm a sucker for conjurors and magicians. And I just don't want to know how they do it." He likes being overwhelmed. In two hours of his delightful company, nothing matched the moment when he talked about the trumpets. "At Sybil Thorndike's memorial service, Jeremy and I were sitting together in Westminster Abbey. He looked at the order of service and said, 'Dad, you'll love this one'. He knew how much I love trumpets, you see. Anyone plays 'The Last Post', I'm a goner. And it was Vaughan Williams's arrangement of "All Creatures That On Earth Do Dwell". There were 12 trumpeters on top of the Abbey and on the third verse, they started up. It finished me off. And then it got even better in the fifth verse, when the trumpet descant starts. So I had to get it for Jeremy's own memorial service, the 12 trumpeters in St Paul's, Covent Garden, where the queue stretched back to Bedford Street even after the service had started. And they played it there and it was wonderful."