Sir Donald Sinden: Actor famed for his rich, plummy voice whose seven-decade career encompassed Shakespearian tragedy, romantic melodrama and farce


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His unmistakable voice, richly plummy, and his bowler-hatted, velvet-collared Garrick Club persona – a long-time member, he was a treasure trove of theatrical anecdote – made Donald Sinden a godsend for television’s Spitting Image satire. His lampoon latex puppet captured both his mobile features and cadences (Sinden, to waiter in restaurant: “Do you serve a ham salad?” Waiter: “Yes, we serve salad to everyone.”)

There was indeed something of an earlier era about Sinden’s personality, a whiff of gaslight and greasepaint suggesting the theatre of, say, Beerbohm Tree; he was one of the few later-20th century actors at home in the forgotten genre of romantic melodrama, as demonstrated in his communicable relish of the disguises and devices of The Scarlet Pimpernel (Chichester, 1985, subsequently filling Tree’s old house, Her Majesty’s).

However, there was considerably more to Sinden. As well as developing into one of the great farceurs of the British stage, he had major successes in several classic tragic roles (Othello and, outstandingly, Lear). He also had a profitable period in the British cinema of the 1950s and ’60s as well as a diverse television career.

He was born in Devon, and spent happy childhood in Sussex, in the village of Ditchling, where his father had the chemist’s shop. He was fascinated by woodwork (a lifelong hobby) but gradually found himself drawn towards the stage, seeking early advice from the redoubtable critic James Agate, who wrote of the meeting in a volume of his Ego diaries, noting of the precocious Sinden, as well he might, “Vowels not common.”

One of his cousins was a mainstay at Brighton’s Little Theatre, and when he was called up in 1941 the teenage Sinden took over his role in Gerald Savory’s family comedy George and Margaret. Subsequently Sinden appeared many times with the Mobile Entertainments Company in productions for the forces, then went on to train at the Webber Douglas Academy.

Regional repertory – of which he and his actor brother Leon remained staunch champions – figured large in Sinden’s early career. After a year at Leicester he joined the company of the Memorial Theatre at Stratford (1946 and ’47). His early roles were comparatively small: Pride in Dr Faustus, Arviragus in Cymbeline and Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice (in which his verse-speaking was widely praised).

Under Sir Barry Jackson, Stratford was experiencing a postwar renaissance, with the wunderkind Peter Brook providing two highlights, an unforgettable, Watteauesque Love’s Labour’s Lost (Sinden played Dumaine) and a controversial Romeo and Juliet, instigating Brook’s exploration of “the empty space”, in which Sinden played a striking Paris.

Concentrating on classical work led to Twelfth Night (Old Vic, 1948) as Sebastian, before Sinden’s West End debut in The Heiress (Haymarket, 1949). Based on Henry James’s Washington Square, it was snatched from incipient disaster by John Gielgud’s rescue-job on the production starring Peggy Ashcroft in the title role and Ralph Richardson her chill-souled father. Sinden’s role of Arthur Townsend, an affable New Yorker, was not huge but he found the two-year run a valuable learning curve.

A modest West End success, Red Letter Day (Garrick, 1952) led to an offer from the Rank Organisation, then reigning chiefs of British film, of a contract. Although the stage would always be his preferred home, Sinden – with a recent marriage (to the actress Diana Mahony, a striking beauty) and the birth of a first son – took up a seven-year contract.

Before long he was a major British screen presence. As a Rank artist he never had the luck to appear in the best screen work of the period – no Woodfall or New Cinema films – although some striking and offbeat work came his way, including the dark Tiger in the Smoke (1956) and The Siege of Sidney Street (1962). One of his best screen performances was in his second film, The Cruel Sea (1953), in Eric Ambler’s taut screenplay from Nicholas Monsarrat’s bestseller of a frigate crew on convoy duties in the Battle of the Atlantic.

Compared at the time with In Which We Serve, the film lays less emphasis on life ashore, avoiding sentimental heroics and relying essentially on character. Sinden’s No 1, growing up in the course of the action, more than holds his own alongside Jack Hawkins and Denholm Elliott.

Hollywood took notice, although Sinden’s main international film was shot mostly on African location. Mogambo (1953), a remake of 1932’s Red Dust with Clark Gable still living rough in his old role, was not director John Ford’s finest hour. Sinden’s role, an engineer married to a classy Grace Kelly, was a dull one; even Ava Gardner seemed subdued.

Some of Sinden’s Rank films were massive domestic successes, not least those in the series from Richard Gordon’s medical novels. Dirk Bogarde was the big draw in Doctor in the House (1954) and Doctor at Large (1957), but Sinden had splendid scenes as the archetypal duffle-coated randy medic, a close relation to Terence Rattigan’s hearty Brian in French Without Tears (“Elle a les idées au-dessous de sa gare”), a role which he later played in an hilariously disastrous musical version mistakenly entitled Joie de Vivre (Globe, 1960).

Much of Sinden’s stage work of the period was in solid West End fare, comedies such as Odd Man In (St Martin’s, 1957) or then-popular boardroom-set dramas including Guilty Party (St Martin’s, 1961). Then in the early days of the fledgling Royal Shakespeare Company spearheaded by Peter Hall, Sinden added significantly to the weight of a world-class ensemble, most signally in The Wars of the Roses sequence of Shakespeare’s histories (1963), playing Richard Plantagenet and Edward IV.

This epic enterprise, its company ranging from Peggy Ashcroft tracing Margaret of Anjou from young bride to aged harridan to the discovery of David Warner, against John Bury’s innovative sets of steel and wood, remains a highwater mark of 20th Century theatre. A highlight was the gruelling scene of taunting and recrimination between Ashcroft and Sinden; once, staggering off to wild applause, Ashcroft in the wings gasped to Sinden, “You were best tonight,” to which he responded, “But you were funniest,” much to the Dame’s delight.

After an enjoyable time, still with the RSC, as a Northern businessman in Henry Livings’ euphoric Eh? (Aldwych, 1964), Sinden had a major commercial success as the middle-aged Lothario of a celebrity cook in Terence Frisby’s contemporary spin on West End battle-of-the-sexes comedy There’s a Girl in my Soup (Globe, 1968). Sinden was in fizzing form, wonderfully bemused by the inability of his fame and luxury lifestyle to ensnare a new kind of streetwise 1960s young woman.

Comedy moved into an even higher-definition zone when Sinden returned to the RSC to give his sublimely self-besotted Lord Foppington in The Relapse (Aldwych, 1969), his extravagant Restoration Comedy make-up owing not a little to Danny La Rue. Sinden’s passion for stage history was useful here; initially uncomfortable with Foppington’s asides to the house, he sought advice from a veteran actor, Balliol Holloway, who taught him the art of aiming an aside to the end of a row and then raking that row with his eyes until the end of the line. The asides developed into a stand-out element of the performance.

Continuing to enjoy a life of theatrical contrasts, Sinden took gleefully to the farce of Not Now, Darling! (Strand, 1968) as the boss of a West End furrier’s establishment much involved in pursuit of extra-marital activity, the complications of which involve his reluctant assistant. Sinden and Bernard Cribbins made a top-flight duo, one all rantipole energy, the other all cringing prudery.

This frivol was followed by a Stratford return and the gravitas of Henry VIII, in which Sinden gave an outstanding portrayal of absolute monarchy, much resembling the Holbein portrait, opposite Ashcroft’s Katharine. The same season saw his matchless Malvolio, a sallow Puritan pedant; he invented some memorable “business” with a sundial in the Letter Scene.

Both productions dominated the 1971 Aldwych season, when he added one of his finest performances. In Ronald Eyre’s rediscovery of Boucicault’s London Assurance, playing the outrageous old coxcomb Sir Harcourt Courtly, in corseted vain pursuit of a young heiress in unaccustomed rural terrain, Sinden was canny enough not simply to repeat his Foppington. His self-regarding roué had a core of endearing innocence beneath the delusion of youthful vigour, and was equally praised on Broadway (1975).

Sinden was, on paper, ideally cast for Broadway as Arthur Wicksteed (the very name suggests something more macho than the wraithlike presence of Alec Guinness, the West End lead), the middle-aged Hove doctor at the centre of Habeas Corpus, Alan Bennett’s hilarious memento mori of conflicting lusts. But the production (Martin Beck, New York, 1975) was a sadly botched affair, designed and directed against the grain of the play.

Despite  this flop it was a golden era for Sinden. He continued film work when available, with an intriguingly noirish Richard Burton vehicle, Villain (1971), The Day of the Jackal (1973) and leading a Disneyesque adventure in The Island at the Top of the World (1974). Television work included the vicarage world of Our Man at St Mark’s in the 1960s and the popular Two’s Company in the 1970s, with Sinden’s ineffably smooth butler to Elaine Stritch’s abrasive American in London. Never The Twain – which ran for 11 series from the 1980s – paired Sinden profitably, as a snooty antiques dealer, with Windsor Davies’s downmarket neighbour.

Sinden’s later stage work included some impressive Chichester performances as a powerful Stockmann in An Enemy of the People (1975) and the delight of The Scarlet Pimpernel (1985). The 1976 Stratford season saw him and Judi Dench enjoyably together as a midlife Benedick and Beatrice in a Raj-set Much Ado About Nothing. He also had a genuine triumph in King Lear (1976) in Trevor Nunn’s 19th Century Prussian scrutiny, rigid hierarchy collapsing into frightening (and deeply moving) disintegration, especially striking in the crucial dependence of this Lear on his Fool (Michael Williams).

It was with Williams that Sinden formed another farcical dream team in Ray Cooney’s Two Into One (Shaftesbury, 1984) and Out of Order (Shaftesbury, 1990). Sinden oozed smoothy-chops confidence as MP Richard (Dickie, inevitably) Willey, constantly planning adulterous nookie in a Westminster hotel located, unfortunately as it transpires, near the Commons; Williams was equally fine as his much put-upon PPS. These were not simply double acts; Cooney provided rich opportunities, too, for favourite Sinden actors including the magnificent Lionel Jeffries, playing the irate hotel manager deeply suspicious of any possible shenanigans under his roof (“There’s too much sex going on in this hotel and I’m not having any of it!”)

Sinden also brought an unusual – and unusually effective – butch presence to the hothouse high jinx in the perfumed theatrical world of Coward’s Present Laughter (Greenwich and Vaudeville, 1982) as the rampant star Garry Essendine. His valedictory West End appearance was in an aptly autumnal if somewhat etiolated piece, Ronald Harwood’s Quartet (Albery, 2003), set in a home for retired opera singers with Sinden a still vital figure, once a famous Rigoletto, leading the company in “Bella figlia dell’amore” at the close.

There were deep sorrows in Sinden’s later life including the loss (aged only 46) of his elder son Jeremy and then of his wife. He continued to work regularly on both television (a key running part in Judge John Deed opposite Martin Shaw) and on radio – a medium in which he excelled – in countless roles, a personal stand-out being his Dr Gideon Fell in adaptations of the mystery novels by John Dickson Carr.

Donald Alfred Sinden, actor: born Plymouth 9 October 1923; CBE 1979, Kt 1997; married 1948 Diana Mahony (died 2004; one son, and one son deceased); died 11 September 2014.