Obituary: Jeremy Sinden

Adam Benedick
Friday 31 May 1996 00:02 BST

Jeremy Sinden was a chip off the old block: a bit of a buffoon; an able comedian; a stylish farceur; and a man of the theatre who did not disdain the bold touch, the emphatic gesture, and a sense of timing which took enough account of the audience sometimes to seem to outstare it.

This relish for the stage was in the blood. As Donald Sinden's elder son, Jeremy might have been tempted to take another theatrical tack since the risk of "oderous" comparisons was obvious. Certainly his parents, both actors, both aware of the ups and downs of the player's life, saw no reason for him to join their profession.

But young Jeremy wasn't going to be put off. He had seen glimpses of the good theatrical life - or rather the film star's life, for his father made a name in films long before the theatre - and would have a go.

That he should come to resemble his father in both looks and acting style, sharing a temperamental exuberance and a taste for the theatrical stance, was perhaps not surprising. What did surprise young Jeremy's well-wishers was that he showed every sign of becoming a player of quality in his own right.

It is true that father and son also shared a mannerism of gazing at the house as if to watch for its reaction rather than trusting to it. Like his father, Jeremy Sinden was accused more than once of playing to the audience rather than playing his part.

Nevertheless, young Jeremy, though showing no signs of the paternal range as either a comedian or tragedian, could sometimes be far funnier in his own right. This was perhaps owing to that rare ability to conceal his awareness that he was meant to be funny.

In other words he could keep a straight face not only physically, but psychologically. You could watch that visage for signs of inner amusement, for hints that he was also enjoying himself and they never, in my experience, came.

Behind the corpulent figure, the strong, dark eyes, the innocent glare, the huge head, and the tendency to strut about self-importantly was not the least intimation that we ought to giggle.

There are straight faces and straight faces in the theatre, and Jeremy Sinden knew how to keep his straighter than most. Never more so, of course, than as the absurdly vainglorious Toad in Jeremy Sams's recent revival of Alan Bennett's version of The Wind in the Willows (Old Vic, 1996).

One has seen Toads of the old, self-preening sort prancing about the stage without making any kind of contact with the audience because they were trying so hard to raise laughter and had not Sinden's blessed capacity to seem so free of self-awareness. Others have been merely sympathetic or childish or content to be jeered at; but Sinden's Toad almost touched the art in being ruled by his own shameless nature. He had no idea why we laughed.

There was not a trace of patronage in the performance or of condescension to the children. Sinden relished the character, not just the role; and we were bound to relish the performance in turn.

Two years ago at the National Theatre he had also been the making (I believe) of a revival of Shaw's The Devil's Disciple. Sinden played Major Swindon. You forget the part? It seldom makes enough impression for people to talk about; but as that absurdly conscientious and inefficient soldier in the court-martial scene opposite Daniel Massey's General Burgoyne, the actor came into his bombastic own, with gusto, polish, discipline and earnestness which proclaimed him a first-class character actor. The court-martial scene became worth seeing for itself alone.

There had been proof a couple of decades earlier of a natural-seeming talent for representing officers and gentlemen and scoundrels at the engaging English best. In a 69 Theatre Company revival from Manchester of R.C. Sherriff's famous slice of trench-life in the Great War, Journey's End (Mermaid and Cambridge, 1972), Sinden got his first West End part. It was Private Broughton. Imperfect casting perhaps for a former public school boy, but before the run ended he got the chance to play Captain Stanhope (Laurence Olivier's old role in the original Sunday try-out).

This taught him perhaps how little he really knew about emotional acting. At any rate, though he found himself in the leading role, it had been agreed that he would go (at last) to drama school; and so he went.

His love of the stage (financed as for so many actors by television appearances) came out most forcibly in the 1980s when he and his wife - the actress Delia Lindsay - formed a classical touring company which revived, with some success, Wilde's An Ideal Husband.

This reached the Westminster Theatre with Sinden, foppish enough, in what was seen as the Oscar Wilde role of Lord Goring and the young Mrs Sinden as the adventuress Lady Cheveley. It was not a highly-rated revival, but while Sinden's supercilious manner had a way of getting up some critics' noses and the enterprise smacked of the actor-manager's tendency to find fat parts for himself, there was no doubt about the stage presence of this Goring, especially when viewed as Wilde getting his own back on society.

Even the most sceptical reviewer conceded that the actor "ambles in a convincing, plump languor, a stranger to high emotion and quite at ease on a stage where few others are". Another critic saw in Sinden's acting "touches of Simon Callow and Rowan Atkinson . . . but he made the part memorably his own."

It was characteristic of a most serious-minded young actor (is that why he could be so funny?) and first-born of a well-known theatrical family that after leaving Lancing College (which he greatly enjoyed) he ducked the chance of university.

Instead he headed straight for the tented theatre at Pitlochry to learn the ropes as a deputy assistant stage manager, lowliest of theatrical appointments.

After two seasons of spear-carrying at Stratford-on-Avon (1970-71) where Papa was doing some of his very best work, came stints in pantomime and rep (Bournemouth, Farnham, Leatherhead, Windsor). Then a season at Chichester (where father was again doing fine work, this time in Ibsen's An Enemy of the People) and a tour of The Mating Game and The Chiltern Hundreds.

It was all good experience but was it good enough? On the grounds that it is never too late to learn from instruction as well as experience, Sinden went in his twenties for three years to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art where he gained the Forsyth award.

Not that such awards bring immediate stardom, but thereafter young Sinden gave every sign of developing into an actor to be taken seriously. The cinema (Star Wars, Chariots of Fire, Let Him Have It, Ascendancy, Woodford in Madame Souzatska, The Object of Beauty, The Innocent) and television (The Expert, Crossroads, Soldiers Talking Cleanly, Brideshead Revisited, Fortunes of War, The Far Pavilions, Mountbatten, Trainer, Middlemarch, and lately, Our Friends in the North) began to appreciate his mildly pompous airs and amusing graces.

As "Boy" Mulcaster in Brideshead Revisited (1981) he was nominated for an Emmy award; and, the life-belt for many a struggling actor, the voice-over, and Talking Books, especially Wodehouse's Blandings novels, came to the rescue.

Other West End credits included Follow the Star (Westminster), Lady Harry (Savoy), The Gypsy Princess (Sadler's Wells) and Semi-Monde (Royalty, 1988).

Jeremy Sinden, actor: born London 14 June 1950; married 1978 Delia Lindsay (two daughters); died London 29 May 1996.

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