Sir Donald Sinden
Date of Birth: 9 October 1923, St. Budeaux, Plymouth, UK
Birth Name: Donald Alfred Sinden
Nicknames: Donald Sinden
Sir Donald Sinden was variously described as “orotund and declamatory”, “magnificently resonant” and “a complete ham”; his talents, admittedly, owed little to method acting, but made him one of the best and most recognisable comedy actors on the circuit.
In a career which spanned 50 years of film and theatre Sinden, to his lasting irritation, became best-known for his work in television, a medium he deplored. But his establishment English demeanour provided perfect casting for comedies exploiting cultural or class differences.
He became a household name when he starred with Elaine Stritch in the LWT sitcom Two’s Company (1975-79), in which he played the feisty American grande dame’s inept English butler. He later repeated his success in the Thames Television sitcom Never the Twain (1981-91), in which he played an upper-crust antique dealer forced into business with a downmarket rival (played by Windsor Davies).
His success on television meant that Sinden’s other achievements, in the film and theatre world, were often overlooked.
During the 1950s, he immersed himself in cinema work, appearing in more than 20 films, including The Cruel Sea (1953), in which he shared top-billing with Jack Hawkins, and Mogambo (1954), a huge safari epic in which Sinden received fourth billing after Clark Gable, Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly, as Kelly’s cuckolded gorilla-hunting husband.
When the British film industry stalled in the 1960s, Sinden’s film career stalled with it. By the end of that decade, however, he had secured a place for himself at the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he gave critically acclaimed performances in leading roles including as the Duke of York in The Wars of the Roses (1963), opposite Peggy Ashcroft as Queen Margaret; Lord Foppington in The Relapse (1967); and as King Lear (for which he won the 1977 Evening Standard Award for Best Actor). 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.
The theatre was always Sinden’s true home, and in the 1980s his passionate interest in its history led to the establishment of the Theatre Museum in Covent Garden. Another great passion was English church architecture, his encyclopedic knowledge of which led to both a television series, The English Country Church, in 1988, and a book on the subject. “My grandfather was an architect,” Sinden explained, “and it was he who told me always to look up. That’s where all the best things are in churches.”
By the 1980s Sinden was firmly established as a television celebrity, a position consolidated by the regular appearances of a Sinden puppet on ITV’s satirical Spitting Image. The puppet represented Sinden as a grotesque parody of “the actor’s actor” posturing theatrically and endlessly pleading for a knighthood.
Sinden was not amused by the caricature. “When have I ever suggested I wanted a knighthood?” he asked. “I don’t watch the programme because I don’t find it in the least funny.” He would accept a well-deserved knighthood in 1997.
Donald Sinden was born in Plymouth on October 9 1923. He suffered constantly from asthma as a child and as a result missed most of his schooling. “I not only did not pass an examination,” he recalled, “I never took one.” At 16 he became an apprentice joiner to a Hove firm which manufactured revolving doors. “I earned 6s 6d a week,” he said, “and enjoyed it enormously.”
Sinden claimed that he had no aspirations towards acting until he was 18. “My cousin Frank was called up for the RAF,” he remembered. “He asked me if I’d do his part in an amateur production at Brighton Little Theatre.” Donald was talent-spotted by Charles Smith, who organised the Mobile Entertainments Southern Area company (known as MESA), a local version of the wartime entertainments service Ensa. “Of course I thought he wanted me because I was miraculous,” Sinden remembered, “but I know now it was because it was wartime and he couldn’t get anyone else.”
Rejected by the Navy because of his poor health, Sinden joined Charles Smith’s company in 1941. “I stayed an actor because I was awfully interested in girls,” Sinden explained. “Actresses were a lot better looking than joiners.” After four years with MESA he spent six months in Leicester with a repertory company and two terms at the Webber Douglas School of Dramatic Art.
Donald Sinden joined the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-on-Avon for the 1946-47 season. In October 1947 he made his West End debut as Aumerle in Richard II, and in 1948 joined the Bristol Old Vic. He left Bristol to appear as Arthur Townsend in The Heiress, an adaptation of Henry James’s Washington Square. Sinden had nine lines and appeared in all 644 performances of the show.
In 1952 he was noticed by the film director Charles Frend while playing the Brazilian Manuel Del Vega in Red Letter Day. “Charles Frend spotted me,” Sinden remembered. “He said he’d always wanted to meet a blue-eyed Brazilian.”
The following year Sinden joined the Rank Organisation and was offered the part of Lieutenant Lockhart in The Cruel Sea, for which he had to spend an uncomfortable 12 weeks filming at sea.
He recalled his time in Africa filming Mogambo as the least enjoyable of his career, largely because of its director, John Ford, whom Sinden described as “the most dislikable man I ever met”. He was particularly irritated by Ford’s peremptory direction techniques: “On one occasion he had Clark Gable backing towards a cliff. Ford kept shouting 'Further back!’ and Gable just disappeared over the edge. We found him stuck in a tree 15ft below.”
After playing Tony Benskin, a womanising medical student in Doctor in the House (1954), Sinden began to find himself being typecast in comic roles. He played Benskin and characters like him for the next eight years.
When the British film industry began to falter in the early Sixties, Sinden’s film career ended. “It was a bad time for me,” he said. “I was 40, married with two children and no work at all.” His first attempts at a return to the theatre were unsuccessful. He was turned down after Peter Hall had made him audition for the RSC. Sinden later described Hall as a “pipsqueak”.
However, after their initial differences Sinden joined the company and appeared in The Wars of the Roses, an epic amalgam of the relevant Shakespeare history plays, put together by Hall and John Barton, which lasted more than 10 hours and won ecstatic reviews.
Sinden went on to make a name for himself as a comedian and farceur. He appeared as Robert Danvers in There’s a Girl in My Soup at the Aldwych in 1966, 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 Best Actor Tony Award for his performance on Broadway as Arthur Wicksteed in Alan Bennett’s Habeas Corpus.
In 1989 Sinden was offered the opportunity to play his long-time hero Oscar Wilde, whose work had always fascinated him, in John Gay’s one-man show Diversions and Delights. In 1942, at a poetry club reading, Sinden had met Lord Alfred Douglas and had been one of the few mourners at his funeral. Thirty years later, when Wilde’s London home was being demolished, Sinden bought the fireplace for his own house in Hampstead.
Sinden continued to perform well into his eighties. From 2001 to 2007 he played Sir Joseph Channing in BBC Television’s legal drama Judge John Deed (starring Martin Shaw and Jenny Seagrove), and he recently appeared in the Gideon Fell mysteries on Radio 4.
Donald Sinden published two volumes of autobiography, A Touch of the Memoirs (1982) and Laughter in the Second Act (1985).
He was appointed CBE in 1979.