Sylvia Syms obituary: defiant British screen star of Ice Cold in Alex and Victim

Syms became a major star on British screens in the 1950s, exuding resilience and humanity during a long career in film and TV.

31 January 2023

By David Parkinson

Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957)

One of the greater ironies in the career of Sylvia Syms, who has died aged 89, was that the quality of the roles she was offered diminished as her wages increased. Producer Ray Stark and co-star William Holden were appalled during the making of The World of Suzie Wong (1960) to learn that Associated British Films had been paying Syms £30 a week since signing her in 1956 when her weekly hire fee was £1,000. The Americans succeeded in securing her a raise, but the shifting focus of British cinema in the 1960s from kitchen sinks to swinging young things left Syms so betwixt and between that she switched from leads to character roles. 

Sylvia May Laura Syms was born in Woolwich on 6 January 1934. She was five when she was evacuated to Kent with her two siblings. But, while they were billeted in Monmouthshire, their mother suffered a head injury during an air raid and took her own life when Syms was 12. Although her stepmother helped her cope with depression, Syms suffered a breakdown at 16 and contemplated suicide.

Instead, she enrolled at RADA, where her contemporaries included Peter O’Toole, Albert Finney and Alan Bates. Fresh from Noël Coward’s 1953 production of The Apple Cart, Syms spent time in rep at Bath and Eastbourne before joining Associated British to play Anna Neagle’s rebellious offspring in My Teenage Daughter (1956).

Combining wilful defiance with affecting vulnerability, Syms was courted by Hollywood. But she preferred to marry sweetheart Alan Edney, raise her two children, and take her chances with the vagaries of the British film industry. Having played a smuggler’s devoted wife in The Birthday Present (1957), Syms earned a BAFTA nomination as the secretary who comes between Anthony Quayle and Yvonne Mitchell in J. Lee Thompson’s Woman in the Dressing Gown (1957), a Ted Willis-scripted stab at moral realism. 

Yet Syms refused to trade on her striking beauty, as she exuded strength and humanity in playing a Cambridge undergraduate in Bachelor of Hearts (1958), a Soho stripper in Expresso Bongo (1959) and a nun in wartime Italy in Conspiracy of Hearts (1960).

Ice Cold in Alex (1958)

Thompson would recruit Syms to play the nurse who joins Quayle and a thirsty John Mills in an ambulance haul across the North African desert in Ice Cold in Alex (1958) and the sister of a delinquent caught up with an East End crook in the Willis-scripted No Trees in the Street (1959), which brought her a second BAFTA nod. Willis also wrote Roy Ward Baker’s Flame in the Streets (1961), in which Syms defies trade unionist father John Mills to romance Jamaican Earl Cameron. 

The same year, she tackled another pressing social issue, as the wife of Dirk Bogarde’s bisexual lawyer in Basil Dearden’s groundbreaking drama Victim. Syms also co-starred in The World Ten Times Over (1963), the first British film to centre implicitly on a lesbian relationship. She brought similar fortitude to the role of the guilt-stricken wife of a death row prisoner in the 1962 screen version of The Quare Fellow. But the remainder of the decade would be occupied by playing comic foil to Tony Hancock and Sid James respectively in The Punch and Judy Man (1963) and The Big Job (1965) and essaying spirited heroines in humdrum adventures like Operation Crossbow (1965) and the Jack Palance western The Desperados (1969).

Despite only being in her mid-30s, Syms was deemed to belong to a more genteel era of British cinema (which perhaps explains why she later narrated the BBC’s Talking Pictures, 2013 to 2019). Yet she revelled in playing a dismembered wife in an episode of the Amicus horror anthology Asylum (1972), and the spouse of a double agent alongside Julie Andrews in Blake Edwards’ The Tamarind Seed (1974). The latter brought a third BAFTA nomination. But Syms remained attached to the Leslie Crowther sitcom My Good Woman (1972 to 1974), and wouldn’t return to the big screen until she played a bank manager’s abducted wife in Give Us Tomorrow (1978).

The Queen (2006)

Determined to keep working, Syms returned to the stage between cropping up in TV crime shows and taking recurring roles in Peak Practice (1993 to 1995), At Home with the Braithwaites (2000 to 2003) and EastEnders (2007 to 2010). She also stole scenes in such diverse features as Absolute Beginners (1986), A Chorus of Disapproval (1989) and Shirley Valentine (1989).

Having played Margaret Thatcher in ITV’s Thatcher: The Final Days (1991), Syms also excelled as the Queen Mother opposite the Oscar-winning Helen Mirren in The Queen (2006). Further royal duties came as Princess Charlotte in the teenpic What a Girl Wants (2003), while she gamely took on the Shelley Winters role in a 2005 tele-remake of The Poseidon Adventure. 

Her final film appearance came in 2018 as a wife separated from husband of 60 years Peter Bowles in Together, the lifelong socialist’s last rant against injustice.

  • Sylvia Syms, 6 January 1934 to 27 January 2023
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