Sylvia Syms: Veteran British actress dies at 89

British actress Sylvia Syms, a star of stage and screen for six decades, has died at the age of 89.

She shot to fame in the 1950s in Ice Cold in Alex, and was nominated for Bafta Awards for Woman in a Dressing Gown and No Trees in the Street.

Later, she was in TV shows like Peak Practice and EastEnders, and in 1991 played the former prime minister in ITV’s Thatcher: The Final Days.

In 2006, she played the Queen Mother in The Queen opposite Dame Helen Mirren.

Helen Mirren and Sylvia Syms in The Queen in 2006IMAGE SOURCE,PATHE
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Syms (right) was a memorable Queen Mother in the Oscar-winning The Queen

A statement from her children, Beatie and Ben Edney, said: “Our mother, Sylvia, died peacefully this morning.

“She has lived an amazing life and gave us joy and laughter right up to the end. Just yesterday we were reminiscing together about all our adventures. She will be so very missed.”

They also thanked the staff at Denville Hall, a care home in London for those in the entertainment industry, for “the truly excellent care they have taken of our Mum over the past year”.


Syms was born in London on 6 January 1934. At the age of five, she became one of thousands of children evacuated from London, moving first to Kent and then, in 1940, to Monmouthshire.

She later recalled the trauma of being separated from her mother, who was to die of a brain tumour when Sylvia was just 12.

“Sending me away from home gave me the impression I was not loved, which was unfair but it’s the truth,” she said. “It’s why I became a performer and never stopped working.”

Sylvia Syms as Rosario and Olivia Irving as Irene. in The Romantic Young Lady
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She featured in a number of BBC productions in the 1950s

At 16, she suffered a nervous breakdown and contemplated suicide but, at the insistence of her stepmother, had psychotherapy which helped her through the crisis.

Her ambition to act led her to drama school Rada, where she received the Gerald Lawrence Scholarship and an HM Tenants Award.

Like many aspiring actors, she cut her teeth in the West End, where she understudied roles in a variety of plays as well as being part of the Apple Cart Company with Noel Coward.

Sylvia Syms and Anthony Quayle in the 1957 film Woman in a Dressing Gown.IMAGE SOURCE,RONALD GRANT
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She excelled as the femme fatale in The Woman in a Dressing Gown

But she became a victim of the British studio system, which sucked in young actors on long contracts, paid them peanuts and hired them out at exorbitant rates.

She earned just £30 a week for her first major film role, playing the part of Jane Carr in My Teenage Daughter, a gritty tale of delinquent behaviour.

A year later, she appeared in The Woman In A Dressing Gown, where she played a woman having an affair with an older man.

Left-right: Richard Attenborough, Sylvia Syms and Max Bygraves with their awards at the Variety Club Annual Show Business Awards Luncheon at the Savoy Hotel in London, 10th March 1959IMAGE SOURCE,GETTY IMAGES
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Syms, Richard Attenborough (left) and Max Bygraves showing off their Variety Club awards in 1959

By now she was married to her childhood sweetheart Alan Edney and balancing her film career with the demands of domesticity.

She later said marriage gave her the the stability she had missed as a child, and allowed her to use a wedding ring to fend off unwanted advances in the studio.

She purported to be unaware of her growing reputation as an actress, remarking later that the praise showered on her by directors was “because they wanted to get into your knickers”.

“There was an assumption that because you were blonde and an actress you were available.”


She showed she was as adept at handling dramatic roles as she was at playing in fluffy comedies.

In 1958, still contracted at £30 per week, she appeared in Ice Cold In Alex alongside John Mills, Anthony Quayle and Harry Andrews, all of whom were earning far more than her.

The film later gained cult status, particularly after one famous scene with three dusty soldiers and her attractive blonde nurse in a bar in Alexandria was used in a commercial for a certain Danish lager.

Sylvia Syms and Dan O'Herlihy in the 1974 film The Tamarind Seed.IMAGE SOURCE,RONALD GRANT
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The Tamarind Seed brought her a third Bafta nomination in 1975

It was not until 1960, when her co-star in The World of Suzie Wong, William Holden, discovered how little she was being paid and lobbied the studio, that her earnings increased.

She gave a powerful performance as the wife of a condemned prisoner in the screen version of Brendan Behan’s The Quare Fellow in 1962 and played Tony Hancock’s wife in The Punch & Judy Man.

Syms appeared in some controversial films including the role as the bigot’s daughter in Flame In The Streets, which earned her a ban by the apartheid government in South Africa.

But too many of her films in the 1960s were in run-of-the-mill studio fillers, denying her the chance to show her full ability as an actress.

Actress Sylvia Syms in a scene from the stage play Funny Girl in 1976IMAGE SOURCE,GETTY IMAGES
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Her stage roles included the play Funny Girl in 1976

She had already turned down the chance to go to Hollywood, preferring to stay in England with her husband and two children.

The 1974 film The Tamarind Seed saw her playing the wife of a gay diplomat, a role that earned her another Bafta nomination.

While she continued to appear in a host of films, this was the high-water mark of her cinema career.

But she kept working, with roles on stage, film and television, including her memorable performance as Margaret Thatcher.

Her other film roles included 2003’s What A Girl Wants, starring Amanda Bynes, while on TV she made occasional appearances as dressmaker Olive Woodhouse in EastEnders between 2007 and 2010.

She also appeared in an episode of BBC One drama series Gentleman Jack in 2019, and was in ITV’s family drama At Home with the Braithwaites and BBC Two’s gentle religious comedy Rev.

Syms was a gifted actress who, unlike many of her contemporaries, possessed the drive and talent to maintain her career for more than 60 years.

File photo dated 18/10/2007 of Sylvia Syms being made an OBE by The Queen at Buckingham Palace.IMAGE SOURCE,PA MEDIA
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Syms was made an OBE by the Queen at Buckingham Palace in 2007

Some felt she deserved more recognition for her achievements. She did get an OBE, but that was for her charity work rather than her acting.

“I’m not dame material really,” she said in an interview with the Guardian. “An Oscar’s very useful if you want to be a dame.”

If she had not turned down the opportunities to experience the bright lights of Hollywood, she might have achieved the international fame that eluded her.

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