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Obituary: Donald Sinden

Donald Sinden as King Lear at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in 1977. Photo: Donald Cooper

Donald Sinden was part of Britain’s theatrical landscape for more than six decades. He made a distinguished contribution to Shakespearean theatre and boasted one of the most impressive lists of credits of any actor of his generation. A virtuoso performer with a uniquely rich and rounded voice – described by Judi Dench as “a Christmas pudding of a voice, soaked in brandy” – he alternated between stage classics and modern comedies with dexterous aplomb.

Sinden made his professional debut in Gerald Savory’s comedy George and Margaret at the Theatre Royal, Brighton in 1942, and went on to win a scholarship to the Webber Douglas School of Singing and Dramatic Art. In 1946, he joined Barry Jackson’s company at Stratford for two seasons, making his London debut the following year as Aumerle in Richard II at Her Majesty’s Theatre. The same year, his Paris in Peter Brook’s Romeo and Juliet prompted The Stage’s reviewer to describe him as “a young actor of talent, good voice and strong personality.”

In 1948, he played Sebastian to Cedric Hardwicke’s Toby Belch in Alec Guinness’ production of Twelfth Night at the Old Vic, before joining the Bristol Old Vic Theatre Company.

With the Repertory Theatre Players, he appeared in Sunday-night performances of new plays at the Strand Theatre, and played a Brazilian with “glossy polish” in Andrew Rosenthal’s comedy Red Letter Day at the Garrick Theatre in 1952.

Stage success earned Sinden a contract with the Rank Organisation. He gained wider recognition in his 1953 film debut The Cruel Sea. This was shortly followed by Mogambo, in which he appeared alongside Hollywood legend Clark Gable. Sinden went on to make more than 40 films but, eager to escape his limiting matinee-idol status, he returned to the theatre in 1960 as Captain Hook and Mr Darling in Peter Pan (Scala Theatre, 1960) and joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1963.

Early highlights with the company included Price in Henry Livings’ fantastical comedy Eh? (1964), Richard Plantagenet in The Wars of the Roses – opposite Peggy Ashcroft’s Queen Margaret, in a production broadcast by the BBC in 1965 – an outrageous Lord Foppington in Trevor Nunn’s The Relapse (1967) and a preeningly puritanical Malvolio in Twelfth Night (1969), featuring Judi Dench as Viola.

Away from the classics, Sinden was an adept farceur, and enjoyed West End runs in Terence Frisby’s There’s a Girl in My Soup (Globe Theatre, 1966) and Ray Cooney and John Chapman’s Not Now, Darling (Strand Theatre, 1968).

In the 1970s, Sinden was rarely off the stage, notably playing Sir William Harcourt Courtly – “a delight; witty, full of surprise”, said The Stage’s review – in London Assurance (Aldwych Theatre, 1970), opposite Joan Greenwood in Rattigan’s In Praise of Love (Duchess Theatre, 1973) and in Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People at the Chichester Festival in 1975. In 1976, he played Benedick to Dench’s Beatrice in the RSC’s Much Ado About Nothing.

In 1976, he was nominated for a Tony award as Arthur Wicksteed in Alan Bennett’s Habeas Corpus. Two notable successes, both with the RSC, followed: in The Stage, RB Marriott wrote that his King Lear (1977) “seems to talk to one, directly and truly from the heart and mind”; as Othello in Richard Eyre’s 1979 staging, he was the last actor to ‘black-up’ for the role for the company.

Television began to eclipse Sinden’s theatre work but gained him a wider audience that responded enthusiastically to his gift for comedy. He became a household name in London Weekend Television’s Two’s Company (1975-79) as the hapless butler to Elaine Stritch’s demanding American widow. Even more popular was Thames Televison’s Never the Twain, which ran from 1981-91, and saw him involved in family feuds and class warfare in the antique business with Windsor Davies.

Later stage appearances included regular forays into the West End: Uncle Vanya (Theatre Royal Haymarket, 1982); Sir Peter Teazle in A School For Scandal (Theatre Royal Haymarket, 1983); Ray Cooney’s Two Into One (Shaftesbury Theatre, 1984); and Sir Percy Blakeney in The Scarlet Pimpernel, which transferred from Chichester to the Theatre Royal Haymarket in 1985.

Other successes included a perpetually baffled Mr Hardcastle for Peter Hall’s She Stoops to Conquer (Queen’s Theatre, 1993) and a grizzly but wily Polonius in Hamlet, the first production in the newly named Gielgud Theatre (1994). He made his last West End appearance at the Albery (now the Noel Coward) Theatre in Ronald Harwood’s Quartet in 1999.

Sinden claimed to have been unemployed for just five weeks between 1942 and 2008, and was the longest-standing president of the Royal Theatrical Fund. In 2013, he presented the 40-part documentary series Great West End Theatres for Sky Arts.

Appointed a CBE in 1979, he was knighted in 1997. Steeped in theatrical lore, he wrote two volumes of autobiography – A Touch of the Memoirs (1982) and Laughter in the Second Act (1985) – and three other books, including The English Country Church (1988).

Donald Sinden was born on October 9, 1923 in Plymouth, Devon. He died, following a long period of prostate cancer, on September 12, aged 90. His wife Diana and son Jeremy (both actors) predeceased him. He is survived by his brother, the actor Leon, and son, director and producer Marc.

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