Obituary: Sheila Sim
Married to the actor and director Richard Attenborough for nearly 70 years, Sheila Sim’s early success came to be overshadowed by her husband’s later fame. Had she not retired early from performing to raise a family, Sim might well have blossomed into a leading force in her own right on stage and screen.
The couple met as students at RADA and married in 1945. In the decade that followed, she established herself as an actress of considerable resources and presence, her early screen career giving her a profile considerably higher than that of Attenborough’s.
Born in Liverpool and educated in Croydon, London, she quickly found work after graduating, making her professional debut at the Intimate Theatre, Palmers Green in 1942 in Ivor Novello’s Fresh Fields and became a regular face at the Q Theatre in Kew. She made her West End debut in John Gielgud’s 1943 production of Landslide at the Westminster Theatre.
She was seen at the Lyric, Hammersmith in John Coates Tomorrow’s Child in 1946 and Sean O’Casey’s Oak Leaves and Lavender the following year, when she also appeared in School for Spinsters at the Criterion Theatre.
Other West End roles included the comedy To Dorothy a Son at the Savoy Theatre (1950) in which she was heard but never seen, playing the off-stage bed-bound pregnant wife to Attenborough’s father-to-be husband.
She appeared with him again as Mollie Ralston in the first-run cast of The Mousetrap at the Ambassadors Theatre in 1952 when The Stage noted “she offers some blood-curdling screams and much well-charged, high-tension acting.” Despite misgivings by both Sim and Attenborough (who had invested in the production) when “apprehension” turned to feelings of “total, unutterable black disaster” following a requested rewrite from author Agatha Christie prior to opening night, the play went on to make theatrical history and has remained a presence in the West End and on national tours ever since.
They last shared a stage in the 1956 thriller Double Image at the Savoy Theatre when she played the bewildered wife caught between Attenborough’s identical twins in a production presented by Laurence Olivier and directed by Murray Macdonald.
On film, Sim became a virtual star over night following the release of Powell and Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale in 1944. Her other onscreen appearances included Great Day (1945), The Guinea Pig (1948) and, in 1951, The Magic Box, and Pandora and the Flying Dutchman alongside Hollywood stars Ava Gardner and James Mason. Her screen swansong was in 1955’s The Night My Number Came Up.
In retirement, she was a staunch supporter of the Actors’ Children’s Trust (formerly the Actors’ Charitable Trust and originally the Actors’ Orphanage) for more than 60 years, and maintained a close relationship with RADA.
In 1968, she was appointed as a magistrate for Richmond, London.
After a series of strokes, she moved with Attenborough (who died in August 2014) to the actors’ retirement home, Denville Hall, in 2013, having being diagnosed with dementia the previous year.
Sheila Beryl Grant Sim was born on June 5, 1922 and died on January 19, at the age of 93. She is survived her daughter and son, the director Michael Attenborough.
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