Sylvia Syms

Syms as Sister Diana Murdoch in Ice Cold in Alex, c. 1958
Sylvia May Laura Syms[1]

(1934-01-06)6 January 1934
Woolwich, London, England
Died27 January 2023(2023-01-27) (aged 89)
Northwood, London, England
EducationRoyal Academy of Dramatic Art
Years active1955–2019
Alan Edney
(m. 1956; div. 1989)
Children2, including Beatie
RelativesNick Webb (nephew)
Alex Webb (nephew)

Sylvia May Laura Syms[2] OBE (6 January 1934 – 27 January 2023) was an English stage and screen actress. Her best-known film roles include My Teenage Daughter (1956), Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957), for which she was nominated for a BAFTA Award, Ice Cold in Alex (1958), No Trees in the Street (1959), Victim (1961), and The Tamarind Seed (1974).

Known as the "Grand Dame of British Cinema", Syms was a major player in films from the mid-1950s until mid-1960s, usually in stiff-upper-lip English pictures, as opposed to kitchen sink realism dramas, before becoming more of a supporting actress in both film and television roles. On television, she was known for her recurring role as dressmaker Olive Woodhouse on the BBC soap opera EastEnders. She was also a notable theatre player.[3]

Syms portrayed Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother in the 2006 biopic The Queen.

Early life and education

Syms was born in Woolwich, London, England, in 1934, the daughter of Daisy (née Hale) and Edwin Syms, a trade unionist and civil servant.[3] With the outbreak of World War II, Syms was evacuated to Kent and subsequently Monmouthshire.[4] She grew up in Well Hall, Eltham.[5]

When Syms was 12, her mother died from a brain tumour. At 16, she suffered a nervous breakdown and contemplated taking her own life until an intervention from her stepmother.[4] Syms was educated at convent schools before deciding to become an actress and attending the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, graduating in 1954. She later served on RADA's council.

Syms's career began in repertory theatre in Eastbourne and Bath.[6] She made her West End debut in The Apple Cart with Noël Coward.

Film career

Syms appeared in a TV play The Romantic Young Lady. This led to two offers, one to make a film for Herbert Wilcox, My Teenage Daughter, another to sign a long term contract with Associated British. She accepted both. In My Teenage Daughter (1956), Syms played Anna Neagle's troubled daughter. The film was successful at the British box office.[3]

For Associated British she made No Time for Tears then appeared in The Birthday Present. Syms had the third lead in Woman in a Dressing Gown for director J. Lee Thompson which was very popular. She then made the English Civil War film, The Moonraker and the war film Ice Cold in Alex, also directed by Thompson. In early 1958 she made a third film for Thompson, No Trees in the Street.[3] She announced she would make her first screen comedy The Light Blue.[7] This became Bachelor of Hearts. In March 1959 she was voted Variety Club's Film Actress of 1958.[8]

In 1959, Syms appeared in the film Expresso Bongo as Maisie King, opposite Cliff Richard.[3] She played opposite Dirk Bogarde in the 1961 film Victim, as the wife of a barrister who is a closet homosexual. The film is thought to have broadened the debate that led to the decriminalisation of homosexual acts in private in the United Kingdom.[9]

Syms made Ferry to Hong Kong, The World of Suzie Wong and Conspiracy of Hearts.

Syms travelled to Ireland to play opposite Patrick McGoohan as the wife of a condemned man in The Quare Fellow.

She played Tony Hancock's wife in The Punch and Judy Man. The film also featured her nephew, Nick Webb. In 1963 she ended her contract with Associated British which by then guaranteed her £10,000 a year but which she felt was too restrictive.[10] She appeared in East of Sudan. In 1965 she appeared on stage in Dual Marriageway.

Later career

Other comedies followed, such as The Big Job (1965) with Sid James and Bat Out of Hell (1967), but it was for drama that she won acclaim, including The Tamarind Seed (1974) with Julie Andrews and Omar Sharif, for which she was nominated for a British Film Academy award.

In 1970, Syms changed direction playing Beatrice opposite Julian Glover's Benedick in a production of William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing.[11] The Prospect Theatre Company production, directed by Tony Richardson, was first presented at the Edinburgh International Festival and subsequently toured the United Kingdom.

Syms featured in the husband-and-wife TV comedy My Good Woman from 1972 to 1974[12] and on the weekly BBC programme Movie Quiz as one of two team captains.

In 1975, Syms headed the jury at the 25th Berlin International Film Festival.[13]

In 1989, Syms guest-starred in the Doctor Who story Ghost Light.[14] Shortly after the end of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's term in office in 1990, Syms portrayed her in Thatcher: The Final Days (1991),[15] a Granada television film for ITV, which dramatises the events surrounding Thatcher's removal from power, a role she recreated for the stage.[3] From 2000 to 2003, she played Marion Riley in the ITV comedy-drama At Home with the Braithwaites. She also featured in the serial The Jury (2002) and in the same year contributed Sonnet 142 to the compilation album When Love Speaks.[3]

For Stephen Frears's biopic The Queen (2006), Syms was cast as Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother.[3] She also appeared in The Poseidon Adventure (2005), an American TV film that was a loose remake of the 1972 feature film. Syms also took up producing and directing.

In 2009, Syms appeared in the film Is Anybody There? alongside Michael Caine and Anne-Marie Duff.

In 2009, she featured in the ITV drama series Collision. In 2010, she guest-starred as a patient in BBC One's drama series Casualty, having played a different character in an episode in 2007. Syms also appeared as another character in Casualty's sister series Holby City in 2003. From 2007 to 2010, she had a recurring role in BBC One's EastEnders, playing dressmaker Olive Woodhouse.[3] In 2010, Syms took part in the BBC's The Young Ones, a series in which six celebrities in their seventies and eighties attempt to overcome some of the problems of ageing by harking back to the 1970s.[16] From 2013 to 2019, Syms was the narrator of Talking Pictures, which aired on BBC Two.[3]

Syms had numerous theatre roles, including in productions of Much Ado About Nothing, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Antony and Cleopatra.[3]

Personal life

From 9 June 1956 to 1989, Syms was married to Alan Edney, whom she had dated since she was a teenager.[3] In 1961 they lost a baby daughter, Jessica.[17][18] Later that year Syms and her husband adopted a son, Benjamin Mark.[19] In October 1962 she gave birth to a daughter, Beatie Edney who is also an actress.[6][20] Syms and her husband divorced in 1989 when she discovered he had a mistress for several years and that they shared a two year old daughter.[21]

She was the aunt of musicians Nick and Alex Webb.

Syms was a longtime supporter of the Stars Foundation for Cerebral Palsy, serving on its board as an officer for 16 years until 2020, with singer Vera Lynn.[22]

In the last year of her life, Syms lived at Denville Hall, a retirement home for actors in London. She died there on 27 January 2023, three weeks after her 89th birthday.[15][23]


In the words of Filmink magazine:

I don’t think any actress in English speaking cinema of this era had such a variety of love interests as Sylvia Syms. It helped that she was beautiful, of course ... that she could act: it's hard to think of a bad Sylvia Syms performance – sometimes she was miscast, but never bad. She always brought a level of intelligence to her roles along with a sense of fun. And she was highly adept playing "smouldering hot lava of emotion and sensuality under an outwardly straight-laced and sensible facade" that made her – and this is meant with nothing but the greatest respect to the recently departed – sexy as hell.[24]







  1. ^ Syms profile at Archived 20 April 2013 at Retrieved 15 September 2012.
  2. ^ "Index entry". FreeBMD. ONS. Retrieved 17 April 2011.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Bergan, Ronald (27 January 2023). "Sylvia Syms obituary". The Guardian. Retrieved 27 January 2023.
  4. ^ a b "Sylvia Syms: Veteran British actress dies at 89". BBC News. 27 January 2023. Retrieved 29 January 2023.
  5. ^ "Well Hall" entry of London Gazetteer by Russ Willey, (Chambers 2006) ISBN 0-550-10326-0 (online extract [1])
  6. ^ a b "Sylvia Syms, British actress, dies aged 89". The Times. 27 January 2023. Retrieved 27 January 2023.
  7. ^ "I'd rather be an actress than a film star". Citizen. 26 April 1958. p. 5.
  8. ^ "New role for Sylvia". Illustrated Chronicle. 30 January 1960. p. 5.
  9. ^ Greenfield, Steve; Osborn, Guy; Robson, Peter (2001), Film and the Law, Routledge, p. 118, ISBN 978-1-85941-639-6
  10. ^ "'Little Miss Prim' Upsets Sylvia Syms". Citizen. 23 March 1964. p. 6.
  11. ^ "Much Ado About Nothing (1970)". University of Warwick. Retrieved 29 August 2023.
  12. ^ "My Good Woman". British Comedy Guide. Retrieved 30 January 2023.
  13. ^ "Berlinale 1975: Juries". Retrieved 5 July 2010.
  14. ^ Mulkern, Patrick. "Ghost Light ★★★". Radio Times. Retrieved 30 April 2023.
  15. ^ a b Pulver, Andrew (27 January 2023). "Sylvia Syms, prolific British actor, dies aged 89". The Guardian. Retrieved 28 January 2023.
  16. ^ "BBC One – The Young Ones". 22 December 2010. Retrieved 13 June 2012.
  17. ^ "Sylvia Syms Baby Ill". Daily Herald. 28 April 1961. p. 1.
  18. ^ "Sylvia Syms Told Baby Is Dead". Daily Herald. 29 April 1961. p. 5.
  19. ^ "At last... you're mine". Daily Herald. 26 September 1961. p. 1.
  20. ^ "Sylvia and her dream baby". Daily Herald. 27 October 1962. p. 3.
  21. ^ "Style of a 'good fat 14'". The Daily Telegraph. 21 October 1989. p. 38.
  22. ^ "STARS FOUNDATION FOR CEREBRAL PALSY people - Find and update company information - GOV.UK". Retrieved 27 January 2023.
  23. ^ "Sylvia Syms: Ice Cold In Alex star dies at the age of 89". Sky News. 27 January 2023. Retrieved 27 January 2023.
  24. ^ Vagg, Stephen (22 February 2023). "The Surprisingly Saucy Cinema of Sylvia Syms". Filmink. Retrieved 23 February 2023.
  25. ^ "Sylvia Syms". British Film Institute. Archived from the original on 27 July 2017. Retrieved 27 January 2023.
  26. ^ Harrison, Ellie (20 November 2018). "The Killing star Sofie Grabol joins Suranne Jones in BBC's Gentleman Jack". Radio Times. Retrieved 27 January 2023.