The death of the actress Sylvia Syms, at the age of 89, deprives British cinema of one of the last remaining figures in it who could legitimately be described as a legend. Acting opposite everyone from John Mills and Dirk Bogarde to Orson Welles and Helen Mirren in her long career, she appeared in some of the greatest dramas of the Fifties and Sixties, showing a versatility and range that meant that she could segue effortlessly from the glamorous roles that epitomised her early career into character parts that she excelled at.
Even the fact that she enjoyed the unlikely distinction of appearing in two of the films that are widely regarded as the weakest achievements of this country’s cinematic output – Ray Cooney’s bafflingly awful 2012 adaptation of his play Run For Your Wife and Michael Winner’s diabolically offensive 1993 Dirty Weekend – cannot stale her infinite variety. The latter was banned by the BBFC on video for two years because of its strong sexual and violent content; it might have been a kindness to all involved for it to have been banned in all perpetuity, never to be spoken of again.
Yet if Syms’s eclectic career was not remotely affected by her participation in Winner’s dog’s dinner of a film, she was also involved in a far more epochal picture that had its own censorship battles over three decades before, when she took the female lead in Basil Dearden’s 1961 picture, Victim. The film was notably daring for its time, in that it portrayed its lead character, Dirk Bogarde’s barrister Melville Farr, as a tormented homosexual, under threat of exposure for his involvement with a much younger man who has committed suicide after being blackmailed because of his relationship with Farr.
Syms played the role of Laura, Farr’s wife, and although she was given less potent material to work with than Bogarde – who, himself a discreet homosexual, gave the portrayal of a closeted professional man an autobiographical intensity that made it one of his most vivid screen performances – had perhaps the film’s most memorable scene, a two-hander with Bogarde.
In it, the agonised Laura – who, it is hinted, has always known of her husband’s proclivities, before and during their marriage – confronts him. “You haven't changed,” she says. “In spite of our marriage, in your inmost feelings, you're still the same. That's why you stopped seeing him. You felt for him what you felt for Stainer.” When Bogarde’s equally tormented Farr attempts to equivocate, saying “That’s not true”, Syms delivers the killer line that “You were attracted to that boy as a man would be to a girl.”
At a time when homosexuality was illegal, and punishable by a prison sentence, this was strong stuff indeed. It leads to Farr’s anguished, near-furious confession, goaded by his wife’s desperate entreaty that “I have a right to know” what her husband felt for the late Barrett, that “Alright, you want to know. I shall tell you. You won't be content until you know, will you? Till you ripped it out of me? I stopped seeing him because I wanted him. Do you understand? Because I wanted him!”
Today, Victim might seem coy and even quaint in its depiction of how the relationship between Farr and Laura – the “normal”, respectable heterosexual one – is far more important than the “friendship” between Farr and Barrett. Yet it is to both Bogarde and Syms’s undying credit that both of them give an edgy, unsettling quality to the dynamic between the two, with both actors bringing out the subtext and longing inherent in what might be a lavender marriage but one that is freighted with complexity, on both sides. Syms later said of starring opposite Bogarde: “I adored working with Dirk. He was so real and so truthful and it was a big thing for him to make that film.”
Syms, who held strong socialist views throughout her life, later expressed her relief that the film led, in part, to the decriminalisation of homosexuality, saying to the Financial Times in 2017 that “I think there’s no doubt it did. Not many politicians will admit that, but I knew a lot of politicians in those days, and yes, it did.” She was not the first choice for the role, and remarked: “A lot of actresses turned the part down because of the subject matter. I was five months pregnant but I was very keen to do it because I was interested in the subject and I wanted the law to change.”
Tragically, Syms miscarried, but the loss that she felt may have fed into her performance, whether consciously or otherwise; the Farrs’ marriage is childless, and Laura’s character works at a school for disabled children with learning difficulties. Talking of the film’s legacy, Syms said: “It is difficult for people to understand these days why someone like Laura would have married a man who was attracted to other men. She met Dirk’s character and they obviously fell in love but she didn’t know about his other longings because you didn’t discuss it. Most women were very ignorant about those sorts of things back then.”
She expressed her pride that Victim was a film still discussed decades after its release, as students studying the social history of the period wrote to her to remark that “yours was the first film we talked about”; it is now taught as part of the syllabus, as a landmark LGBTQ artefact. More than any other film that she was involved in, it has its own distinct legacy in cinema, although Syms’s performance in the Second World War thriller Ice Cold in Alex is iconic in its own way.
While the role of Nurse Diana Murdoch is a far less challenging one than that of Laura Farr, acting in boiling conditions in the Libyan desert (standing in for Egypt) had its own difficulties. Syms commented in a 2011 interview: “You may find this hard to believe, but there was very little acting. It was horrible. We became those people... we were those people.” However, she had little truck with those who would describe the “very tough” torments that she and her co-stars John Mills and Anthony Quayle were forced to endure during the filming as method acting: “We didn’t know what method acting was, we just called it ‘getting on with it’.”
She was paid a mere £30 a week (although, when the film’s iconic finale, in which the deservedly thirsty characters enjoy an ice-cold beer in an Alexandria bar was recreated for a Carlsberg advert, she earned “a lot more”), but was proud of her work.
She was pleased that, unlike many of the more jingoistic films of the period, there were no “false heroics” in it, and that she had been told by war veterans that it was an accurate portrayal of desert combat during the period. She did, however, subsequently say “It was horrible but a wonderful experience. There were holes in the ground for lavatories and so, so many flies. We used DDT as hairspray. I’m amazed we didn’t all die shortly afterwards!”
Her other roles included everything from playing the Queen Mother, opposite Helen Mirren as Elizabeth II, in Stephen Frears’s The Queen to acting as Margaret Thatcher in the 1991 drama Thatcher: The Final Days, made a matter of months after the Prime Minister’s defenestration from office. “It’s no good taking your prejudices with you if you’re going to get inside a character’s head,” she said. “Playing her made me realise what terrible disloyalty her Cabinet showed to her in the end.”
Clearly, it was not Thatcher that she was thinking of when she mused to the Guardian in 2012 that “I’d actually like a really evil part”, but she was consistently sharp about the paucity of decent roles for older women, which reflected their unseen status in society (“half the charities in this country would collapse without women like me – they man the shops, they're on charity councils. For Christ's sake, it's not the men who are doing it”) and the way in which, early in her career, her good looks had led to unthinkingly sexist treatment: “There was an assumption that because you were blonde and an actress, you were available.” However, as she said, “I was lucky. Nobody ever put their hand up my skirt. I was quite good at looking after myself.”
Citing the legendary actress Sybil Thorndike as her influence and inspiration, she commented: “I want to go on working when I'm an old lady and have that kind of jolliness and respect, which she had. She was just incredible.” She did. Over a career that spanned six decades, and which included great highs – Victim, Ice Cold in Alex and her own personal favourite role, that of the working-class housewife Georgie in the 1957 social realist drama Woman in a Dressing Gown – and films that it would be kinder to draw a Winner-shaped veil over, Syms remained clear-sighted but never cynical about her work.
In one of her final interviews, she took umbrage with the interviewer’s obsequious suggestion that she was a national treasure, saying :“A living great? I don’t think so! There are lots of parts other people have had that I’d like to have played including anything Judi Dench has done…I don’t think anyone sits in a casting and thinks ‘Sylvia Syms, my God!’ I’m too ordinary. They just think ‘She’ll do’.”
This was characteristically modest. Syms’s body of work was, in its own, self-effacing way, extraordinary, and, through her role in Victim, she can claim some credit for changing the law of this country for the better. Not even Judi Dench, for all her undoubted excellence, can do that.