RIP Sylvia Syms (1934-2023)

The lovely, wide-eyed face of Sylvia Syms popped up in many British films during their kind of “new wave” era where the envelope was constantly being pushed. While Syms worked with many distinguished actors who had graced the screen long before she did, she seemed to represent the more modern age of cinema of the ‘50s and ‘60s, mainly due to her daring films. Like many of her peers, Syms first began acting on the stage after she graduated from the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. After working in the theater, Syms was discovered for films by Anna Neagle and Herbert Wilcox. While Syms had appeared in television (such as one episode of Life with the Lyons), she made her film debut with Neagle and Wilcox’s Teenage Bad Girl (1956). The exploitive film similar to America’s juvenile delinquent films wasn’t the usual vehicle for Neagle, but it did serve as a good stepping ground to showcase the talents of young Syms. While she was playing a seventeen-year-old, Syms was in her early twenties and already an experienced actress from her training and stage work. It definitely gave the film an advantage and it began a long career in film.

Syms’s next film was a better one – Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957) where she got to work with more established names, Yvonne Mitchell and Anthony Quayle. Rather than being a teenager, Syms also got to be a lovely seductress who Quayle has an affair with. Syms, though, appears much more human than the usual roles of its kind. Syms began working steadily, being reunited with Anna Neagle for a film, having an emotive role in the crime drama The Birthday Present (1957), and being lovely in Technicolor in The Moonraker (1958). She made one of her best remembered and best in general films next, Ice Cold in Alex (1958). While her previous films had more tour de force emotion compared to Ice Cold there was something so raw and invigorating about the struggle for survival seen in it that it remains a truly great film any actor could be proud of. She also got to work with some towering names in the British industry, including the great Sir John Mills as her leading man.

Her next two films weren’t quite as good as Ice Cold in Alex, but she did get to work with the suave Hardy Krüger in one and the always wonderful Herbert Lom and Stanley Holloway in the other. Syms finished the decade strong with the fun spoof of the rock industry, Expresso Bongo (1959). Starting the trend of films she made that pushed the envelope (and films about Soho), Bongo had Syms as an often scantily clad showgirl in the dodgiest dive night club London has ever seen. Her leading man was a dynamic Laurence Harvey (lucky girl!) and while their romance often plays in the background of the main satirical story, it’s much welcomed with those two. Syms also went into the ‘60s strong with Conspiracy of Hearts (1960), a film that showcased its female performers to perfection as nuns trying to help children during WWII. While Syms got to play up her sex appeal in Expresso Bongo, she proved herself to be an effective actress in a role that required much more than being pretty.

After being practically wasted in The World of Suzie Wong (1960) and given lesser material in Amazons of Rome (1961), Syms continued her trend of pushing the envelope and managed to make even more memorable films. She was in Flame in the Streets (1961), which was years ahead of its time with the way it portrayed an interracial relationship and how even people who seem broad-minded can betray that illusion. Speaking of being ahead of its time, Syms got the leading lady role in Victim (1961) after many actresses turned it down. Syms played the wife of Dirk Bogarde, who is revealed to have had relationships with men in the past and while he loves her, she’s not sure if he’s attracted to her when scandal plagues their lives. The film dealt with homosexuality openly, cast many people from the LGBTQ+ community, and portrayed its gay characters sympathetically. Another winner Syms made was the gritty prison drama, The Quare Fellow (1962), which delved into the lives of those on death row and received its fair share of controversy as well for its no-holds-barred approach.

Syms divided her time between film and television for the next few years, showing some versatility with the comedy The Punch and Judy Man (1963), but also going into more familiar seedy surroundings in Soho with The World Ten Times Over (1963). Making films more sporadically, they weren’t as memorable as Victim or Ice Cold in Alex, but she still made her fair share of winners, such as the caper comedy The Big Job (1965), Run Wild, Run Free (1969) where she was once again reunited with John Mills, and the more tour de force Hostile Witness (1969). She also had a supporting role in the all-star production Operation Crossbow (1965) and starred opposite such stylishly handsome men as Richard Johnson and Roger Moore in films.

Her sporadic work in films and television continued for the next several decades, with supporting parts in such films as the horror anthology Asylum (1972), The Tamarind Seed (1974), Shirley Valentine (1989), Shining Through (1992), Is Anybody There? (2008), Bunny and the Bull (2009), and of course, What a Girl Wants (2003) (a fixture of my childhood) and The Queen (2006) (as the Queen Mother) standing out. Syms also continued with her first medium, the stage, throughout her career, acting in such plays as A Doll’s House and The Rivals. The work, however, that stands out best for Syms are those she made when British cinema was still in its classic era, making her a true representative those great years where England was at its artistic best.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s