Sir Donald Sinden

PUBLISHED: 11:16 24 August 2009 | UPDATED: 16:12 20 February 2013

Sir Donald Sinden in The Barn Theatre

Sir Donald Sinden in The Barn Theatre

From Rank film star to leading Shakespearean actor, and a regular face on both TV and the West End stage, Sir Donald Sinden discusses his Kentish connections, road signs and the importance of articulation...

From Rank film star to leading Shakespearean actor, and a regular face on both TV and the West End stage, Sir Donald Sinden discusses his Kentish connections, road signs and the importance of articulation...

Sir Donald Sinden is fuming.

A proud resident of the Isle of Oxney, which includes the tiny hamlets of Ebony, Wittersham and Stone, the road sign indicating Ebony has mysteriously vanished, and the actor is not amused. "We are deeply offended, we've been wiped off the map," he declares in his immediately recognisable, richly modulated tones.

He's lived in the area since 1954 and, as its longest-standing resident ("I'm almost accepted here now"), there's not much he doesn't know about its history: "We are only five miles from the coast and the sea used to come right up here," he says, waving the first of many Silk Cuts in the direction of the fields at the back of his sun-filled garden.

"The River Rother came out into the sea at New Romney in the Napoleonic period, and while they were waiting for Napoleon to arrive - which he never did, of course - they set the soldiers to drain the marsh by digging waterways.

"They were under the tutelage of Dutch engineers, who naturally knew all about drainage. Our place started life as a toll gate cottage in 1805, so it was originally a council house."

Sir Donald found the house quite by accident. "In 1954, when my second son was born, our home in London was full of women and I couldn't even get a cup of tea!

"I came down to Rye for a week to get away and stayed at The Mermaid. I phoned Gerry Campion, who played Billy Bunter in the TV series and was living close by here, and he invited me to lunch and said, you ought to get a place down here. That afternoon, we drove around and saw six empty places and this was the most isolated.

"I found out that a local farmer owned it and rented it out that very afternoon and took photographs to bring back to my wife. A month later she came down and fell in love with it, and the children of course adored it."

Genealogical research later revealed that Donald's family originated from Salehurst, near Robertsbridge, and that in the 17th century his maternal ancestor came from nearby Warehorn, and married a local man. Another branch of the family came from Hawkhurst. "My family had all these local connections, so I had a real feeling of coming home. I have been drawn back to my roots," he smiles.

And the actor, 86 next month, has really made Kent his home. He is the patron of a theatre named after him in the grounds of Homewood School, a performing arts college in Tenterden.

He is also patron of the Tenterden and District Residents Association, president of the Ellen Terry Museum, a member of Protect Kent and vice-president of the Romney Marsh Historic Churches Trust.

"The story of Dr Syn was centred in Romney Marsh and Dymchurch and when my son was five or six, he was reading the Dr Syn books and I knew the author, Russell Thorndike, so I took my son Marc to meet him and he signed all his books for him. Marc in fact recently opened the refurbished Ship pub at Dymchurch."

But Sir Donald firmly believes that his value still lies in performing and between 1942 and 2009, has only had a remarkable five weeks out of work.

"The man who gave me my first job in Brighton in 1942 gave me a piece of very good advice - always do whatever comes next, don't pick and choose. To begin with, it was a question of just moving up the ladder, then you get two offers and choose the one you like best. I enjoyed the climbing up."

His main work these days centres around his one-man show, An Evening with Sir Donald Sinden, presented by his the West End theatre producer son Marc (his other son, Jeremy, also an actor, died from lung cancer in 1996).

"I don't really know what I talk about, but I do it for two hours," he says, with beguiling innocence. "I do it all over the place - Los Angeles, Solihull, Malvern. I go on cruise ships and do my talk, in the last year I've done three Mediterranean and one Baltic. They give me a cabin right at the top, so I'm not grumbling. The only problem is getting insurance at my age."

So does he have any regrets about his acting past, any roles he feels he should have played? "I have enjoyed absolutely everything I have done," he declares. "My only regret is never to have played Hamlet, though I learnt the part at the age of 19 in readiness, but was never asked to play the role.

"In 1946 I understudied Henry V and let everyone know that if they wanted the best Henry, I was ready to perform it, but I didn't get to and ever since I have never said I wanted a particular role, because it would be synonymous with not getting it."

His all-time favourite role was in Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, at Chichester in 1979, a part where he felt complete empathy with his character - and it gave him the confidence to tackle Lear. "My Lear was magnificent and I won the Best Actor Award for it, with Judi Dench as my Reagan," he says with pride.

He name drops so effortlessly it starts to feel normal. 'Rigg' (as in Diana) crops up frequently alongside the lovely Judi, Ray Cooney is coming to stay the following weekend.

Then there are those who have gone before him, like the poet Robert Graves, with whom he stayed in the 1960s in Majorca, his great friend Paul Schofield and, astonishingly, the romantic novelist Georgette Heyer, who acted as an informal - and keen-eyed - advisor on London Assurance.

While he has directed a couple of plays - "directors are grossly overrated, I feel" - Donald is first and foremost an actor, and one with his feet firmly on the ground. "As an actor, you get your worst money at Stratford, but TV work gives you the money to do your Shakespeare," he says.

In the 1950s, he was under contract from 1952 to 1960 and did an astonishing 24 films in eight years, the best being his first - The Cruel Sea - "but of course you don't know that when you are filming."

On TV he's done several series, the first in 1963, when he played the vicar in Our Man from St Marks for four years, then "a most enjoyable" Two's Company with Elaine Stritch, in which he played her butler. "I was also playing Lear on stage at the same time," he recalls, "and when I see those episodes again, I can hear how my voice gets progressively deeper and growlier." He also did Never the Twain, which was on for 11 years, and more recently took part in Judge John Deed with Martin Shaw.

We both agree that there's not nearly enough drama on TV these days and that reading is the way forward. "I read a great deal," he says. "I have a big shed in the garden full of books, as well as in the house. I've recently read the new biography of Ellen Terry by Michael Holroyd - you can see the roof of Ellen's house from the house and I can walk it across the fields, it's only a mile." As well as his forays across the fields - admittedly less frequent these days since getting two new hips - he shops in Waitrose and Cook in Tenterden, goes as often as he can to his nearest local store in Appledore and buys apples and apple juice from the farm shop on the road to Tenterden.

"I am addicted to stewed apples," he confesses. "I don't drink any more, but I will eat at the Black Lion in Appledore and have eaten at Richard Phillips at Chapel Down. The Ferry at Stone has a lovely pub garden."

Sir Donald also takes the train from Headcorn to Charing Cross several times a week, to "sit on a lot of committees" (he has been President of the Royal Theatrical Fund, which raises money and looks after actors who have fallen on hard times, for 27 years, following in the illustrious footsteps of its first President, Charles Dickens).

He also spends a great deal of time at the House of Commons, where he enjoys the debates and knows many of the MPs, frequently taking them to task on the mispronunciation of important words like 'Parl-iam-ment' - which he intones with every single syllable weighted and makes me repeat until he's satisfied I'm doing it correctly.

But most of all he likes to see his chums at the Garrick Club. "I was a trustee for 20 years, so felt it was necessary to go there for lunch, tea and dinner. Now, as a life member, I just use it once a week, preferably for lunch, my favourite meal."

It's lunchtime now and I reluctantly tear myself away, promising to practise the voice exercise my host has shared with me, his advice ringing in my ears: "remember, vowels give you volume but consonants give you clarity, so concentrate on your consonants. Articulation is so important." Indeed it is.

Spend An Evening with Sir Donald Sinden at the Sinden Theatre, Tenterden, on 10 October, from 8pm. 01580 763826.

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