Actor who embraced tragedy and farce with equal skill

Donald Sinden born 9 October 1923; died 11 September 2014

epa04400631 (FILE) A file pictrue dated 03 March 2006 shows Sir Donald Sinden attending a memorial service in honour of late comedian Ronnie Barker at Westminster Abbey in London, Britain. According to media reports on 14 September Sir Donald Sinden died aged 90 at his home.  EPA/Lindsey Parnaby *** Local Caption *** 00658659

epa04400631 (FILE) A file pictrue dated 03 March 2006 shows Sir Donald Sinden attending a memorial service in honour of late comedian Ronnie Barker at Westminster Abbey in London, Britain. According to media reports on 14 September Sir Donald Sinden died aged 90 at his home. EPA/Lindsey Parnaby *** Local Caption *** 00658659

 

“To hear him in full spate is not unlike being shot between the eyes by the world’s largest plum,” said the journalist John Preston of Donald Sinden, who has died aged 90. The remark was applicable to the actor’s vocal delivery both on the stage and off.

No review relating to Sinden was ever penned without “fruity” appearing somewhere near “voice” in the text. Judi Dench, who played a notable Beatrice to his Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing in 1976, said he had “a Christmas pudding of a voice, soaked in brandy”; while director Peter Hall, who played a big part in his career, likened it to a bassoon that could be terribly tragic, terribly moving – and extremely funny.

Physically, too, Sinden was both imposing and endlessly, sometimes outrageously, inventive. In all, Michael Billington averred, he was a critic’s dream, because he always gave you so much to write about.

Sinden, whose versatility kept him steadily employed on stage, screen and television for more than 60 years, died on September 11th at his home in Kent, England.

The Cruel Sea

The Cruel SeaMogambo

His roles with the Royal Shakespeare Company included King Lear and Othello. He said that Lear became nice and easy after three acts, whereas Othello started quietly and just got harder and harder. He was nominated for a Tony Award in 1976 for his role as a lecherous doctor in Alan Bennett’s farce Habeas Corpus, a performance that Clive Barnes of the New York Times called “absolutely beautifully outrageous”.

Like one of his heroes, David Garrick, he believed that tragedy was easier than comedy: “The expertise you need for farce,” he said, “is far greater than for Shakespeare, though with him there has to be greater intellectual awareness.”

Sinden on the back foot, exposed and flummoxed in comedy, was one of the sights of the age; his great jowls would sag in a mask of stricken gravity, his eyes fixed wide open, and he would rake the stalls with baleful stares, reducing his audience to gleeful hysteria.

In Britain he was widely known for his work in TV comedies. On Two’s Company (1975-79), he played butler to Elaine Stritch’s American author living in London. On Never the Twain (1981-91), he and Windsor Davies played rival antique dealers.

He was born in Plymouth, the son of Alfred, a chemist, and Mabel (nee Fuller), and grew up in Ditchling, East Sussex, on England’s south coast.

Sinden planned to be an architect before gravitating to theatre through the amateur stage. He was spotted by a talent scout for a company that entertained British troops while acting in an amateur production. After being rejected by the Royal Navy because of chronic asthma, he joined the company in 1941. He made his West End debut in a 1947 production of Richard II.

Theatrical anecdotes

A Touch of the MemoirsLaughter in the Second Act

He was a great lover of architecture, the countryside and its churches, producing The English Country Church (1988) alongside two other collections, The Everyman Book of Theatrical Anecdotes (1987) and The Last Word (1994), featuring put-downs, final utterances and epitaphs.

Sinden married actor Diana Mahony in 1948 and they were inseparable until her death in 2004. Their first son, the actor Jeremy, died in 1996. He is survived by their second son, Marc, an actor, director and producer, and by his brother Leon, also an actor.