Don at my 60th birthday party
Another nonagenarian actor friend has passed away. I first saw Donald Sinden when I was a schoolboy. He was playing York in the Wars of the Roses at Stratford for the RSC. I didn’t meet him until 25 years later when I was playing Lord Goring in a production of An Ideal Husband with his son Jeremy. Jeremy and I (and his wife Delia) became close friends and remained so until his tragically early death from cancer in 1997. Jeremy introduced me to the Garrick Club of which his father was chairman. Gradually, Donald and I got to know each other, more so after Jeremy’s death. When I became a Garrick member, it was Donald who showed me round the Club and told me what was what. We took to phoning each other to share the latest joke or anecdote we had heard (something that Jeremy and I had done regularly – nothing better than a mate phoning you up first thing after breakfast and having a laugh). I can tell you, to make Donald Sinden chuckle made you feel pretty good. ‘Oh that’s very good,’ he’d say. ‘Oh I like that.’ Then he’d make you repeat the joke so that he was sure to remember the joke – and add it to his repertoire. He would sometimes phone me for information about this or that. ‘Now Jeremy, you know about these things. Tell me what…’ And it could be anything. I remember one time he asked me ‘Who wrote those marvellous lines “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven”?’ ‘Wordsworth, I said, writing about the French Revolution. ‘Wordsworth. Was it really.’ And another was when he and his brother Leon were having a Sunday lunch discussion and the film Went the day well came up. ‘We can’t find out who came up with that line “Went the day well”.’ I rang him back: ‘A man called John Maxwell Edmunds in 1918. ‘Went the day well? / We died and never knew / But well or ill / For Freedom we died for you.’
Three occasions epitomise to me the great qualities which made Don so beloved of so many people. We were doing a Christmas charity gig in Bury St Edmunds for some cause or other with Libby Purves and Ian (‘Don’t tell him your name, Pike’) Lavender. Afterwards we repaired to The Angel for a drink. We took over a corner by the fire and for the next two hours Don went through his repertoire of theatre stories and anecdotes. I have never met anyone with such a fund or anyone who was a better raconteur than him. He simply loved entertaining people like this – Jeremy Sinden was the same. In fact both father and son disliked talking about themselves, their worries, their health or anything personal. They would change the subject or find an excuse to get into the next anecdote. Donald had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the theatre and its famous practitioners, and of course he had worked with all the greats from the 1940s onwards. That was a memorable evening.
I invited him to my 60th birthday party in 2007. Diana, his wife, had died three years earlier and he was on his own, coping uncomplainingly with his new circumstances. He drove up all the way from Kent on the Sunday morning. ‘You do know,’ he said when he arrived, ‘that I turned down the unveiling of Ralph Richardson’s statue on the Southbank to be here.’ I felt very chuffed and privileged. He didn’t know a soul at the party. Having gone round everyone introducing himself and charming the assembled company (who were, it must be said, slightly in awe) he established base camp on the patio and attracted a circle of various showbiz chums I had invited who listened enthralled to the Sinden repertoire. He seemed to enjoy the company of strangers as much as his fellow thesps.
A few years later I invited him to be guest speaker at my annual Jerome K Jerome dinner in Walsall. Once again he hauled himself up from Kent and thrust himself into a crowd of complete strangers, none of whom had any association with showbiz. He simply loved talking to people, finding out about them getting cues from them for the next anecdote and making whoever he spoke to feel they were his new best friend. What a gift! He over-ran his allotted time by 20 minutes – an unstoppable string of stories and insights. Some weeks after the dinner he sent me a cheque. It was for half the amount of his speaking fee. I rang to ask him why he had done this. ‘No no,’ he blustered, ‘I don’t need all that. It was far too much. You didn’t need to pay me all that.’ What generosity. Says it all, doesn’t it?
I saw his health slowly deteriorate over the next few years. His recall for names and events started to fail him, greatly frustrating for anyone with a natural sense of comic timing and love of a good punch line. At his 90th birthday party at the Garrick – the whole place was crammed to overflowing with well-wishers in an unprecedented tribute – he had aged noticeably and couldn’t stand for long. ‘Ah Jeremy, dear,’ he said recognising a familiar face ion the throng. ‘Isn’t it lovely? You know, I haven’t got a clue who all these people are.’ During the final months, his quality of life declined rapidly. For such an affirming life force, it must have been a terrible blow. I don’t think he would have wished to linger.
What a lovely man – wise, funny, concerned, interested in everything and everybody (except the internet and social media), tremendously gifted, with impeccable manners and an innate courtesy. And that voice! There’ll never be another.