Cult Movies: Sylvia Syms graced some seriously impressive films in her time
Sylvia Syms RIP
SYLVIA Syms, who died last week aged 89, graced some seriously impressive films in her time.
In terms of iconic images forever frozen in cinema history, it's hard to get past that vision of her propping up a wartime bar, nursing a cold beer alongside John Mills, Anthony Quayle and Harry Andrews in the 1958 classic Ice Cold In Alex – but there are plenty more magical moments to recall from a long and fruitful life on the silver screen.
She deservedly bagged a Bafta nomination for her role as Quayle's mistress in director J Lee Thompson's groundbreaking kitchen sink drama Woman In A Dressing Gown in 1957, and in 1961 she graced a brace of important studies of race relations and sexuality in post-war Britain with Flame In The Streets, directed by Roy Ward Baker in 1961, and the remarkable Victim.
If Flame In The Streets is notable for its brave attempt to tackle the social reactions to Syms's character attempting to wed a West Indian man, it's Victim that really sticks in the mind. Basil Dearden's tale of a buttoned-up barrister (played with seething restraint by Dirk Bogart) who hides his true sexuality from his wife until a blackmailer steps in was shocking for the time, and gifted Syms a memorable role as the non-comprehending spouse who simply can't get her head around the concept of her husband liking other men. There's a real empathy and sadness in her performance that still impresses today.
As was often the case in that era, she mostly provided supporting roles to male figures throughout much of the 1960s, but often her performances way outshone the actors she was there to prop up.
She also turned her hand to a remarkable array of roles, playing a light and frothy criminal's lover in the Sid James-fronted comedy The Big Job from 1965 – a kind of Carry On Safe Breaking with both Jim Dale and Dick Emery on hand to push the japes along – and the depressed and alcoholically adrift wife of a condemned man in the 1962 adaptation of Brendan Behan's play The Quare Fellow with equal aplomb.
The range she displayed throughout her career was quite remarkable. She memorably sparred with Tony Hancock in the comedian's dark and criminally under-rated The Punch And Judy Man from 1963 and played a naive nun in the wartime drama Conspiracy Of Hearts in 1960.
This ability to take on wildly different roles allowed Syms to take on interesting parts right up to her later years, including memorable turns in the Granada TV production Margaret Thatcher: The Final Days in 1991, and a scene-stealing appearance as a boozy queen mother in Stephen Frears's film The Queen in 2006.
For me though, I'll remember her most as Maisie King, the shameless stripper in Val Guest's era-defining music biz satire Expresso Bongo from 1959. Alongside Laurence Harvey's shifty manager figure Johnny Jackson and Cliff Richard's wide-eyed musician Bert Rudge, she's brassy, bold and totally believable.
A remarkable performance in a career loaded with them.