Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Syms, Sylvia (1934-)


Main image of Syms, Sylvia (1934-)

Not many pretty young stars develop into satisfying character actors, but Sylvia Syms, in the later '50s the freshest new face in British films, has doggedly held on to her career in all the acting media. Watch a perfectly unexceptional Ruth Rendell mystery, The Master of the Moor (ITV, 1994), come alive for a few minutes when Syms suddenly appears as a long-missing mother and you see what character playing means: in her maturity, she can suggest all the appropriate resonances that give the role a sense of a past.

She credits Herbert Wilcox with launching and nurturing her film career; he co-starred her with wife Anna Neagle in My Teenage Daughter (1956), a genteel version of the rebellious youth syndrome so popular then. She signed a contract with Associated British, which she later regretted, but it netted her some good roles, including two for J. Lee Thompson: Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957), playing the 'other woman' with feeling and dignity, and Ice Cold in Alex (1958), as the army nurse engaged on a perilous journey.

For other companies, she brought strength and humanity to the roles of the bigot's daughter in love with a black man in Flame in the Streets (d. Roy Ward Baker, 1961) and the anguished wife of the gay barrister in Victim (d. Basil Dearden, 1961), a role turned down by several other actresses, and was sharp and funny as Laurence Harvey's strip-tease girlfriend in the musical, Expresso Bongo (d. Val Guest, 1959). In other words, she had some of the best chances going for a young actress at the time. She stayed busy in the '60s but the roles grew less rewarding. She was bitchy second lead to crisply dull Julie Andrews in The Tamarind Seed (d. Blake Edwards, 1974), and this perhaps marks the start of her later career as a character actress.

Not that the screen has offered her much, but she made the most of the headmistress in Shirley Valentine (UK/US, d. Lewis Gilbert, 1989) and the bride's waspish mother in Staggered (d. Martin Clunes, 1994). TV and the stage (moving as the mother in the Noël Coward resuscitation, Post-Mortem, in 1992) have kept her in sight; in the '90s, on both stage and screen she played Mrs Thatcher: in TV's Thatcher - The Final Days and in the Tricycle Theatre's Half the Picture. Her daughter is Beatie Edney.

Brian McFarlane, Encyclopedia of British Film

More information


From the BFI's filmographic database

Related media

Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Deep Down (2002)Deep Down (2002)

Short film about a daughter waiting for her oppressive mother's death

Thumbnail image of Expresso Bongo (1959)Expresso Bongo (1959)

Cliff Richard comedy about the discovery of a new musical star

Thumbnail image of Flame In The Streets (1961)Flame In The Streets (1961)

Melodrama dealing with race relations and mixed-race romance

Thumbnail image of Ice Cold in Alex (1958)Ice Cold in Alex (1958)

Classic war film charting a perilous journey across North Africa

Thumbnail image of Punch and Judy Man, The (1962)Punch and Judy Man, The (1962)

Tony Hancock stars in a tragi-comedy set in a small seaside resort

Thumbnail image of Victim (1961)Victim (1961)

Dirk Bogarde stars in the first serious British film about homosexuality

Thumbnail image of Natural Lies (1992)Natural Lies (1992)

Bob Peck stars in a tense thriller inspired by the BSE scandal

Thumbnail image of Now and Then: Sylvia Syms (1967)Now and Then: Sylvia Syms (1967)

The actress talks about her talent for causing controversy

Related collections

Related people and organisations