As a tribute to great British actor Sir Donald Sinden, who died this morning aged 90, we reproduce his last interview, which appeared in issue 69 of The Chap. Michael “Atters” Attree met Sir Donald in his enchanting period house overlooking the wilds of the Kent countryside, to discuss Richard Burton, Lord Alfred Douglas and working with Patrick MacGoohan in The Prisoner.
I’m going to start by asking about the 1971 film Villain. I appreciate you’re an excellent thespian but I do love Villain.
I was in that! I was playing an MP.
That’s right! A very naughty MP. I love that film. What was it like working with Richard Burton?
Dickie [Burton] and I knew each other in the ‘40s and then he went to America so we lost touch. He met that girl, Elizabeth Taylor.
He met her quite a few times, I believe?
Oh yes, and so we hadn’t met for 30 years until, suddenly, Villain cropped up. So we were on the set in Strawberry Hill and we said, “So, here we are, two highly respected actors, we haven’t met for 30 years and the first time we meet now is in the shithouse.” Because, of course, the first scene we do is in the lavatory.
You’ve butled as an actor a few times; would you like to have a butler yourself?
Oh, that’s nice, I would love to have a butler. Well, a valet would be better. I’ve collected what I like to call aristocratic stories. Do you know Shaftesbury Avenue? Top of Shaftesbury Avenue is one of those relics of London, James Smith & Son, who make umbrellas.
I’ve been there a few times, I love that shop, beautiful front. It’s been there a long time.
It’s wonderful. All of that part of London is owned by the Dukes of Bedford. The then Duke, not this one but two or three Dukes ago, went in to Smith’s to order himself three new umbrellas and three new walking sticks. They had to be the right height; they were made to measure, perfectly made. When he had agreed what he would have, he said to the assistant, “Right, that’s fine, have them sent round, would you?” The assistant said, “Certainly, sir, but to what address?” The Duke said, “Why the hell should I know my address?”
Only a British aristocrat would say that!
What a wonderful line. He knows where he lives; he knows the way home; “Why should I know my address?”
So eccentric and glorious – this is what we celebrate in the Chap magazine! Right, what was it like being on Morecambe and Wise? You were a butler on there, I believe? Were they as funny off camera as they were on?
I had met them many times before and then they asked me to do one of their shows, where I was playing a butler. I was already playing a butler with Elaine Stritch in Two’s Company.
She used to terrify me when I was a child. I thought she was a man.
My eldest son Jeremy he was in television production in Birmingham whilst he was there Eric and Ernie were in a cabaret in Birmingham, so my son went to see them and went round backstage afterwards and Eric said, “What’s your dad up to, then?” Jeremy says, “He’s going to play King Lear in Stratford,” and Eric said, “Have they told him?”
I will ask about someone else that you were chums with and that was Bosie (Oscar Wilde’s friend, Lord Alfred Douglas).
It transpires that I am the last person alive to have known him.
He died in 1945 and I knew him for about three years before he died.
Blimey. So you knew him enough to have chatted in depth?
I was 22 and I’d been to a meeting of the Sussex Poetry Society – don’t you wish you’d never asked me? – in Hove. And somebody said, “We have the most illustrious members here… so-and-so, so-and-so, and… Lord Alfred Douglas.” So I said, “Lord Alfred Douglas? I thought he was dead?” “No, no, he’s very much alive.” So I thought, there he is living in Hove! More the Portslade end. So I already knew that the moment Alfred Douglas was introduced to anybody, they would say, “Oh do tell us about Oscar Wilde”. They all wanted to know. So I very cleverly learnt three of his poems. So when we met, which was extraordinary, because it was a very mean little street, you know, little tiny cottages. I rang the doorbell and I waited, rehearsing my poems and the door was suddenly yanked open and the most terrifying woman was standing there. An enormous woman with enormous breasts hanging down to her waist with, I think, eight hairs on her head, her bottom teeth out in front, and she said, “Yes?” Well, I’ve obviously come to the wrong house. She was wearing a pinafore and carpet slippers and stockings, creased right down to her feet…
I bet she doesn’t get many visitors…
No! I said, “Have I come to the right house? I was hoping to have a word with Lord Alfred Douglas.” “No, I don’t know if he will see you…” when suddenly, from under her armpit came this little man. He said, “I’m Lord Alfred Douglas. Can I help you?” And I said, “I wanted to talk to you about some of your poetry.”
He said, “Yes, do come in. Sorry, what is your name?” “Sinden.” He said, “Ah, Mr. Swindon would like tea”. And we got on like a house on fire. I talked to him about poetry, never mentioned Oscar Wilde, which was brilliant of me. I didn’t realise how clever I was being. A fascinating man, but he was no longer beautiful. Oscar Wilde had died in 1900, so this was 43 years after Wilde had died.
And a big influence on the man. How fascinating.
And he took me over to Worthing one day, and showed me the house where he was staying with Oscar Wilde when Wilde wrote The Importance of Being Earnest. In 1916 they published a book called De Profundis, which is Oscar Wilde’s apology for his life, as it were, but it was written in the shape of a letter to Bosie. It starts off ‘Dear Bosie’ and finishes ‘Oscar’, you see? When he came out of prison he gave this letter, pages and pages and pages of this long, long letter, to Robert Ross to give to Bosie but he never did. He kept it. It was ammunition for him, you see, for he was in love with Oscar but Oscar wasn’t in love with him.
So there was Oscar in 1900 lambasting Douglas, saying it was all his fault when it wasn’t his fault at all. He was 24 years old. So he suddenly took on a hatred for Wilde, not knowing that this letter had been kept from him.
Bit of an illegal one, have you ever tried mind-expanding drugs at all in your life or is that a terrible thing?
I’m afraid not; I’ve never found it necessary. But I do try to help out you see: the fact that you smoke, you and I are sinners both but I flatly refuse to smoke onstage or television.
Oh, because you don’t want to influence others?
I don’t want to influence others. When you’re on the stage and you’re smoking a cigarette, immediately people start feeling for theirs. Half the auditorium would get up and leave! I’ve been in two or three plays of Noël Coward’s and, in any Noël Coward script it says: ‘He lights a cigarette/She lights a cigarette/He lights her cigarette’, but I refused to.
Have you ever gone for full-on sartorial flamboyancy?
Well, I wear a topper wherever possible.
Wherever possible? That’s a pleasing answer…
I was in a play, oh, hundreds of years ago, I needed a bowler hat for it and I went to Lock’s in St James’s and I didn’t realise that you don’t just buy bowler, you have it fitted … it’s like a top hat but with prongs which they put on your head and they say, “Where do you want to wear it?” And so they want you to wear it an inch above your forehead, they then lop it off and there is like a negative of your skull, do you see?
Yes, I understand. A cast of sorts.
A cast of the skull. They then take the bowler hat and steam it to fit exactly your skull.
Well of course. The skull doesn’t change, does it?
No. So I ordered this bowler hat and they steam it in front of you. It’s like a rock. When you put it on it goes [click] and it is the most perfect… you couldn’t get a piece of paper between your skull and the hat all the way round, it’s exactly fitting. It’s beautiful. So I came out of Lock’s, walking up St James’s Street and I saw Patrick Macnee and he said, “Where did you get that hat?”
And I said, “I’ve just bought it from Lock’s, do you like it?” Bloody hell, within a couple of months he’s wearing it!
You were in Father, Dear Father a couple of times with Patrick Cargill – I used to vaguely like that show. But he was also with you in The Prisoner and I loved The Prisoner! Did you know what it was about?
There, you’ve answered that question. I had an inkling you wouldn’t have a bloody clue!
We had no idea!
I thought you might say that because, in fact, Patrick McGoohan, himself said he didn’t know what the hell it was about either! But I just wondered, you played the Colonel in that, did you enjoy that role?
Was I playing a Colonel? [Laughter ensues] I never knew that.
So it was that obscure then?
Yes! None of us knew what we were supposed to say, so Pat MacGoohan would say, “Can’t you make it up? Improvise some dialogue,” so I think we talked about the cricket or something, you know. My favourite moment was when Pat MacGoohan and I were on an airfield … he and I were standing there when somebody was getting in to an airplane on the landing strip, and he were having a quiet little chat and MacGoohan said, “Just watch what they’re doing.” So we’re watching what they’re doing – we didn’t know what they were doing! Then they said, “Action!” So we did it. They said, “I think that’s alright – print it.” But I said, “Just a minute, I’m sorry, but we’ve got to go again; my shoelaces were undone.”
Mocking the continuity?
MacGoohan said, “Right, well do them up, then!” When you saw the film, we were half a mile away!
Oh, so you were pulling their leg! I hoped so!
I asked your grandson to warn you about my traditional last question … where’s my present?
Oh yes, he did!
Well, that top hat’s rather nice…
[Sir Donald brings the top hat over for Atters to try on. Noises of excitement and elation, then Sir Donald takes it back again].
It’s so comfortable, so comfortable. It won’t move, you see?
[As they settled down to post-interview photographs, tea and biscuits, Sir Donald produces a facsimile oil portrait of himself (smoking), inscribed “For Attree of Ditchling! From Donald!” A cherished gift indeed]
Thanks to Hal Sinden for arranging and transcribing this interview