Cleo Sylvestre’s theatrical leanings emerged from an early age: she first discovered the idea of performing by making her friends laugh in the playground and fell in love with theatre when she was taken to the pantomime at the now demolished Bedford Music Hall in Camden Town. She also regularly attended the ballet as her godfather was the Royal Ballet’s founding conductor Constant Lambert, but kept it quiet as “ballet wasn’t something you dared talk about at school!” While many teenage girls in the 1960s daydreamed about escaping school to sing with the Rolling Stones, Sylvestre actually did it, bunking off double biology to record the single ‘To Know Him is to Love Him’ with the band.
After her headmistress informed her, “There are no parts for coloured actresses in Britain, Cleopatra,” Sylvestre went to college to study French, but knew that teaching languages wasn’t what she wanted to do. At the end of her first year, the authorities agreed to transfer her grant if she found a drama course, but instead she met an agent who put her forward for a role in a play called Wise Child by first-time playwright Simon Gray opposite Alec Guinness. She got the part, the only woman in a four-hander alongside Guinness, Gordon Jackson (who later played Hudson on Upstairs Downstairs) and a fellow newcomer Simon Ward, and was nominated as Most Promising Actress in 1965 at the age of nineteen.
When I ask what Wise Child was about, Sylvestre laughs, “Good question! It was a very strange play that got a very mixed reception from the critics, some of whom felt that Alec Guinness shouldn’t be doing such work. Guinness played a crook on the run and dressed up as a woman to disguise himself, ending up at a seedy hotel run by Gordon Jackson and there were all sorts of overtones of homosexuality. I played a very innocent hotel maid who was subjected to the most awful psychological abuse by Guinness and Jackson’s characters for their own gratification.” As a professional debut, it was something of “a baptism of fire,” but an invaluable experience and Guinness was a wonderful mentor.
A particularly memorable surprise was a visit from Laurence Olivier after a matinee. “I was like a goldfish. He said, ‘Miss Sylvestre, I would like to congratulate you on a wonderful performance,’ and I just mouthed something and stood there in shock.” This encounter with Olivier came full circle when she joined the National Theatre at the Old Vic shortly after, most notably appearing in Peter Nichols’s second play National Health directed by Michael Blakemore. “Maggie Smith, Robert Stephens and Derek Jacobi were all around then – it was wonderful.”