Oration for Sir Donald Sinden on the award of his honorary Doctor of Letters degree

Posted by pt91 at Sep 12, 2014 10:35 AM |
Sir Donald Sinden, who passed away in 2014, was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Leicester in July 2005

Sir Donald Sinden CBE (DLitt) - Actor

Oration by SJ Gurman (given on 12 July 2005)

Donald Sinden is the son of a chemist (dispensing, not industrial) and was brought up in Sussex. His education was interrupted by serious illness and at the age of fifteen he left school and became an apprentice joiner, hoping to become a draughtsman. He had then little interest in the theatre. Fate, however, intervened in the form of a cousin who persuaded Sinden to take his place in an amateur production in Brighton. He took to acting and was spotted by a Director of the Theatre Royal, Brighton, who ran a wartime touring company. For the duration of the war, Donald Sinden worked as an apprentice joiner by day and performed for the Armed Forces by night. He spent the last year of the war with the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA, also known as Every Night Something Awful), touring liberated Europe and India.

On his return to England, Donald Sinden worked a six month season in Leicester, performing a different play every week with only Sundays off. Each Sunday he would come to this hall for concerts, sitting in the one shilling stage seats, about where the organist is now placed. He has described a splendid technique to persuade performers to give an encore, but you will have to read his autobiography "A Touch of the Memoirs" to discover what it is. After Leicester, he spent two years with the Shakespeare Memorial Company (now the Royal Shakespeare Company) at Stratford and later acted with the Bristol Old Vic Company, acquiring experience of a wide variety of plays.

Donald Sinden was contracted to the Rank Organization for most of the 1950s and appeared in many British films during that time. His film career took off when he was cast as Lieutenant Lockhart, First Lieutenant of the corvette "Compass Rose" in Ealing Films' superb version of "The Cruel Sea" in 1953. This was probably his finest film role. One critic thought that the role was a major plum for such a young actor, although the 30 year old Donald Sinden was actually much older than most of the RNVR corvette lieutenants would have been. "Compass Rose" was a fictional Flower Class corvette serving in the North Atlantic. One actual ship of this class was noted for having a crew that were involved in more fights ashore than any other. This was possibly because their cap bands were inscribed HMS Pansy.

Donald Sinden returned to the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1963 and remained with them for the next twenty years. His performances in 1963 and 1964 as the Duke of York in Peter Hall's production of "The Wars of the Roses" showed him to be an outstanding classical actor, marked out by his musical verse speaking and deeply resonant characterization. Other successes soon followed. In 1969 he played Malvolio in "Twelfth Night", a role that gave special scope to his skill for character driven comedy. Professor Stanley Wells described his performance as that of a comic genius. The second volume of Sinden's autobiography, "Laughter in the Second Act", describes how he based the look of his Malvolio on Graham Sutherland's portrait of Somerset Maugham. Not a pretty sight. His performance as King Lear in 1976 and 1977 was reckoned as amongst the finest of his generation. It won him the Variety Club Stage Actor award for 1976 and the Evening Standard Best Actor award in 1977. Uniquely, this great Shakespearian has also shone in farce. To succeed in "King Lear" and "Move Over, Darling" in the same year implies a remarkable versatility.

In 1990 Donald Sinden presented a one man show as Oscar Wilde. He is believed to be the last surviving person to have met and befriended Lord Alfred Douglas, the catalyst of Wilde's imprisonment, who lived in Sussex towards the end of his life. His reading of the "Ballad of Reading Gaol" was issued in 2002 on a CD produced and directed by his son Marc. Donald Sinden has always had a keen interest in theatre history. This resulted in the creation of the British Theatre Museum Association, of which he was Chairman between 1971 and 1977. This became the Theatre Museum and is now part of the Victoria and Albert Museum. He is also Vice-President of the Henry Irving Society and was extremely supportive of the conference on Irving that was held at this University last weekend.

Donald Sinden received the CBE in 1979 and was appointed to the Arts Council in 1982. Those of you with long memories may remember his regular proxy appearances in the satirical puppet show "Spitting Image" as an aging actor always pestering the Queen for a knighthood. The knighthood was conferred, without pestering, in 1997. Today we are proud to honour Sir Donald Sinden, and I hope we did not charge him a shilling for his seat on this stage today.

Mr Chancellor, on the recommendation of the Senate and Council, I present Sir Donald Sinden that you may confer on him the Honorary degree of Doctor of Letters.

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