Cleo Sylvestre – still going strong

Cleo Sylvestre

Cleo Sylvestre

When Cleo Sylvestre played truant that particular day in 1964, it was more a case of opportunity knocks than youthful defiance.

Aged 17 and a pupil at Camden School for Girls in London, she bunked off A-level biology lessons to record ‘To Know Him Is To Love Him’ with little-known band the Rolling Stones, whom she’d met while out clubbing.

“The first time was at a blues gig at the Marquee when about five people turned up to watch them play,” she recalls with a laugh.

“Brian [Jones] was upset and asked me if I thought they had any future. I told him, of course, and I meant it – they were so different.”

The single did quite well, she says, but plans to do another number with the Stones fell through.

Within a few years, Mick Jagger and co, frequent visitors at her home on the Regent’s Park Estate in Camden Town, would be superstars and Cleo would be making her own very different splash.

In 1967, having decided to swap music for theatre, she was nominated as most promising new actress after playing on the West End stage alongside Alec Guinness in Wise Child.

Young Cleo

Young Cleo

It was her first acting role and as breaks go it was pretty spectacular.  “I was waiting to get on to a drama course at the time but had approached an agent who put me forward for the part. It was a real baptism of fire but wonderful to work with Alec – he was so generous and supportive.”

Since then Cleo has been a regular fixture on stage and screen down the decades, becoming the first black actress to perform in a leading role at the National Theatre, in The National Health in 1969, and the first to appear as a character in a British soap, Crossroads, between 1970-72. That was as Meg Richardson’s adopted daughter Melanie.

She was also part of the Young Vic ensemble early on, going to Broadway with them, and went on to work in a host of regional theatres. Film credits include Sammy and Rosie Get Laid and Kidulthood.

She laughs again when recalling how her headteacher, on hearing of her plans to train as an actor,  told her there were no parts for “coloured actresses” in Britain.

“That was like a red rag to a bull, of course.”

But Cleo has never taken herself too seriously and perhaps that is the secret of her success. Her less than conventional childhood undoubtedly played its part, too.

Grandly christened Cleopatra, she was the daughter and granddaughter of professional dancers. Her mother, born in Yorkshire but of mixed race, counted politician Tom Driberg and composer Constant Lambert as among her close friends. Both somehow became Cleo’s godfathers and she attended the ballet regularly.

But an abiding early memory is going to watch Cinderella at the former Bedford Theatre in Camden Town. “That’s when I fell in love with theatre,” the mother-of-three recalls.

As a teenager she was given an unusually long rein. “My mother was very hospitable and would cook for my mates after a night out clubbing. Anyone living at our flat today would be amazed at who once walked through that front door – the Stones, the Hollies, Jimmy Page,  Long John Baldry…”

Cleo as Mary Seacole

Cleo as Mary Seacole

Her spirit of adventure has never dimmed. In 1996 she became joint artistic director of the Rosemary Branch Theatre, which operated from a room above a pub in Hackney producing indy plays and operas.

A few months ago, the reins were passed over to a new team but Cleo’s definitely not done yet.  Still flush from the successful run at the Edinburgh Festival of The Marvellous Adventures of Mary Seacole, her one-woman show about the Jamaican-born Crimea War nurse, she’s preparing for her next pub gig with her blues band,  the unforgettably named Honey B Mama and Friends, in which she sings and plays the harmonica.

“I’ve always loved the blues so I woke up one morning and decided to form a band,” she laughs again.

Inspired by the likes of Bessie Smith and Big Mama Thornton, her style is raunchy, she states, straight faced.

So have things changed for the better for black actors? It’s a question she’s been asked many times and the response is swift: “They have and they haven’t. There are more roles but still too many stereotypical ones, and we are not usually in the driving seat as casting directors and directors.”

In terms of acting as a profession, she believe it’s now weighted in favour of those whose parents can bankroll them through theatre school and the lean early years of a career.

“But if you want to do it, you still have to go for it,” she says. “If you aren’t getting the opportunities then you must create them for yourself.”

This article first appeared in the Review section of the New Journal Enterprises group of papers on October 7, 2016




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