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FEATURES: Black History Month - Actress Cleo Sylvestre

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Published: 7 October, 2016


Cleo Sylvestre - She sang with the Stones, and forged a career on stage and screen

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, 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. 

Cleo Sylvestre pictured in 1964 with The Rolling Stones

Cleo Sylvestre – pictured in 1964 with The Rolling Stones

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.   

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 – adopted daughter Melanie – in a British soap, Crossroads, between 1970-72. 

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 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…”  

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 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.”



Until October 31
#IamIrish exhibition about the lives and experiences of mixed-race Irish people. London Irish Centre, 50-52 Camden Square, NW1 9XB. More info:
0207 916 2222. Free 
Thursday October 6 
Black Abolitionists in 19th century Britain. The likes of Ellen and William Craft and Frederick Douglass are brought back to life in  this evening of talks and performance. The British Library, Conference Centre, 96 Euston Road, NW1 2DB; 7-9pm. Entry £8+concs. Booking required: 01937 546546, 
Saturday October 8 
Resistance or Defence? A look back at the 1985 uprisings sparked off by the deaths following police raids of Cherry Groce in Brixton and Cynthia Jarret in Tottenham. With Stafford Scott, community leader. Black Cultural Archives, Windrush Square, SW2 1EF; 6.30-9pm. Free
Saturday October 8  Augustown. Award-winning author and poet Kei Miller discusses his latest novel based on the true story of the 1920s Jamaican folk hero, Alexander Bedward. Brixton Library, Brixton Oval, SW2 1JQ; 7pm. More info: 0207 926 1056. Free 
Saturday October 8  
Chibundu Onuzo discusses her book, The Spider King’s Daughter, which she wrote when she was 17. Brixton Library, Brixton Oval, London, SW2 1JQ; 12pm-1.30pm. More info: 0207 926 1056. Free 
Saturday October 8 
Seize the time: Celebrating 50 years of the Black Panther Party through three major feature documentaries. Wood Green Central Library, 187-197A High Road, N22 6XD; 10am-4pm. Secure free ticket via Eventbrite:
Monday October 10  
Belle. Film inspired by the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, daughter of a slave who was raised in Kenwood House by Lord Mansfield, the lord chief justice whose judgments helped end slavery in England. Homerton Library, Homerton High St, E9 6AS; 6-8pm. More info: 0208 356 1690. Free, no booking required
Tuesday October 11 
Jemima & Johnny plus Q&A. Rare chance to see this award-winning 1966 film set in Notting Hill, which follows the friendship of two small children, one the son of a white supremacist, the other the daughter of Caribbean immigrants. London Metropolitan University, Room 119, Central House, 59-63 Whitechapel High St, E1 7PF, 5pm–7.30pm. Secure free ticket via Eventbrite:  
Tuesday October 11 
Black Paris: Race and Culture in the City of Light. The story of African Americans like Josephine Baker who left the US to create the jazz age in Paris between the wars. Hornsey Library, Haringey Park, N8 9JA; 7pm-9pm. More info:  0208 489 1118. Free ticket via Eventbrite:


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