Published: 7 October, 2016
by ANGELA COBBINAH
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.
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.