Cleo Sylvestre, 74
Cleo is an actress in film, stage and television. Most recently, she starred in Alan Bennett’s play Allelujah! at the Bridge Theatre. She also performs the Blues as Honey B Mama.
“For as long as I can remember, I wanted to act. One of my godfathers was Constant Lambert, a conductor at Sadler’s Wells and I remember seeing various productions there. I did quite a bit of performing at school, but when I was leaving, my head teacher told me there were no coloured actresses in Britain. She thought she was acting in my own interests, as what she said was actually true, but thankfully it just made me even more determined.
Casting is far more inclusive now. When I started off, you’d basically play nurses or prostitutes. That was the range that you had, although the colour thing was secondary to the class thing for me. Having been brought up in a council flat near Euston, I saw class as a bigger struggle. I felt like that was the issue that had to be addressed – and that once that struggle was tackled, everything else – sexism, racism – would be dealt with as well.
As far as my age goes, work seems to be ok. Middle age was actually hardest for me as it coincided with me having a family. I didn’t have kids until my early thirties and then my husband died when I was 48. We had three children together and they were my priority. It was important to try to remain optimistic for their sake. I was lucky that I had a close knit group of friends around me too. I never married again, but I haven’t ruled it out. It’s really difficult though, because a lot of men my age are only interested in someone a lot younger.
The best thing about getting older is that I can say what I bloody well like. It’s great! I was far more circumspect when I was younger. Now if I see something I don’t like, I’ll say so. Obviously I won’t be rude to people or try to upset them but I am just far more honest in how I react to people and things. It’s quite liberating.
Just before my 70th birthday I suddenly decided I would like to do something with my passion for Blues music. I’d met the Rolling Stones years back and made a record with them before they were famous, but acting had been the main thing for me, so singing lay dormant. As I got older, I started to think I didn’t want to be lying on my death bed thinking ‘if only.’ So I got up and sang at a party and then the band invited me to come and sing with them. Honey B Mama developed out of that.
I feel sad now that you can walk along the street and nobody is looking up. Everybody is staring at their phones. People are disconnected from nature. Most inner city children have no idea what it’s like to hear birdsong or to look up and see the stars – all they can relate to is this phone in front of them. My mum was bought up in rural Yorkshire so when I was a kid she would take me out on the Green Line bus which went out from London to the countryside. We’d go and collect elderflowers or blackberries. I think that appreciation of nature has stayed with me, I have my own little back garden in London which is a haven. I get so much pleasure from it.
One of the most important things I’ve learnt over the years is to look at the simple things in life and appreciate the pleasure they give you.
Happiness is about giving.”