De Beauvoir’s Cleo Sylvestre: ‘How I became a trailblazing black actress’

Cleo Sylvestre. Picture: Rupert Palmer

Cleo Sylvestre. Picture: Rupert Palmer - Credit: Rupert Palmer

​Actress Cleo Sylvestre is about to be given an award for trailblazing the way for black actors. She tells Emma Bartholomew how she abandoned working with the Rolling Stones for a career in theatre and TV

Cleo Sylvestre. Picture: Sophie Baker

Cleo Sylvestre. Picture: Sophie Baker - Credit: Sophie Baker

“It’s all I ever wanted to do really, right from when I was really young,” said Cleo Sylvestre explaining how she got into acting.

“Probably being an only child had something to do with it.

“I had friends but when I was at home I used to act out scenes because I didn’t have anyone to play with unless my mum played with me, and when I went to school, I suppose because I was the only black kid there, I used to imitate teachers to make people laugh,” added Cleo, a mother-of-three who lives in De Beauvoir.

Her first job came when she was just seven-years-old, in a film called Johnny on the Run. She nearly went into singing instead though, releasing a single To Know Him Is to Love Him in 1964 backed by The Rolling Stones.

Five years later when founder Brian Jones was asked to leave, Cleo agreed to rehearse with his new blues band – but soon abandoned music to concentrate on her theatre and television work.

Since then her extensive CV has seen her working on Grange Hill, Coronation Street, Doctors and as a regular in Crossroads, and with the likes of Ken Loach and Idris Elba.

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She was the first black British actress to have a leading role at the National Theatre in The National Health, and to appear on Broadway with The Young Vic.

After the death of her husband Ian Palmer in 1995 she began running the Rosemary Branch fringe theatre for 20 years. She has cooked breakfast for the homeless for the past decade at the Night Shelter at St Peter’s in De Beauvoir and is an Independent Custody Visitor in Hackney. On top of all that three years ago to mark her 70th birthday she set up a blues band Honey B Mama and Friends. They are playing their monthly gig at the Rosemary Branch in De Beauvoir on Friday, and at the Mildmay Club in Newington Green on Saturday.

Then on Sunday she’s set to receive Screen Nation’s top award recognising how she’s been a trailblazer for black actors at a red carpet reception in Mayfair.

“I was dumbstruck when I received a phone call telling me I’d won it,” said Cleo. “I’m very honoured, when you see all the previous people who have received it.”

On Monday it’s back to the grind for the busy bee, with rehearsals for Our Town by Thornton Wilder, which opens next month at Regent’s Park’s Open Air Theatre.