Dame Sybil THORNDIKE DBE (1882-1976)

Sybil Thorndike
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THIS IS YOUR LIFE - Dame Sybil Thorndike, actress, was surprised by Eamonn Andrews at the BBC Television Centre during a recording of the Prologue to Henry VIII.


Sybil began her acting career at the age of 21, touring the United States with the actor-manager Ben Greet's Shakespearean Repertory Company. On her return to England she became a leading figure in Annie Horniman's Repertory Company in Manchester.


She spent much of World War I at the Old Vic Theatre playing virtually every female role in Shakespeare. In a career highlight she created the title role of Shaw’s Saint Joan which the playwright had written with the actress in mind.


“Crikey!”

Dirk Campbell, Dame Sybil's grandson, recalls his experience of This Is Your Life in an exclusive interview recorded in April 2013

Photographs of Dame Sybil Thorndike This Is Your Life (click images to enlarge)

Sybil Thorndike biography

Sybil Thorndike's son, John Casson, recalls This Is Your Life in his biography of his parents, Lewis & Sybil, A Memoir by John Casson...


It was bad luck for me that of the two of her children who were away over the ocean, and could therefore be brought into the programme as a shock surprise, Ann in Canada and I in Australia, Ann was the nearer.


I don’t think it is always realised what a shock such appearances can be, especially to older people. They showed her shots of Ann in Canada. Suddenly Ann walked in and Sybil said afterwards she thought it was some new form of three-dimensional projection.


I must say I felt a long way away when I was asked to record a two-minute message on a tape knowing that the rest of the family were all having a surprise meeting together.


Sybil of course carried it off superbly, but somehow they both felt awful, in different ways, that Lewis had known about it and had had to keep it a secret from her. They have always hated secrets from each other. Lewis had quite a bad feeling of guilt about it, which added to his more and more frequent bouts of depression.

Sybil Thorndike biography

In her biography of Thorndike, writer Elizabeth Sprigge recalls This Is Your Life...


On October 10th she appeared on BBC television in This Is Your Life, the programme which, unknown to the protagonist, invites people to meet on the screen the celebrity in whose life they have played a part.


Sybil was invited to the studio, as she thought, simply to record the moving Prologue to Henry VIII and the heartbreaking speeches of Queen Katharine. This she did superbly. Hearing those speeches, delivered with consummate grace, at a recent replay of the programme, viewers and technicians were as moved as the original audience. On this evening in 1960, Eamonn Andrews suddenly appeared.


“Hullo,” said Sybil, friendly and surprised.


Eamonn Andrews congratulated her on her performance, then explained that it was not the real reason for her being there, and handed her a large volume entitled This Is Your Life.


“Oh crikey!” Sybil exclaimed, words that are joyfully remembered by the planners of the programme. But it really was a shock to her, and she could scarcely forgive Lewis, who soon appeared to talk of their happy life and endless arguments, for having kept the secret so well.


Her brother Russell came to recall older memories, with Jenny Hyman of those early musical days, a postmistress from the Rhondda Valley, Joseph Kirby, who had taught Sybil to fly in Alice, and a member of the staff from the Leper Colony near Hong Kong.


Fellow actors came to add their tributes, John Casson broadcast from Melbourne and a film showed Ann’s children in Canada, after which she herself dramatically appeared, flown over for the occasion. The programme had a dream-like quality with its anachronistic dives into the past, the young old and the old young again.

programme details...

  • Edition No: 133
  • Subject No: 133
  • Broadcast: Mon 10 Oct 1960
  • Broadcast time: 7.30-8.00pm
  • Recorded: Mon 10 Oct 1960 5-5.30pm
  • Venue: BBC Television Theatre
  • Series: 6
  • Edition: 4

on the guest list...

  • Sir Michael Redgrave
  • Sir Lewis Casson - husband
  • Natalie Kent (Agnes Carter)
  • Annie Jones
  • Sir Ralph Richardson
  • Joseph Kirby
  • Ann Todd
  • Sir John Gielgud
  • Russell Thorndike – brother
  • Ann Casson – daughter
  • Recorded tributes:
  • Deidre O’Connor
  • Irene Hanford
  • Tan Thiam Hock
  • John Casson – son
  • Filmed tributes:
  • Emlyn Williams
  • Raj Kumari Amrit Kaur
  • Teresa – granddaughter
  • Dirk – grandson
  • Tom – grandson
  • Ben – grandson

external links...

production team...

  • Researcher: Nickola Sterne
  • Writer: Nickola Sterne
  • Director: Michael Goodwin
  • Producer: T Leslie Jackson
names listed in bold indicate subjects of This Is Your Life
Series 6 subjects: Leonard Cheshire > G F Bennett > David Sheppard > Sybil Thorndike > Clarence Wolfe > Charles Coward > T E B Clarke > Helene Jeanty-Raven > Cyril Smith > Victor de Spiganovics > Bill Hartley > Ellen Martha Field > Anthony Deane-Drummond > John Mills > Richard Bancroft > Freddie Mills > William Simpson > Alan Herbert > Madame Vacani > Elizabeth Ambridge > Robert Fawcus > Flora Robson > Edward Chad Varah > James Zarb > Maryan Rawicz & Walter Landauer > James Chipperfield > Anthony Kimmins > Thomas Cosmo Jones > Jessie Matthews > Helen Wilson > Charlie Chester > Brunel Cohen > Godfrey Winn > Billy Wright