FORGET what you heard on Spitting Image, Donald Sinden doesn't spend his spare time begging to be given a knighthood. Certainly you might find him on his knees when he's not at work, but he's far more likely to be in a small country church than at Buckingham Palace.
Not that he'll necessarily be praying, mind you. He might be checking out the poppyheads or even the sedilia . . . it's the architecture, you see, that attracts Donald to the Almighty's rural havens. So enthusiastic is he about church buildings that at last count he'd visited more than 4,000, and now he's written a book about them too.
It's a big help being an actor if you're obsessed with country churches, says Donald. The great thing is you get to film on location so when the director says "cut" you can wander off round all the local churches.
This chance to see churches up and down the land was no doubt enormously useful in researching his book, The English Country Church. But Donald's love of churches dates back long before
his career started: it was his maternal grandfather, Albert Fuller, who first introduced them to him.
"My grandfather died when I was a boy, but I remember him vividly. Half an hour spent in his company was a voyage of discovery: I always came away with my imagination stimulated," says Donald.
"We used to spend hours looking round churches, and he would point out all the fascinating things about them. He knew an enormous amount, and he taught me a great deal."
Repaying the debt to this immensely important early influence was a large part of the reason for doing this book, which is of course dedicated to his grandfather's memory.
"Before I got round to putting the book together, I thought pretty much every book that needed to be written on churches had been. But then I discovered most of them are out of print, or faily academic, learned tomes. What I have tried to do in this
one is transmit my enthusiasm onto paper", says Donald.
He's managed, in fact, to do just that. People who associate the word "tester" with an exam and "cusp" with astrology charts will nonetheless find much to amuse, interest, even amaze them within the covers of Donald Sinden's book.
It's true that the chapter titles don't strike one as too promising, with off-putting phrases like "The Perpendicular Style" and "Neo-classicism and Baroque." But persevere, for it really is a chatty book well worth a browse. And it's certainly not academic . . . take the bit on Norman columns, for example, which he describes as having "stood there patiently bearing a vast load on their heads for 900 years" which leads on to the suggestion: "Give them a hug — they love it. All you can do with Early English columns is marvel: can those slender shafts really carry any weight? You would soon know if you took one away. They remind me of a very severe Victorian aunt, carrying a tightly rolled umbrella and wearing a hat of waxed flowers."
One thing Donald isn't overkeen on in graveyards is the new Italian stones, which do not harmonise well, he says, with mellow English stones around them. He isn't a fan of anything recent, really: his grandfather thought good church architecture stopped in 1538, and Donald seems inclined to agree.
The English Country Church by Donald Sinden is published by Sidgwick & Jackson, price £13.95).
Churches and cathedrals built this century though, he finds particularly distasteful. He thinks nothing of Liverpool, and considers Coventry "a disaster." What about the benefits of new churches, though, like the fact that the people get a better view of what's going on and have more chance to participate? "Oh, I don't think that's a good thing at all," he exclaims. "I much prefer the people further away from the altar — I'm all in favour of the mystery of it all, you see."