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Getting to Know: Sidney James

All mentioned films in article
Not released
Not released

Forty-five years ago, a British comedy legend died on stage at a grand old theatre in the north-east of England. His name was Sidney James and he remains one of this country's best-loved film stars. In the latest entry in the popular Getting to Know series. Cinema Paradiso marks Sid's birthday on 8 May with a look back at the events that transformed a South African hairdresser into everyone's favourite everyman.

His laugh has been compared to everything from stones in a cement mixer to dirty water gurgling down a plughole. No one in the history of cinema has a more instantly recognisable cackle. You can tell when Sid James is on screen even with your eyes closed. But this 'rah, rah rah' was a late addition to the armoury of a character actor who never considered himself as a comedian. He was hopeless at telling jokes and used to clam up when anyone started improvising. Sid stuck to the script and insisted that everyone else did the same. Moreover, he expected his co-workers to be punctual, polite and professional and was renowned for confronting directors who tried to bully actors or crew members who got too fresh with the ingénues and extras.

While he was a model employee, Sid was also a bit of a bad lad away from the camera. He famously had a fling with Carry On co-star Barbara Windsor and had secret terms inserted into his contracts so that his long-suffering third wife, Valerie, never knew about the hidden payments he invariably handed straight to bookmakers. Colleagues attest that Sid rarely won, but he couldn't resist a flutter, a tipple or a flirtation. Yet, the posthumous revelations about this darker side have done little to diminish the public's affection for a jobbing actor who was equally at home on stage, radio and television and who racked up 116 feature credits, despite having a mug that he once claimed resembled scrambled egg.

A Sid of All Trades

By a curious quirk of fate, Solomon Joel Cohen was born on Hancock Street in the Hillbrow district of Johannesburg on 8 May 1913. He was the second son of Laurie Cohen and Reine Solomon, who had left London for South Africa some years earlier to pursue their music-hall careers and the five year-old Sollie briefly became part of the act. As Lou and Reine (who used the stage name James) spent much of their time on the road, Maurice and Sollie were raised by relations in the Natal town of Newcastle and it was here that Sollie became Sidney James so that a teacher at Hospital Hill Primary School could distinguish him from his cousin.

Unfortunately, Sidney wasn't a particularly apt pupil and he left school to join Reine at the Marie Tudor hairdressing establishment in Kroonstad in the Orange Free State, where she had worked since separating from Lou. In later years, Sid would tell reporters that he had drifted between jobs as different as diamond sorter, trainee electrician, boxer, dance instructor and wrestler. But he was a talented hairdresser and ran his own salon after his father-in-law had set him up in business following his marriage to Berthe 'Toots' Delmont in August 1936.

Despite Sidney becoming a father to Elizabeth, neither the salon nor the union lasted long, as he had a series of affairs after joining the Johannesburg Repertory Players. Around the time of his divorce in 1940, he began appearing in dramas and children's programmes for the South African Broadcasting Corporation. But the country was part of the British Empire and Sid was called up when war was declared and attained the rank of lieutenant while serving with an army entertainment unit known as The Amuseliers. He would relive these days in Michael Relph's comedy, Desert Mice (1959), which really should be available on disc.

While in uniform, Sid met and married Meg Williams and he resumed his acting career with the company run by the formidable Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies, who had played Queen Mary in Robert Stevenson's Tudor Rose (1936) and would go on to contribute menacing turns to Cyril Frankel's The Witches (1966) and Terence Fisher's The Devil Rides Out (1968). When Sid decided to spend his service gratuity on two boat tickets to Blighty, Ffrangcon-Davies gave him a list of contacts that might come in useful after the 33 year-old disembarked at Southampton on Christmas Day 1946.

Beginner's Luck

No sooner had Sid found digs in London than he started picking up work on radio and the stage. After debuting in the West End in Burlesque (1947), he made a splash in High Button Shoes (1948), which featured a young Audrey Hepburn in the chorus. He stole the show with Danny Green as the gangsters duetting on 'Brush Up Your Shakespeare' in Kiss Me Kate (1951) and confirmed that he was a star in the making as Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls (1953). The latter pair were filmed by George Sidney in 1953 and Joseph L. Mankiewicz in 1955, with Nathan being played by no less than Frank Sinatra.

A still from The Witches (1966)
A still from The Witches (1966)

Sidney and Sinatra had one thing in common. They didn't like hanging around on film sets and tried to nail scenes in single takes so that they could attend to more important things. In Sid's case, this meant consulting the racing form, although he was hardly in the studio long enough to need a break in some of his early assignments. Nevertheless, he soon started to land showier roles after making a promising bow in front of the camera in Oswald Mitchell's Black Memory (1947), as Eddie Clinton, the no-nonsense café owner in cahoots with teenage thug Johnnie Fletcher (Michael Medwin).

As chiaroscuro lighting suited his craggy boxer's visage, Sid became a fixture in postwar noirs like Harold Huth's Night Beat (1947), in which limping club pianist and coppers' nark Night-Life Nixon suffers a grisly end after he gets inside the head of femme fatale Jackie (Christine Nordern). James met an equally sticky fate in St John Legh Clowes's No Orchids For Miss Blandish (1948), as Ted the barman gets a bottle broken in his face during this infamously violent adaptation of a James Hadley Chase pulp novel that sees gangster Slim Grisson (Jack La Rue) menace the eponymous heiress (Linden Travers).

Production designer Hein Heckroth deserves a pat on the back for helping Sid get into the character of Knucksie in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Small Back Room by filling the bar at the Lord Nelson, where troubled bomb disposal officer Sammy Rice (David Farrar) comes to drown his sorrows, with photographs of the custodian at the height of his pugilistic powers. Almost growling his dialogue, James sounded like a Bow Bells Londoner and he remained in character as the scheming Rowton, who seeks to exploit the inexperience of speedway novice Bill Fox (Dirk Bogarde) to make a fast buck in Jack Lee's gritty graft saga, Once a Jolly Swagman (both 1949).

A still from No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1948)
A still from No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1948)

Sadly, it's not currently possible to see James's sterling performances as crime reporter Freddy Evans in Roy Ward Baker's Paper Orchid or yoga expert Henry Clavering and his alter ego Hodson in Francis Searle's The Man in Black (both 1949). But the progress that James had made as a screen actor in just three years is readily evident in Henry Cass's Last Holiday (1950), a droll snapshot of British class manners scripted by J.B. Priestley that stars Alec Guinness as George Bird, who takes a vacation at an expensive seaside hotel after being mistakenly diagnosed with a fatal disease. Among the clientele is the garrulous Joe Clarence, who has a working-class chip on his shoulder that prompts Sheila Rockingham (Beatrice Campbell) to declare him 'common as muck' when he tries to put on the airs and graces.

The scene in which Clarence offers Bird a job is a delight and demonstrates for the first time that James had a gift for comedy. Moreover, it gives a foretaste of the class divide japery that would make him such an effective foil for Kenneth Williams in the Carry Ons. He was very much the straight man to Jack Warner's feckless Irishman as New York lawyer John C. Moody in John Paddy Carstairs's Talk of a Million, while he showed himself to be no stranger to the seedy side of life in Frank Launder's Lady Godiva Rides Again (both 1951), in which he crops up late in proceedings as Lew Beeson, the flesh-peddling producer of the nudie show L'Amour the Merrier, who persuades aspiring starlet Marjorie Clark (Pauline Stroud) to drop everything in a series of provincial tableaux.

As if to confirm that James was now part of the British screen furniture, he took a cameo as the Great War sergeant handing out uniforms to the three Friese-Greene boys in John Boulting's The Magic Box, which was recently discussed in Cinema Paradiso's What to Watch series. But the 1951 feature that made Sid James a star was Charles Crichton's The Lavender Hill Mob, which brought about a reunion with Alec Guinness in an Ealing comedy that saw small-time crooks Lackery Wood (James) and Shorty Fisher (Alfie Bass) hook up with Bank of England clerk Henry Holland (Guinness) and his amateur accomplice Alfred Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway) in an attempt to smuggle stolen bullion out of the country in the form of Eiffel Tower paperweights.

The Busiest Man in British Cinema

A still from Lady Godiva Rides Again (1951)
A still from Lady Godiva Rides Again (1951)

James was pretty much ubiquitous in the mid-1950s. Indeed, director Ralph Thomas once claimed, 'It wouldn't be a British picture without Sid James being in it.' He started 1952 as Sergeant Body, the gruff, but soft-hearted courtroom copper who stirs his tea with his whistle in Basil Dearden's parole dramedy, I Believe in You, which can be rented from Cinema Paradiso on Volume 6 of The Ealing Studios Rarities Collection. This would be one of his last films for the studio before it closed and chief Michael Balcon formed Group 3 with documentarist John Grierson, whose 1929 classic, Drifters, was teamed with Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925) on a BFI disc, and underrated director John Baxter, who had notably adapted Walter Greenwood's social-realist novel, Love on the Dole (1941).

James would crop up in several Group 3 pictures, including John Guillermin's Miss Robin Hood, in which he played Sidney, the driver for Miss Honey (Margaret Rutherford) who is more interested in his knitting than in her plans to retrieve the whiskey formula that a distillery had stolen from her family. He's markedly less appealing in Lewis Gilbert's Emergency Call, as selfish fight promoter Danny Marks is determined that Tim Mahoney (Freddie Mills) goes into the ring rather than donate a rare blood sample that could save a young boy's life. When Mahoney fails to take a dive in the third, Marks gets his just desserts at the hands of Flash Harry (Eric Pohlmann). But there was no keeping Sid down and he bounced back as Ned Hardy, the ex-boxer with memorabilia behind the bar of the Golden Bull, the watering hole favoured by the crew of HMS Ballantrae in Compton Bennett's Atlantic convoy tribute, Gift Horse (all 1952).

There was nothing genial about the mine host Sid essays in Lewis Gilbert's Time Gentlemen, Please!, as the prudish and self-serving Eric Hace is deeply unhappy that Dan Dance (Eddie Byrne), the only unemployed person in the Essex village of Little Hayhoe, gets to live in the lap of luxury in the local almshouse. He's no more friendly as the cabby losing his patience after being messed around by highly strung parent-to-be Dougall (Richard Attenborough) in Henry Cass's Father's Doing Fine. But he's far more accommodating as Bernardo, the rascally undertaker helping Edward Mercer (Richard Todd) find the partisan who is to be rewarded for aiding the Allies during the war in Ralph Thomas's noir, Venetian Bird (all 1952), which afforded a rare villainous role to John Gregson.

A still from Time Gentlemen Please (1952)
A still from Time Gentlemen Please (1952)

Sid was cast as another Italian, Gino Rossi, in John Gilling's tense B movie, Escape By Night (1953), which really should be available on disc, as James gives the best non-comic performance of his career as the gangster hanging out in an abandoned theatre with a journalist who has promised to give him a fair hearing in return for an exclusive story. Released later the same year, Michael Anderson's Will Any Gentleman...? cast Sid as Hobson, the owner of a music-hall theatre who wants mild-mannered bank clerk Henry Sterling (George Cole) to honour a dodgy cheque that had been passed by his shifty brother, Charley (Jon Pertwee). He remained in bit-part territory for J. Lee Thompson's The Yellow Balloon, in which he plays Sydney, the East End barrow boy who has the gift of the gab with his customers and some choice words for the kids trying to steal his prize pineapple.

For the only time in his entire career, James was last billed in Lewis Gilbert's Cosh Boy, as the desk sergeant whose sole scene in a sensationalist tale of juvenile delinquency sees him question whether streetwalker Queenie (Hermione Gingold) is telling the truth about the items in her stolen handbag. He was equally underused as Hank Hanlon, the gum-chewing USAF buddy of unknowing bigamist Laurie Vining (Bonar Colleano) in Is Your Honeymoon Really Necessary? (1953), which is available from Cinema Paradiso in a double bill with another Maurice Elvey comedy, My Wife's Lodger (1952), which stars Diana Dors.

As Britain crowned a new queen (whatever happened to her?), Sid landed one of his juiciest roles of 1953 in Charles Crichton's The Titfield Thunderbolt, as steamroller driver Harry Hawkins backs the bus company seeking to put the local railway out of business and even uses his machine to haul the steam locomotive off the line. However, a wedding hint from Joan the barmaid (Gabrielle Brune) sees Harry change sides to confound the hissable Crump (Jack MacGowran) and Pearce (Ewan Roberts). Somewhat further down the bill, James kept popping up as Adams the penny-pinching fight promoter forever chomping on an unlit cigar in Basil Dearden's Ealing take on Ralph Peterson's stage play, The Square Ring (all 1953).

After somehow squeezing 18 films into two years, Sid managed another 10 in 1954, eight of which are available to rent on high-quality disc from Cinema Paradiso. First up was J. Lee Thompson's The Weak and the Wicked, which features James in a flashback, as Nellie Baden (Olive Sloane) reflects during a stint in a women's prison on the Christmas shoplifting spree that saw the entire family descend on a department store in order to pick up a few last-minute gifts. Husband Syd's exchange with the menswear clerk and his pay-off line when the rozzers ruin the festive spirit show why producers were beginning to realise that this versatile actor was a comic natural.

He confirmed these suspicions with a nice recurring bit as Harry in Basil Dearden's engrossing horse-racing drama, The Rainbow Jacket, as the owner of the racecourse snack bar takes every opportunity to grumble about his crummy business and his eagerness to sell up. John Guillermin presented Sid with another 'in and out' role in The Crowded Day (both 1954), in which the department store watchman pops up periodically to shake his head disapprovingly at the antics of the staff and customers of Bunting and Hobbs. This bustling multi-story saga is available from Cinema Paradiso as part of a double bill with Guillermin's Song of Paris (1952), which stars the ever-watchable Dennis Price.

A still from The Square Ring (1953)
A still from The Square Ring (1953)

Still taking every role offered to him, James barges into J. Lee Thompson's For Better, For Worse, as the foreman of the repo crew sent to collect the furniture of struggling newlyweds Dirk Bogarde and Susan Stephens. He's on screen slightly longer in Robert Hamer's Father Brown (both 1954), as Bert Parkinson, the inept thief who is rescued by G.K. Chesterton's sleuthing cleric (Alec Guinness) and given a job as the liveried chauffeur to Lady Warren (Joan Greenwood). Despite his conversion, however, Bert lets slip his admiration for Father Brown's master criminal nemesis, Gustav Flambeau (Peter Finch).

In case anyone had forgotten that Sidney James was also a very fine character actor, he gave them a timely reminder in Ken Hughes's The House Across the Lake, a simmering noir in which the wealthy and somewhat shady Beverly Forrest (James) befriends novelist Mark Kendrick (Alex Nicol) after they become neighbours. However, gold-digging wife Carol (Hilary Brooke) tilts her cap at the American stranger and resorts to extreme measures so that she can pursue him without the inconvenience of a wedding ring on her finger.

Unable to resist a script based on Ronald Searle's bestselling books about an anarchic girls' school, James was back on the wrong side of the law as Benny in Frank Launder's The Belles of St. Trinian's, the sidekick of Clarence, the ne'er-do-well brother of headmistress Millicent Fritton (both Alastair Sim), who is determined to protect a pupil whose sultan father is the owner of Arab Boy, the favourite for a big race that Clarence is bent on nobbling. Yet, the most significant film that James made in 1954 was David Paltenghi's Orders Are Orders, in which he plays Ed Waggermeyer, the Hollywood director who has come to Britain to shoot his 133rd masterpiece, a vulgar sci-fi opus being made on the cheap at an army base. Sid branded the picture 'a stinker'. But it enabled him to play alongside two undisputed comic geniuses, Peter Sellers as camp spiv Private Goffin and, as bandmaster Lieutenant Wilfred Cartroad, Tony Hancock, who was about to change Sid's fortunes for good and all.

A Sid Is Born

A still from Father Brown (1954)
A still from Father Brown (1954)

Writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson had been so impressed with James in The Lavender Hill Mob that they spent the next three years trying to create a character to suit him. They found what they were looking for in Sidney Balmoral James, the crafty Cockney wheeler-dealer who is forever trying to put one over on Anthony Aloysius St John Hanccok in the BBC radio sitcom, Hancock's Half Hour (1954-59). Initially, Sid shared the supporting duties with Bill Kerr, Kenneth Williams, Andrée Melly, Moira Lister and Hattie Jacques. But, once he joined Hancock at 23 Railway Cuttings, East Cheam, Sid became a key component of the show, especially when it started running concurrently on BBC television from 1956.

Cinema Paradiso offers users the chance to see the surviving episodes of the small-screen version of Hancock's Half Hour (1956-60), as well as the final series, Hancock (1961), which saw the Lad Himself go solo after he dispensed with Sid because he didn't want to be seen as part of a double act. He also asked Galton and Simpson not to write a part for James in Robert Day's classic film comedy, The Rebel (1961). Indeed, Sid's decade got off to a rotten start, as loyalty to Hancock prompted him to turn down the role of Fagan in Lionel Bart's West End musical, Oliver! (1960), which went on to earn Ron Moody an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe for his performance in Carol Reed's 1968 screen version.

Never one to turn down a pay cheque, Sid kept taking supporting roles in films as his hilariously slippery dealings with Hancock made him a star. In 1955, he appeared in Joe Macbeth, The Glass Cage and A Yank in Ermine , although none are currently on disc. The same is true of Anatole Litvak's The Deep Blue Sea , in which Sid got to co-star with Kenneth More and two-time Oscar winner Vivien Leigh in a poignant drama that was remade by Terence Davies in 2011, with Tom Hiddleston and Rachel Weisz.

The size of a role didn't seem to matter to James, who is on screen for a matter of moments as Ice Berg, the crooked jewellery seller in Carol Reed's adaptation of Wolf Mankiewicz's A Kid For Two Farthings. The same is true for his brief glimpse as a gambler dallying at the airport in Basil Dearden's Out of the Clouds because he hopes a two-shilling investment will yield a £2000 payout. He's also after a fat cheque in his scene-stealing turn as secondhand car salesman Harry Mason, who tells a touching tale of the previous owner of the 30 year-old banger he's trying to flog to Pa Grove (Edward Evans) in John Warrington's It's a Great Day (all 1955), a big-screen spin-off of the popular BBC series, The Grove Family .

A still from A Kid for Two Farthings (1955)
A still from A Kid for Two Farthings (1955)

He had more to sink his teeth into in William Fairchild's John and Julie, as Mr Pritchett refuses to get into the Coronation spirit after his son (Colin Gibson) sneaks off to London without permission to enjoy the pageant with his best friend (Lesley Dudley). Bellyaching about the police, the Post Office, the railways and the price that Joe Soap is going to have to pay for the jamboree, Pritchett eventually starts waving his Union Jack with the best of them.

James would reunite with the director on The Extra Day (1956), in which Barney West is first seen being gunned down while collecting money at a Punch and Judy stall. It turns out, however, that he's merely an extra in a new film by temperamental European director, Kurt Vorn (Laurence Naismith). Barney is just one of the background actors that assistant Joe Blake (Richard Basehart) has to inform about an unscheduled callback. But his story is the most heart-warming, as Barney hasn't won a fight in 15 years of boxing on the undercard and Joe arranges for him to come through his next bout with his Boat Race intact so that he looks his plug-ugly best on the set the next morning.

Having guested as Henry, the Master of the Nottingham Mint in the 'Custom Money' episide of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1955-59), James rubbed shoulders with Hollywood royalty in his next two pictures. Overcoming a fear of snakes, he more than holds his own alongside Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Gina Lollobrigida and Katy Jurado in Carol Reed's Trapeze, as Harry the snake charmer who is desperate to sell Baby, the python who has already killed his brother. Then, James got to show off his dance moves in Ralph Thomas's The Iron Petticoat (both 1956), as a Soviet agent named Paul is sent by Colonel Sklarnoff (James Robertson Justice) to abduct defector Vinka Kovalenko (Katharine Hepburn) after she lands a top secret plane in West Germany and becomes the problem of American captain Chuck Lockwood (Bob Hope).

The sight of Sid cutting a rug with a four-time Oscar winner is priceless. But more of the same followed in 1957, when he co-starred with Joan Crawford in The Story of Esther Costello and actually got to direct Charlie Chaplin on screen in A King in New York, which sees brash American advertising executive Johnson try to talk King Igor Shahdov into doing a commercial for Crown cheese before calling the shots on a spot for Crown whiskey. Before the year was out, Sid had also added Victor Mature to the roster, after they were teamed in John Gilling's Pickup Alley (aka Interpol), in which Joe the bartender (James) warns crime boss Frank McNally (Trevor Howard) that American narcotics agent Charles Sturgis (Mature) is on his tail following the drug death of his younger sister.

No wonder Tony Hancock was beginning to feel that Sid was raining on his parade. Yet, many of the credits he was amass were single-scene gigs like his cameo in Basil Dearden's The Smallest Show on Earth as Mr Hogg, who is furious that daughter Marlene (June Cunningham) has fallen pregnant while selling refreshments in a skimpy uniform at the Bijou Cinema run by Matt (Bill Travers) and Jean Spenser (Virginia McKenna). But such bit parts kept James in the spotlight and even led to exotic assignments like the trip Down Under for Leslie Norman's The Shiralee (both 1957), in which ocker Luke Sweeney and his wife Bella (Tessie O'Shea) offer sanctuary to swagman Jim Macaulay (Peter Finch) and his young daughter, Buster (Dana Wilson), as they cross the Outback looking for work.

This overlooked charmer can be rented from Cinema Paradiso on Volume 5 of The Ealing Studios Rarities Collection. By contrast, Val Guest's Quatermass 2 has a large cult following and Sid did his bit to provide a bit of comic relief as Jimmy Hall, the reporter on the lookout for a scoop when meteorites land on Winnerden Flats. Wisecracking in the classic hack manner, Sid winds up paying the ultimate price for getting the story that armed guards are keen to stop from spreading. A darker side to the bonhomie also emerges in Cy Endfield's Hell Drivers (both 1957) after Sid's trucker Dusty gets to play bar football with Sean Connery, cut a rug with frequent co-star Vera Day and tease Herbert Lom about sucking up to landlady Marjorie Rhodes. For all his joshing, however, Dusty still turns against Stanley Baker after he is branded a coward for ducking out of a dance hall punch-up.

There were lighter moments, however, as Sid got to sing as wandering minstrel Chantey Jack in 'The Hand of the Hawk', an episode in the ITV series, The Buccaneers (1956-57). Sadly, there's no chance to watch him hooking up again with Sean Connery (who is keeping company with Lana Turner) in Another Time, Another Place, but it is possible to see James pair up with compatriot Laurence Harvey in William Fairchild's The Silent Enemy, as bomb disposal expert Lieutenant Lionel Crabb (Harvey) fetches up in Gibraltar with Chief Petty Officer Thorpe (James), who resents being taken off active service in order to train the divers in Crabb's unit. Having initially been seen as a rulebook martinet, however, Thorpe turns out to be a hard nut with a soft centre who merely demands the best from his boys.

A still from Hell Drivers (1957)
A still from Hell Drivers (1957)

Sid remained in uniform in Henry Cornelius's Next to No Time, as Albert the cabin steward who comes to regret promising passenger David Webb (Kenneth More) that he can get him anything he wants when odd things start happening with the ship's clocks. James and More linked up again in Raoul Walsh's The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw, with the former guesting as the drunk riding with British gunsmith Jonathon Tibbs in a scene that makes lampooning reference to Thomas Mitchell's bibulous doctor in John Ford's Stagecoach (1939). And the duo's paths crossed again in Ralph Thomas's The 39 Steps, as Perce the lorry driver (James) offers Richard Hannay (More) a lift after he has been forced to disembark in an unconventional manner from the express on the Forth Bridge.

Sid made a good living from lightening tense situations, with his YMCA porter proving po-facedly unhelpful in showing Major Harvey (John Mills) to his quarters before unintentionally giving him a brilliant idea involving General Bernard Montgomery and lookalike M.E. Clifton James in John Guillermin's wartime reconstruction, I Was Monty's Double (1958). But his gambling habit often meant he accepted lucrative offers for a couple of hours' work, whether it was guesting as Spinner Burke in the 'Soho Serenade' episode of Shadow Squad (1957-59) or narrating the 1959 short, 'Market Place', which was one of the 500 items produced for the Rank documentary series, Look At Life (1959-69), and can be rented from Cinema Paradiso on Volume 7: Business and Industry.

Film-makers knew they could trust Sid to deliver on camera, although fewer offered him challenging parts after the shifty persona he had perfected on Hancock's Half Hour seeped into the national consciousness. It's very much to the fore in Mario Zampi's Too Many Crooks (1959), as Sid decides that Fingers (George Cole) doesn't cut the mustard as the leader of their gang following a botched attempt to kidnap Lucy Gordon (Brenda De Banzie) using a hearse. She is furious when she discovers that they were hired by her grasping spouse (Terry-Thomas) and becomes the brains of the outfit in turning the tables. Sid's disguised shtick as Inspector Wainright is inspired and it's tempting to think that Anthony Shaffer had it in mind when he wrote Sleuth, which was filmed in 1972 by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, with Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine as the Oscar-nominated stars.

In reuniting with Arthur Askey three years after Ramsbottom Rides Again (1956), James is on even more rascally form in Lance Comfort's Make Mine a Million, as Sid Gibson talks make-up artist Arthur Ashton into using his position at the National Broadcasting Corporation to slip an illegal advert for Bonko washing powder into a top-rated programme. This was the first time that Sid featured in the same film as Barbara Windsor, who had an uncredited bit as a switchboard operator fielding complaints after the phone lines light up.

The opportunist streak is also on display, albeit with a Spanish accent, in John Paddy Carstairs's Tommy the Toreador, as shady bullfight promoter Cadena doesn't care that Tommy Tomkins (Tommy Steele) is a British singer and not the matador he resembles. He does get to duet with the lookalike, however, with 'Watch the Birdie', allowing James to do a little hoofing and the odd ballet step. And there's more music on offer in John Gilling's Idol on Parade (both 1959), as Herbie the wheeler-dealer agent keeps booking gigs for Jeep Jackson (Anthony Newley) after he is called up for National Service.

Although it was adapted from William Camp's 1954 novel, Idle on Parade , this droll comedy cashed in on Elvis Presley's tour of duty with the US Army in West Germany and Sid would stooge for two more clean-cut rockers, Adam Faith in Gilbert Gunn's Loch Ness romp, What a Whopper (1961), and Joe Brown in Sidney Hayers's Three Hats For Lisa (1965), in which he gets to show off his variety talents in several numbers with Brown, Una Stubbs and French chanteuse, Sophie Hardy.

Mr Carry On

Sid had Ted Ray to thank for landing the role of Sergeant Frank Wilkins in Carry On Constable. Having impressed as the headmaster in Carry On Teacher (1959), Ray was all set to supervise the trio of new recruits at a suburban police station. But his withdrawal prompted producer Peter Rogers and director Gerald Thomas to offer the role to James as a neat piece of casting against type. It soon became clear, however, that the South African was the missing piece in the ensemble jigsaw and he was invited back to headline Carry On Regardless (1961) as Bert Handy, the boss of the Helping Hands agency that takes on tasks as different as hosting a wine tasting and babysitting a chimpanzee.

As the makers used colour for the first time in Carry On Cruising (1962), Sid was placed in charge of the S.S. Happy Wanderer for one last voyage so that Captain Wellington Crowther could run the rule over five new recruits. Back in monochrome, James was Charlie Hawkins in Carry On Cabby (1963), who devotes so much time to Speedee Taxis that he prompts neglected wife Peggy (Hattie Jacques) to set up GlamCabs in competition.

A still from Carry on Cruising (1962)
A still from Carry on Cruising (1962)

Commitments elsewhere meant that James wasn't available for every entry. But, as the series shifted away from the workplace comedies of screenwriter Norman Hudis and started focusing on Talbot Rothwell's movie parodies, Sid became a key component. He excelled as Marc Antony opposite Kenneth Williams's Julius Caesar and Amanda Barrie's Egyptian Queen in Carry On Cleo (1964), which made splendid use of sets and costumes left behind when Joseph L, Mankiewicz's Cleopatra (1963) decamped for Rome. Yet some claimed that James hit his franchise peak as Johnny Finger, the Rumpo Kid in Carry On Cowboy (1965), which boasted rootin' tootin' support from Williams as Judge Burke, Joan Sims as Belle the saloon keeper and Jim Dale, as sanitary engineer Marshal P. Knutt, who has gone to Stodge City to clean up the West.

Those in the know, however, will tell you that Sid's finest hour came as Sir Rodney Ffing rescued aristocrats from Revolutionary France in the guise of The Black Fingernail in Carry On Don't Lose Your Head , which was originally released without its prefix because of a contractual snafu. However, it was later added to the series along with Carry On Follow That Camel, which had to make do with Phil Silvers as Sergeant Ernie Nocker at Fort Soixante-Neuf, while James recuperated from a heart attack. Ever the trouper, however, he filmed the part of Charlie Roper in Carry On Doctor (all 1967) in a hospital bed during his convalescence.

A still from Carry on Cowboy (1965)
A still from Carry on Cowboy (1965)

Mercifully, Sid was in sufficiently rude health for Sir Sidney Ruff-Diamond to assume the post of the Governor of Kalabar in Carry On Up the Khyber (1968), in which Snowdonia stood in for the Himalayas and Joan Sims got a little plastered during an attack on the residency by the rebels led by Kenneth Williams's Khasi. James was in fine fettle once more in Carry On Again Doctor, as Gladstone Screwer arrives from the Beatific Islands with a potion that helps set up Dr Jimmy Nookie as the head of a fertility clinic. But Sid had a new sidekick in the form of Bernard Bresslaw in Carry On Camping (both 1969), as Sid Boggle and Bernie Lugg take their girlfriends to Paradise and become obsessed with Babs (Barbara Windsor) and her fellow Chayste Place finishing school students.

A new decade saw Bill Boosey guide Inigo Tinkle (Frankie Howerd) on an expedition to find the Oozlum bird in Carry On Up the Jungle before Sidney Bliss returned closer to home with his longtime paramour Sophie Plummett to spread a little happiness via the Wedded Bliss matchmaking agency in Carry On Loving (both 1970).

Cashing in on the popularity of Fred Zinnemann's A Man For All Seasons (1966), Charles Jarrott's Anne of the Thousand Days (1969) and Waris Hussain's Henry VIII and His Six Wives (1970), Carry On Henry (1971) perfectly cast Sid as Bluff King Hal, whose courtiers include Kenneth Williams as Thomas Cromwell, Terry Scott as Cardinal Wolsey, Joan Sims as Marie of Normandy and Barbara Windsor as her new lady-in-waiting, Bettina. After such Tudor hijinks, things were a bit more bog standard in Carry On At Your Convenience (1971), as Sid Plummer takes a welcome break from the incessant strikes at the lavatory factory where he's foreman by heading to Brighton on the annual works' outing.

A still from Carry on Henry (1971)
A still from Carry on Henry (1971)

In a rare return to his crafty Cockney persona, James essayed Sid Carter seeking to steal a consignment of contraceptive pills from the Finisham Maternity Hospital in Carry On Matron, while he couldn't keep his eyes of Sadie Thompkins (Barbara Windsor) while holidaying in the Spanish resort of Elsbels with wife Cora (Joan Sims) as chirpy pub landlord Vic Flange in Carry On Abroad (both 1972).

Many felt the series was beginning to run out of steam, but there was still plenty of zip in Councillor Sidney Fiddler's go-kart at the end of Carry On Girls, as he flees along Fircombe pier with Hope Springs (Barbara Windsor) after making a killing with a beauty contest. He also had plenty of fizz in the team's fourth and final festive frolic, which Cinema Paradiso offers users as part of the Carry On Christmas package. But he bade farewell to the franchise after revealing that the Reverend Flasher was really notorious highwayman Big Dick Turpin in Carry On Dick (1974), in which, for once, he is the one being pursued by his comely accomplice, Harriet (Barbara Windsor).

Cor, Blimey!

Sid James took Tony Hancock's rejection hard, commenting, 'I don't think Tony will be as funny without me. I know I won't be as funny without him.' But he was astute enough to know that there would be life after Railway Cuttings. The public certainly wanted to see more of Sidney Balmoral James and Galton and Simpson duly obliged by building a new sitcom around him. The first series of Citizen James (1960-62) was largely set in Charlie's Nosh Bar and revolved around Sid's dealings with Bill Kerr and Liz Fraser. However, when the writing duo departed to focus on the BBC comedy showcase that would launch Steptoe and Son (1962-74), the second and third series rather lost their way, despite the best efforts of Sidneys James and Tafler.

A still from Citizen James (1962)
A still from Citizen James (1962)

Following a stint as Sid Stone in Taxi! (1963-64), James forged an effective partnership with Peggy Mount in George and the Dragon (1966-68), as chauffeur George Russell and housekeeper Gabrielle Dragon in the employ of Colonel Maynard (John Le Mesurier). This proved to be Sid's last sitcom for the BBC and he decamped to Thames Television to join forces with Victor Spinetti in Two in Clover (1969-70), which sees office drones Sid Turner and Vic Evans quit city life for a new start down on the farm.

Being a Carry On regular also left plenty of time for stage work and other film assignments, which was just as well as Sid was only paid £5000 per picture. Yet, he worked with Rogers and Thomas on a number of occasions outside the series. In Watch Your Stern (1960), he guested as Chief Petty Officer Mundy, who is quick with a quip before he has his luxuriant beard removed so that Ordinary Seaman Blissworth can disguise himself as a professor in a bid to hide the fact that he's lost a top secret torpedo plan. James only had a couple of scenes in Raising the Wind (1961), but makes his customary impression alongside Lance Percival as copywriters Sid and Harry, who try to swindle budding composer Mervyn Hughes (Leslie Phillips) when he drunkenly sells them the 'Alexandra Waltz' as his own work.

Non-series outings became rarer as the decade went on, but Sid was always in demand. In George Pollock's And the Same to You (1960), he played promoter Sammy Gatt, who tries to get one over on boxing manager Wally Burton (William Hartnell), who is keen to arrange a fair fight for milksop Dickie Marchant (Brian Rix). The same year also saw James return to Searle country for Frank Launder's The Pure Hell of St. Trinian's, as Alphonse O'Reilly, the cowboy-hatted visitor to the infamous school who has arranged to take a party of sixth-form girls to Greece so that they can be abducted for an oil sheik's harem.

This may not be the most enlightened plotline, but Sid typically takes the curse off the sordid realities with his well-honed villainy. He's more genial in a couple of outings from 1961. In C.M. Pennington-Richards's Double Bunk, Sid the secondhand car salesman helps newlyweds Jack (Ian Carmichael) and Peggy (Janette Scott) recondition a houseboat and joins them on its maiden voyage with his girlfriend, Sandra (Liz Fraser). He's also a friend indeed in Pat Jackson's What a Carve Up!, as Syd Butler, the bookie roommate who accompanies Ernest Broughton (Kenneth Connor) to Blackshaw Towers on the Yorkshire Moors when he inherits the supposedly haunted pile from his uncle.

A still from Raising the Wind (1961)
A still from Raising the Wind (1961)

Having popped up in Val Guest's The Beauty Jungle (1964) in a silent cameo as himself judging the Butlin's gala in which aspiring model Janette Scott is competing, James returned to South Africa for what is probably the most overlooked film of his entire career. As a vehement opponent of apartheid, he was keen to headline Peter Prowse's Tokoloshe (1965), in which a small boy named Risimati (Saul Pelle) is delivered from being a sacrificial offering to a rain god and taken to the city, where he is protected by blind white man, Harry Parsons. This would be Sid James's last dramatic role and it's a shame that it's virtually been forgotten.

The same year saw him make his penultimate non-Carry On, although Gerald Thomas directed The Big Job, in which James is on corking form as George Brain, who emerges from a lengthy stretch in Wormwood Scrubs to discover that a police station has been built on the land where he had buried the £50,000 proceeds of a bank robbery. In order to retrieve the loot, he has to rely on doltish henchmen Dipper Day (Lance Percival) and Booky Binns (Dick Emery), as well as girlfriend Myrtle Robbins (Sylvia Syms). Standing in his way are a couple of contrasting coppers played by Jim Dale and Deryck Guyler.

By the early 1970s, James had begun to tire of playing lairy and lecherous characters and sought a vehicle in which he could play an ordinary family man. Scripted by Vince Powell and Harry Driver, Bless This House (1971-76) placed Sid Abbott in Howard Road in New Malden with wife Jean (Diana Coupland), workshy son Mike (Robin Stewart) and teenage daughter, Sally (Sally Geeson). It was just the kind of cosy comedy that the Alternative Comedians would later rail against, but its 66 episodes proved highly popular and spawned a 1972 feature spin-off, which was directed by Gerald Thomas and produced by Peter Rogers.

They were sufficiently impressed with Dave Freemans's adaptation to commission a Carry On script that was originally known as Carry On Carrying On. Sid was due to reunite with Bernard Bresslaw in a caravanning variation on Carry On Camping, but he had to be replaced by Windsor Davies when Carry On Behind was finally made in 1975, Sid was in Australia appearing in The Mating Season, a play that had been written specially for him by Sam Cree. He was 20 minutes into his umpteenth performance of this bawdy comedy when he collapsed and died at the Sunderland Empire on 26 April 1976.

A still from Carry on Camping (1969)
A still from Carry on Camping (1969)

Despite Donald Zec fondly dubbing him 'the Olivier of the cheese and pickles school of acting', the ensuing 45 years haven't exactly been kind to Sidney James's memory, as stories about his off-screen peccadilloes started to emerge. His affair with Barbara Windsor was raked over in Terry Johnson's 1998 National Theatre play, Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick, which the author directed for television as Cor, Blimey! (2000), with Geoffrey Hutchings and Samantha Spira reprising their stage roles, alongside a guesting Windsor, whose appearance was taken by many as affirmatory.

James was also made out to be boorish in Andy De Emmony's Fantabulosa! (2006), in which Ged McKenna was gleefully upstaged by Michael Sheen as Kenneth Williams. But impressionist Jon Culshaw reminded audiences of the Sid who had charmed the nation in 'The New Neighbour', an episode of Lost Sitcoms (2016), in which Kevin McNally followed Alfred Molina (Hancock, 1991) and Ken Stott (Hancock & Joan, 2008) in playing the troubled genius who could never understand Sid's motto that work, like life, is just a bit of a laugh.

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