A sometime ladies' hairdresser and diamond cutter, Sid James is one of the best-loved figures in British comedy. Most famous for the Carry On movies and his appearances in Tony Hancock's radio and television shows, he also played many other comic and serious parts on film and TV and enjoyed a fifty-year stage career. A notorious gambler and womaniser in real life and on screen, the man who came to epitomise the Cockney rogue was actually a South African with Jewish roots.
Sidney Joel Cohen was born in South Africa
, on May 8, 1913
. His parents were in music hall
), and he made his stage debut aged ten. However, initially he wasn't very interested in showbusiness and went through a range of other jobs. Sid worked as a diamond cutter and polisher for 5 years; as a hairdresser; in fairground sideshows; and singing and dancing onstage. Come World War II
, he joined a South African regiment of the British Army
, and he spent most of his time organising entertainment for the troops.
Comes to Britain
After the war, Sid moved to London
with his demob
money, arriving Christmas Day 1946. Initially he worked in rep theatre
, and performed in musicals such as Kiss Me Kate
and Guys and Dolls
. He soon found work in film, mostly as crooks or occasionally policemen in crime movies, and got a toe into the nascent British television industry, which had been shut down during the war: he played Hildy Johnson
in a 1948 TV version of The Front Page
. Another early small-screen role was 1951's Here's Television
, a sketch show marking Frank Muir
and Denis Norden
's debut as writers for TV. However, what made his name were two films for Ealing Studios
which are still viewed as classics today: The Lavender Hill Mob
(1951) and The Titfield Thunderbolt
These roles led to James being cast in 1954 opposite Tony Hancock in the radio show Hancock's Half Hour, written by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson; the show made the transition to television in 1956, with Sid the only cast member apart from Hancock to carry over. He worked with Hancock for 5 years, also appearing on sketch show Hancock's Forty-Three Minutes in 1957; however the increasingly-paranoid star eventually sacked Sid from his show (there are stories that Hancock was jealous of the laughs Sid was getting).
The success of Hancock brought further television roles, with his first starring part coming in another sitcom, East End - West End (1958). This costarred Miriam Karlin and was written by Wolf Mankowitz; Sid played a Jewish Londoner trying to get money however he could. He returned to Galton and Simpson's scripts for Citizen James (1960-1962): here he played a gambler getting involved in dubious schemes, but in later episodes he developed a social conscience and became a campaigning figure. The show costarred Bill Kerr and Liz Fraser. Sid also played two episodes of comedy sketches for The Sid James Show (1961).
He continued to appear in films in this period. Notwithstanding Carry On Cleo, the closest he got to Shakespeare was probably in Ken Hughes' adaptation Joe Macbeth (1955) as Banky (based on Banquo). He was never likely to make it in Hollywood, but used his carnival experience in a supporting performance in Carol Reed's Trapeze (1956) with Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis. He also appeared in Cy Endfield's tough British noir Hell Drivers (1957), and had a major serious role in Val Guest's science fiction horror Quatermass 2 (written by Nigel Kneale, produced by Hammer).
He took a few serious roles on television too, notably the drama Taxi! (1963-4) where he played a London cabbie.
Sid is today probably best known for his appearances in the Carry On films, a series of low-budget unsophisticated comedies which were directed by Gerald Thomas
and produced by Peter Rogers
for Anglo-Amalgamated Productions
. The series began with Carry On Sergeant
in 1958, but James made his debut in Carry On Constable
(1960), going on to appear in 19 films (20 if you count the theatrically-released anthology That's Carry On
Usually he played a roguish figure trying to escape a battle-axe wife to pursue nubile young women, and his cackling laugh became a trademark of the films. His best roles included the taxi company owner in rivalry with wife Hattie Jacques in Carry On Cabby (1963), as Mark Antony in Carry On Cleo (1964), and imperialist adventurer Sir Sidney Ruff-Diamond in Carry On Up the Khyber (1968).
A heart attack in 1967 meant his role in Carry On Doctor was smaller than usual, and he spent much of the film in bed. The later films such as Carry On At Your Convenience saw a movement away from lechery to pipe-and-slippers parts. Nonetheless, he followed the series almost to the bitter end, his last film being Carry On Dick (1974).
There were a number of attempts to transfer the success of Carry On to television. Sid appeared in 3 of the four festive Carry On Christmas specials between 1969 and 1973 for Thames: the first two were spoofs of A Christmas Carol and Treasure Island and the last a collection of historical-themed sketches. In 1975, Carry On Laughing tried to adapt the film format to TV with a series of half-hour stories; James appeared in the first four episodes: The Prisoner Of Spenda, The Baron Outlook, The Sobbing Cavalier and Orgy and Bess. The names probably say it all.
The films also profoundly affected his life in another way: he had an affair with costar Barbara Windsor for about 20 years. James was popular with most of the Carry On team - except for Kenneth Williams with whom relations were never less than frosty.
Bless this House
Sid continued making other films at the same time as the early Carry Ons. He stayed with Gerald Thomas for much-loved crime comedy The Big Job
(1965), which featured many of the Carry On team in a story about criminals who bury their loot only to return years later to find there's a police station built on top of their hiding place. Earlier, A Weekend with Lulu
(1962) saw him in similar antics with Bob Monkhouse
, Leslie Phillips
, Kenneth Connor
and top pianist Russ Conway
. He popped up briefly in Three Hats for Lisa
(1965) and had a supporting role in dismal James Bond
spoof Where The Bullets Fly
(1966). After this he made fewer films, but returned to his homeland for the South African supernatural drama Tokoloshe
(1971), where he played opposite Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi
In his later years, with the Carry On series sliding into ruin, he again made his mark in television, managing to adapt his roles as he grew older. He played the traditional Sid persona in George and the Dragon (1966-1968) - a lecherous chauffeur called George Russell working for a retired colonel (John Le Mesurier) and in constant conflict with housekeeper Gabrielle Dragon (Peggy Mount). Although it sounds incredibly dated, it was very popular at the time, and the quality of the cast speaks for itself.
This was followed by Two In Clover (1969), with Sid and Welsh actor Victor Spinetti as two mis-matched city-dwellers who move to the countryside to get back to basics. He also appeared in a festive one-off All This and Christmas Too (1971), taking a Bless This House-ish role alongside frequent co-star Kenneth Connor.
His only television program which compares in fame to Hancock was Bless This House (1971-1976). In this ITV domestic sitcom, he played a mature family man with pipe and slippers, rather than a skirt-chasing rogue. His character Sid Abbott was a travelling stationery salesman with 2 children (initially teenagers), and a wife, Joan, played by Diana Coupland. The show was hugely successful with viewers and is notable in British TV history because producer William G. Stewart made it on on an American model with different writers penning different episodes rather than one or two writers turning out an entire series. It was created by Vince Powell and Harry Driver, who wrote many scripts, but Carla Lane (later to write Butterflies and Bread) also contributed to early episodes, and many other writers were involved along the way.
As was common for sitcoms of the day, Bless This House spawned a 1972 spin-off film, directed by Carry On helmer Gerald Thomas and produced by Rank. This sees the Abbotts contending with snobbish new neighbours, and features such comedy staples as Robin Askwith, Wendy Richard, Molly Weir and Frank Thornton.
Carrying On No More
Sid's personal life was complicated by financial problems, womanising and health trouble: a chronic gambler, he borrowed money from friends and was frequently in debt to the tax man
. His health had been in decline since the late 1960s, and in early 1976 Barbara Windsor finally broke off their relationship (she was married to East End gangster Ronnie Knight
at the time).
It was inevitable that all this would catch up with him. On April 26, 1976, he was at the Sunderland Empire in the north-east of England for the first night of the play The Mating Season, which had already proved very successful for him in Australia. He suffered a heart attack on stage and died on the way to hospital.
He is commemorated by a plaque outside his former home in Gunnersbury Avenue, London, but a more amusing memorial is the highly-acclaimed play Cleo, Camping, Emmannuelle and Dick by Terry Johnson (Dead Funny, Insignificance) which tells the story of the relationship between Sid James, Barbara Windsor and Kenneth Williams. It premiered in 1998 with Antony Sher as Sid, and was adapted for television in 2000 with the title Cor Blimey!, a funny and touching production starring Geoffrey Hutchings as Sid and Samantha Spiro as Babs.
Sid was married three times, to Berthe Sadie Delmont, Meg Williams (from 1943 to 1952), and Valerie Ashton (from 1952 to his death).
This list is large but not comprehensive. Note that he was often billed as Sidney James
or occasionally Sydney James
Major television appearances
"Guide to Comedy".