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What a Carry On/ Legends: Sid, Kenny, Charlie and Hattie (Part 1) ~ Sid James

May 15, 2015

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Sid James:

the bloke with the most?

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One of my favourite ever tweets is the work of a chap named @davelee1968, whom back in March 2012 shared with the world that he was “Watching Sid James riding a GoKart on a pier being chased by an angry mob and women in bikinis. It’s what makes Britain Great.” For anyone particularly au fait with the Carry On series, this Tweeter was quite clearly (if a little ironically) referring to the final scene in Carry On Girls (1973), in which Sid’s beauty pageant in the fictitious seaside resort of Fircombe-on-Sea has gone disastrously, er, tits up, thus he’s scarpering from the scene – as well as chasing after a similarly escaping Barbara Windsor (of course).

To be honest, however familiar you are with the Carry Ons, it’s an enduring and fitting image. It’s perfectly representative of the Sid James of the public consciousness – the middle-aged; sex-driven; Babs Windsor-pursuing; unavoidably rather ugly; absurdly, nay inexplicably lucky; cheeky Cockney bloke. But is it actually fitting? Who was the real Sid James? In this first of four articles to look at the quartet of fantastic, fascinating Carry On cast greats (which will see each of them enter this blog’s ‘Legends’ lounge) we look at the series’ leading man – and answer the question: was Sid James the bloke with the most? The bloke who got the most? The bloke who, like his persona, enjoyed it all most?

Before we start, it may be only fair to warn you that, if you have always assumed the Sid of the Carry Ons was more or less the Sid of real life, you’ll be in for a few surprises. Indeed, let’s get surely the biggest surprise out of the way first. Sid James wasn’t a Londoner. He wasn’t even an Englishman. Or a Brit. In fact, he didn’t set foot on UK soil until he was 33-years-old. Yes, really.

He was born in May 1913 under the name Soloman Joel Cohen to (yes, you got it) Jewish parents and was mostly brought up by relatives in the deprived Hillbrow neighbourhood of South Africa’s Johannesburg, while his parents toured a vaudeville act. Probably unsurprisingly, given the rough nature of his early surroundings, he liked to talk in later life of having tried out different masculine professions, such as a boxer and a diamond cutter, but possibly suggesting he developed an eye for the ladies from the very beginning, he also tried his hand as a dance tutor at a studio he ran himself, but was most successful at training and then working as a hairdresser at a salon his mother set up on her return to town.

Indeed, it was at a salon in the town of Kroonstad that he met his first wife, Berthe Sadie ‘Toots’ Delmont; they married in 1936, had a daughter (Elizabeth) the following year and Toots’ father bought a hairdresser’s salon for his son-in-law. Yet, Sollie (who, partly thanks to a teacher clearing up a confusion over nicknames involving his elder brother Maurice, had decided thereafter he’d be called ‘Sidney James’) wanted a different future. Ironically, one not unlike that of his parents, whose absence had caused resentment in the young Sid. So, not only did he turn his back on hairdressing, he also turned his back on his wife; his first marriage lasted just four years. It’s been suggested that, even then, the reason for this relationship’s breakdown was Sid’s womanising (he sired two children with other women), but one wonders whether there was more to it than that. Having given up the salon for the theatre – he joined the Johannesburg Repertory Players, which led to radio acting gigs with the South African Broadcasting Corporation and a stage lead in Of Mice And Men – it’s clear that not just Sid’s amorous desires, but his dreams and ambitions lay elsewhere.

All the same, Sid’s abandonment of his young bride and child was the last straw for her wealthy father (whom apparently ‘put a price’ on our man’s head), so he decided to cut his losses and join the army. And, coinciding as this did with the outbreak of World War Two, it actually aided his performing career – as it did for later British comic contemporaries such as The Goons, Tommy Cooper and fellow Carry On-ers Kenneth Williams and Kenneth Connor. For, after a stationing with the South African Tank Corps in Abysinnia, Sid was ordered (yes, really) to join the Entertainment Unit, made a corporal and proceeded to put on shows for his fellow troops. During this time, he was caught under heavy fire at the notorious Siege of Tobruk and was eventually promoted to the rank of staff sergeant. (Note: he would go on to portray many a working-class, sergeant-like, mid-level authority figure in years to come)

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Fun and games: Sid speeds away from the scene of the crime in Carry On Girls (left); living up to his working class hero brand by lending his identity to a pub game flogged as a ’70s family toy (right)

Around this time he acquired himself a second wife, dancer Meg Sergei, and come the war’s end and his decommission, the couple’s showbiz ambitions saw them leave their homeland for the glamour of London. In fact, so the legend goes, it was on hearing that an acting acquaintance of theirs named Larry Skikne had landed himself a grant for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) that they decided to relocate to the Smoke – Larry Skikne would eventually carve out more than a decent thesping career under a stage name that may (or may not) have been dreamt up by Sid… Laurence Harvey.

Sid and Meg arrived in the UK on Christmas Day 1946 and, amazingly enough, within days he’d landed himself not just an agent but a small role as a gangster in the crime flick Black Memory (1947). Indeed, by the end of the year he’d appeared in five films as well as in a radio drama; the following January he starred in his first play, Burlesque, which arrived at Her Majesty’s Theatre in the West End with an extra scene explicitly written to expand Sid’s role. The work was starting to flow and in the summer he made his debut on the relatively new medium that was television; days later he appeared on the box again as the lead in drama two-parter The Front Page.

By the time Sid featured in a major supporting role in the classic Ealing comedy hit The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), he’d already starred in 14 movies and was becoming a familiar face on TV and a recognisable voice on the radio. Specialising in playing tough guy-esque, Cockney-ish small-time crooks (and often in comedy), he was carving out a fine niche for himself; not bad for a Saffer who’d only been out of the army and in the country for five years. If only his private life could have gone so well. Despite having a daughter together in 1947 (named Reina, whom would go on to become an author and actress), Sid and Meg’s marriage had fallen apart and, this time, it appears his affairs can really only be blamed for the break-up. Not least because they seemed to have driven Meg to the bottle. The couple divorced and in 1952 he married 19-year-old actress Valerie Assan (whom used ‘Ashton’ as her stage-surname) and with whom he’d been characteristically, er, carrying on.

Work-wise, though, Sid’s life continued to go from strength to strength. So much so that the next stepping stone he took could be said to be the greatest of his entire his career, for it was the one that made him a household name. Ironically, it was also one he was far from comfortable with, at least initially. As has been noted, Sid had certainly done and thus was used to radio work, but he’d never done comedy on the radio – certainly not for a big-time project. And filling out a supporting berth in a BBC sitcom built around established comic star of the airwaves Tony Hancock was the big-time, all right.

Hancock’s Half Hour debuted in May 1954 and went on to run for six series, coming to an end in November 1961. One of the very first examples of a British sitcom, it offered listeners a 30-minute-long sketch, a willfully stripped-down step away from the variety-style sketch-and-song-filled comedy shows radio had previously delivered, such as Educating Archie (1950-58) – whose huge success had won Hancock his own show – and later, of course, Beyond Our Ken (1958-64) and Round The Horne (1965-68). Written by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson (whom would later achieve just as much success with TV’s Steptoe And Son), the show focused around the observations and diatribes of a misanthropic comedian (a down-on-his-luck version of the real Hancock), supported by several characters (some of whom were played by future Carry On legends Kenneth Williams and Hattie Jacques) and included one Sidney Balmoral James, a petty criminal type whom often succeeded in implicating Hancock’s anti-hero in schemes, and in so doing usually conned him.

A warped take on Sid’s roguish persona, this character’s popularity in the runaway success that was Hancock’s Half Hour saw his star soar. Not least because he was the only cast member to make the transition with Hancock from the radio show to the just as well received TV adaptation (1956-60). Indeed, the lack of much of a supporting cast in this version saw Hancock and Sid come to be seen as a double act in the public’s mind. According to Moira Lister, a co-star on the radio show: “from the start he [Hancock] was very neurotic and worried about everything. It was never a relaxed and happy show. Sid, on the other hand, was relaxed and easy going … Because Sid was un-neurotic, he was able to cope with Tony’s neurosis and was probably a very good balance for him, both in and out of the studio”.

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“He never resorted to any tricks at all and he never upstaged anyone. He was a kid at heart. In Carry On Cowboy I’d find him behind the scenery twirling a six-gun and trying to practice a fast draw. And he always liked to gamble. He would run a sweepstake every day based on how many minutes of film we’d shoot”
~ Carry On director Gerald Thomas on Sid James

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Nonetheless, it didn’t last – and maybe couldn’t. Hancock hadn’t earned his neurotic persona for nothing; like so many comedians before and since, he was a depressive, sadly fuelled by drink and, one has to suspect, his decision to cut Sid out of the TV show and go it alone for one final (albeit no less successful) series – renamed simply Hancock (1961) – had more than a little to do with the inner demons he constantly battled. Apparently he didn’t tell his colleague and pal of so many years himself; he left it to the BBC brass to do so. Still, Sid clearly put the experience and Hancock behind him by moving on with other projects – most of which boasted him as lead player.

In truth, he had actually been poached away from the Beeb in 1958 to headline ITV’s comedy series East End, West End, in which he played a Cockney ducker-and-diver. The series hadn’t been a great success and with no second series in the offing Sid had been free to continue on Half Hour. When he was dropped from that show, though, Aunty was determined its TV rival wouldn’t step in again, so had Galton and Simpson dream up a new sitcom for its star. Citizen James (1960-62) cast Sid as an inveterate gambler named, er, Sidney Balmoral James. By the writers’ own admission, James was indeed simply playing his Half Hour role in a different TV show. Yet, co-starring future co-Carry On-er Liz Fraser as his girlfriend, Sid enjoyed popular success with Citizen James; it ran for three series and from the second series on even saw his character become something of a people’s champion.

Burned as he had been with East End, West End, however, Sid had been far from sure his future lay with TV, so before Citizen James he’d tried something new, namely singing and dancing in his supporting turn in the Tommy Steele-headlined movie musical Tommy The Toreador (1959). Given the film appears to be all but forgotten now, it’s fair to say it wasn’t a stonking success, but it shows that Sid was willing to stretch himself and do something different. In fact, throughout the ’50s he’d combined radio and TV work with appearances on the big screen, having played supporting roles in another Ealing classic The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953), Hammer horror sequel Quatermass 2 (1955), classic thriller Hell Drivers (1957) and even the Burt Lancaster/ Tony Curtis Hollywood blockbuster Trapeze (1956).

However, the most notable film from this era in which Sid was cast – and this time in the lead – was the one that turned out to be arguably the most important of his career. Now a reliable, dependable, versatile screen lead, he was called on to replace radio comedy star Ted Ray, whom (owing to a dispute between rival film studios) wasn’t available to return for the latest movie in a line of comedy smash hits. The movie was Carry On Constable (1960) and Sid’s casting in it shifted him in a new irresistible direction – an upward curve towards utter iconoclasm. An audio interview recorded in 1972 (listen to it at the bottom of the page) reveals that Sid never expected  to become a lead actor, let alone a film star, but once he appeared in Constable there was no way back.

Like the three Carry Ons that had preceded it, this police-pastiching flick was huge at the UK box-office and made the series’ producer Peter Rogers and director Gerald Thomas realise they now had on their hands a de facto lead for their talented and hugely popular troupe of comic thesps (Kenneth Williams, Charles Hawtrey, Hattie Jacques, Joan Sims and Kenneth Connor). Vying variously with Williams, Sid became arguably the series’ star attraction for the rest of its run. In total, he’d go on to appear in 19 of the silly, bawdy but often very funny Carry Ons; receiving top billing in every one. However, despite what anyone may say, he didn’t always play the same character. Make no mistake about it, over the course of the movies (and as befitting the needs of the series through the tumultuous social changes of the ’60s and ’70s), Sid’s Carry On persona certainly evolved. Well, if that’s the right word for it.

And it’s here that we collide with the Sid James legend or, to be more precise, the is-it-or-isn’t-it? obfuscation of the real Sid thanks to the big screen Sid occurs. In his early Carry Ons (Constable, RegardlessCruising and, to some extent, Cabby), he’s the put-upon authority figure, pulling his hair out at the ineptitude of those he’s lumbered with overseeing. Come the burgeoning sexual revolution of the mid-’60s, though, and definitely from Carry On Cleo (1964) onwards, he’s the randy, canny, inexplicably irresistible bloke with the unmistakeable ‘yak-yak-yak’ laugh who’s always chasing skirt – and, thanks to being variously successful at it, something of a peculiar fantasy figure for working class middle-aged men up and down the land. So, ensconced in the ’60s and drifting into the ’70s as we now are, was there a genuine blurring between the real Sid and this Sid we love so much? Well, possibly.

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Trouble and strife: a happy (?) Sid and wife Valerie at Tommy Steele’s wedding in 1960 (left); detail from the 1973 Christmas TV Times cover – Sid was carrying on with Babs in real-life at the time too 

The Sid of this era, having to earn a living for himself and his family (especially considering how badly the Carry Ons paid, even though it seems he was paid far better than most of the other regulars), was also a permanent star of the small screen, seamlessly moving between hugely popular and softly socially conscious domestic sitcoms in which he usually played a fairly straight, booze, football and gambling-friendly dad character – appearing opposite Peggy Mount in ITV’s George And The Dragon (1966-68), alongside Victor Spinetti in the BBC’s Two In Clover (1969-70) and, of course, in ITV’s fondly recalled Bless This House (1971-76), the latter of which was so successful it even spawned a 1972 feature film. Yet, the real Sid wasn’t a beacon for dull domesticity; by all accounts he was just as much the charming lothario he’d always been; only his third and final wife decided to put up with his bed-hopping.

Judging by her her memoirs, though, it seems there was one particular conquest that almost broke the camel’s back and, eventually and rather tragically, broke Sid himself. And, fueling the legend and aiding the blurring, it was the one he oh-so memorably chased in so many of his Carry Ons – just like in those movies, Barbara Windsor was a real-life obsession with Sid James. After they first appeared together in Carry On Doctor (1967) – the one in which Sid remains in his hospital bed for almost the entire duration; actually the result of him suffering from a recent heart attack, which was also the reason why he smoked a pipe in character thereafter – Sid simply couldn’t get the effervescent Ms Windsor (forever typecast as ‘Babs’, the chesty, perky Cockney bird as much up for how’s your father as a mere laugh) out of his mind and pursued her for years.

Was his pursuit of her as blatant, pathetic and cack-handed as it is in the marvellous Carry On Camping (1969)? Who knows, but its seductive to think so. Eventually, she relented and they had an affair in the early to mid-70s – around the time of the filming of the aforementioned Carry On Girls (1973) and Carry On Dick (1974); indeed, the chemistry between them in those two flicks seems pretty palpable, it must be said. Windsor has since said that she hoped if she slept with him once that would be an end to it, but it seems his infatuation was too strong, leading to him after some time being warned off by her then gangster husband Ronnie Knight. Which, contemporary sources suggest, was the beginning of the end for the brokenhearted Sid – he more or less ‘gave up’.

Carry On Dick, coming as it did just as the series entered its irrevocable decline, was Sid’s final, timely foray in the series and really his final professional foray (although between 1969 and ’75 there would be a few Carry On specials and a couple of series broadcast by ITV). He lived for another two years, finally succumbing to another heart attack that saw him actually die on stage during a performance in Sunderland; the smoking, boozing, gambling and, well, shagging having finally caught up with him it seems at the young age of 63.

Sid’s was undoubtedly a life of pursuing and getting what he wanted – a sort of successful version of all the aspirational but thwarted everyday men he played – yet his popular persona that’s been burned on to the public’s collective retina for so long belies the will to succeed he called on, the hard work he put in and the sheer talent he demonstrated throughout his long and varied career. Far too easy to overlook or even dismiss, Sid James is in fact a complex nest of thorny contradictions as well as Carry On delights; a bloke who so often we feel like we see when we look in a mirror – and even if that’s not who he really was, it’s who he’ll always be, ‘yak-yak-yakking’ back at us forever more.

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