Sid James (born Solomon Joel Cohen; 8 May 1913 – 26 April 1976) was
a South African-born British character actor and comedy actor.
Appearing in British films from 1947, he was cast in numerous small
and supporting roles into the 1960s. His profile was raised as Tony
Hancock's co-star in Hancock's Half Hour, first in the radio series
and later when it was adapted for television and ran from 1956 to
1960. Afterwards, he became known as a regular performer in the Carry
On films, appearing in nineteen films of the series, with the top
billing role in 17 (in the other two he was cast below Frankie
Howerd). Meanwhile, his starring roles in television sitcoms continued
for the rest of his life. He starred alongside
Diana Coupland in the
1970s sitcom Bless This House until his death in 1976.
Remembered for a lascivious persona in the Carry On films, with the
Snopes website describing him as "the grand old man of dirty
laughter", he became known for his amiability in his later
Bruce Forsyth described him as "a natural at being
On 26 April 1976, while touring in The Mating Season, James suffered a
heart attack while performing on stage at the Sunderland Empire
Theatre; he died in hospital an hour later. Some, including comedian
Les Dawson, claim to have seen the ghost of James at the theatre, and
subsequently refused to appear at the theatre again.
1 Early life
2.1 From 1947 to 1964
2.2 Carry On films
2.3 Later career
5 Personal life
8 Further reading
9 External links
James was born Solomon Joel Cohen, on 8 May 1913, to Jewish parents,
in South Africa, later changing his name to Sidney Joel Cohen, and
then Sidney James. His family lived on Hancock Street in Hillbrow,
Johannesburg. Upon moving to Britain later in life, he claimed various
previous occupations, including diamond cutter, dance tutor and
boxer; in reality, he had trained and worked as a hairdresser.
It was at a hairdressing salon in Kroonstad, Orange Free State, that
he met his first wife. He married Berthe Sadie Delmont, known as
Toots, on 12 August 1936 and they had a daughter, Elizabeth, born in
1937. His father-in-law, Joseph Delmont, a
bought a hairdressing salon for James, but within a year he announced
that he wanted to become an actor and joined the Johannesburg
Repertory Players. Through this group, he gained work with the South
African Broadcasting Corporation.
During the Second World War, he served as a lieutenant in an
entertainment unit of the South African Army, and subsequently took up
acting as a career. He moved to Britain immediately after the war,
financed by his service gratuity. According to rumour, Sid had an
affair with the daughter of an important member of Johannesburg
society; his decision to move away from South Africa was partly
because he was "advised" to leave due to the possible
controversy. Initially, he worked in repertory before
being spotted for the nascent British post-war film industry.
From 1947 to 1964
James made his first credited film appearances in Night Beat and Black
Memory (1947), both crime dramas. He played the alcoholic hero's
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Small Back Room
His first major comedy role was in
The Lavender Hill Mob
The Lavender Hill Mob (1951): with
Alfie Bass, he made up the bullion robbery gang headed by Alec
Guinness and Stanley Holloway. In the same year, he also appeared in
Lady Godiva Rides Again
Lady Godiva Rides Again and The Galloping Major. In 1953, he appeared
as Harry Hawkins in The Titfield Thunderbolt, and also had a major,
starring role in The Wedding of Lilli Marlene. In 1956, he appeared in
Trapeze (1956), a circus film which was one of the most successful
films of its year, and he played Master Henry in "Outlaw Money", an
episode of The Adventures of Robin Hood. He also had a supporting part
as a TV advertisement producer in Charlie Chaplin's A King in New
York, a non-comic supporting role as a journalist in the
science-fiction film Quatermass 2, and he performed in Hell Drivers
(all 1957), a film with Stanley Baker. The next year, James starred
Miriam Karlin in East End, West End by Wolf Mankowitz, a
half-hour comedy series for the ITV company Associated Rediffusion.
Set within the Jewish community of London's East End, the series of
six episodes was transmitted in February and March 1958, but plans for
further episodes were abandoned after a disappointing response. For a
while though, it had looked as if his commitment elsewhere might end
his work with Tony Hancock, one of the most popular television
comedians of the time.
In 1954, he had begun working with
Tony Hancock in his BBC Radio
series Hancock's Half Hour. Having seen him in The Lavender Hill Mob,
it was the idea of Hancock's writers, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, to
cast James. He played a character with his own name (but having the
invented middle name Balmoral) who was a petty criminal and would
usually manage to con Hancock in some way, although the character
eventually ceased to be Hancock's adversary. With the exception of
James, the other regular cast members of the radio series were dropped
when the series made the transition to television. His part in the
show now greatly increased and many viewers came to think of Hancock
and James as a double act.
Feeling the format had become exhausted, Hancock decided to end his
professional relationship with James at the end of the sixth
television series in 1960. Although the two men remained friends,
James was upset at his colleague's decision. The experience led to a
shift away from the kind of roles for which he had become best known.
He remained the lovable rogue but was keen to steer clear of criminal
characters - in 1960 he turned down the part of Fagin in the original
West End staging of
Oliver! for that very reason . Galton and
Simpson continued to write for both James and Hancock for a while, and
the Sidney Balmoral James character resurfaced in the Citizen James
Sid James was now consistently taking the lead
role in his television work. Taxi! (1963–64) was his next series. A
comedy-drama rather than a sitcom, it was created by Ted Willis, but
although it ran to two series, the programme was not particularly
Carry On films
James became a leading member of the Carry On films team, originally
to replace Ted Ray, who had appeared in
Carry On Teacher
Carry On Teacher (1959). It
had been intended that Ray would become a recurring presence in the
Carry On series, but he was dropped after just one film because of
contractual problems. James ultimately made 19 Carry On films,
receiving top-billing in 17, making him one of the most featured
performers of the regular cast.
The characters he portrayed in the films were usually very similar to
the wise-cracking, sly, lecherous Cockney he was famed for playing on
television, and in most cases they bore the name Sid or Sidney,
including, for example, Sir Sidney Ruff-Diamond in Carry On Up the
Khyber. His trademark "dirty laugh" was often used and became, along
with a world-weary "Cor, blimey!", his catchphrase. His laugh can be
heard here . (Similarly, other regular members of the Carry On cast
abbreviated their real first names in the films:
Bernard Bresslaw was
Barbara Windsor Babs.)
There were Carry On films in which James played characters who were
not called Sid or Sidney:
Carry On Constable
Carry On Constable (1960), in which he
played Sergeant Frank Wilkins;
Carry On Henry
Carry On Henry (1971), a parody of the
TV series The Six Wives of Henry VIII;
Carry On Abroad
Carry On Abroad (1972), in
which James's character was named Vic Flange; and Carry On Dick
(1974), a parody version of the legend of the highwayman Dick Turpin.
In Henry and Dick, James played the title roles, while in Carry On
Cleo he played Mark Antony. In Carry On Cowboy, he adopted an American
accent for his part as "The Rumpo Kid". According to Adrian
The cast make valiant attempts to maintain American accents, with the
most convincing belonging to—surprisingly—Sid James, who made no
attempt to disguise his accent in any other film, either before or
after this one.
Rigelsford was mistaken, as James had previously played an American
(with an American accent) in the films
Orders Are Orders
Orders Are Orders (1954), A
Yank in Ermine (1955) and Chaplin's
A King in New York
A King in New York (1958).
In 1967, James was intending to play Sergeant Nocker in Follow That
Camel, but was already committed to recording the TV series George and
the Dragon (1966–1968) for ATV, then one of the ITV contractors.
James was replaced in
Follow That Camel
Follow That Camel by the American comic actor
Phil Silvers. On 13 May 1967, two weeks after the filming began of
what eventually became an entry in the Carry On series, James suffered
a severe heart attack. In the same year in Carry On Doctor, James was
shown mainly lying in a hospital bed, owing to his real-life health
problems. After his heart attack, James gave up his heavy cigarette
habit and instead smoked a pipe or an occasional cigar; he lost
weight, ate only one main meal a day, and limited himself to two or
three alcoholic drinks per evening.
Meanwhile, his success in TV situation comedy continued with the
Two in Clover
Two in Clover (1969–70), and Bless This House (1971–1976)
as Sid Abbott, a successful enough series in its day to spawn its own
film version in 1972.
On 26 April 1976, while on a revival tour of The Mating Season, a 1969
farce by the Northern Irish playwright Sam Cree, James suffered a
heart attack on stage at the Sunderland Empire Theatre. Actress Olga
Lowe thought that he was playing a practical joke at first when he
failed to reply to her dialogue. When he failed to reply to her ad
libs, she moved towards the wings to seek help. The technical
manager (Melvyn James) called for the curtain to close and requested a
doctor, while the audience (unaware of what was happening) laughed,
believing the events to be part of the show. He was taken to hospital
by ambulance, but died about an hour later at the age of 62.
James was cremated and his ashes were scattered at Golders Green
James has been the subject of at least five tribute shows: a 1996
one-off tribute, The Very Best of Sid James; as the focus of a 2000
episode of the series The Unforgettable; a 2002 episode of Heroes of
Comedy; Channel Four's With Out Walls, Seriously Seeking Sid in the
late 1980s; and in 2013, the BBC's The Many Faces Of Sid James.
James married three times. He and his first wife divorced in 1940,
mainly as a result of his many relationships with other women; it was
a pattern which continued throughout his life. In 1943, he married a
dancer, Meg Sergei, née Williams (born 1913). Five years later they
had a daughter, Reina, before divorcing on 17 August 1952.
On 21 August 1952, James married Valerie Elizabeth Patsy Assan (born
1928), an actress who used Ashton as her stage name. In 1954, they had
a son, Steve James, who is now a music producer. During the latter
part of their marriage, they lived in a house partly designed by James
himself, called Delaford Park, situated in Iver, Buckinghamshire, a
location close enough to
Pinewood Studios to allow him to return home
for lunch while filming. During his marriage to Valerie, he had a
well-publicised affair with Carry On co-star
Barbara Windsor lasting
more than 10 years. The affair was dramatised in the 1998
Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick
Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick and its 2000 television
adaptation Cor, Blimey!. James's obsession with Windsor was such that
it was rumoured that her then husband
Ronnie Knight had all of James's
furniture rearranged at home as a subtle threat and, on another
occasion, that he had put an axe in James's floor, but close
friends of the time, including
Vince Powell and William G. Stewart,
have dismissed the suggestions.
James was an inveterate and largely unsuccessful gambler, losing tens
of thousands of pounds over his lifetime. His gambling addiction was
such that he had an agreement with his agent, Michael Sullivan, under
which his wife was not told how much he was being paid, so that a
portion could be set aside for gambling.
Sid James filmography
^ Roberts, Andy. "Beyond Carry On:Sid James's 20 best - and weirdest -
films". Telegraph.co.uk. The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 29 June
^ "Died Onstage". snopes.com. Retrieved 18 May 2014.
^ Forsyth, speaking on the TV programme Heroes of Comedy, 2001
^ "Theatre Stage An Old Haunt For Sid?" (newspaper). The Shields
Gazette. Retrieved 15 March 2008.
^ "Ghostly tale". Sunderland Echo. 28 July 2008. Retrieved 3 May
^ "The Classic Carry On Film Collection". DeAgostini. 2003.
^ also reported in a
BBC Radio 4 tribute (to be broadcast in
celebration of the centenary of his birth) as short-term jobs before
he 'settled down' as a trainee in his mother's hairdressing salon
^ a b "Sid James: Cockney Rebel book review". Den of Geek.
^ Cliff Goodwin Sid James: A Biography, London: Virgin Books, 2001,
^ Ross, Robert.
Sid James - The Authorised Biography. JR Books.
p. 87. ISBN 978-1-906779-35-1.
^ Cliff Goodwin Sid James: A Biography, London: Virgin Books, 2001,
^ Goodwin Sid James, p.125
Adrian Rigelsford (1996). Carry On Laughing — A Celebration.
London: Virgin Books. p. 151. ISBN 1-85227-554-5.
^ Goodwin, Cliff Sid James: A Biography p. 177
^ "The Night
Sid James Died On Stage". Sunderland Echo. Retrieved 3
^ "Famous names whose final stop was Golders Green crematorium". The
Independent. 16 March 2010. Retrieved 1 July 2017.
^ "Audio Engineers". A Sharp Recording Studio.
^ "Barbara Windsor: My secret flings with George Best and a Bee Gee".
Daily Mail. 8 October 2010.
^ "The Sid and Babs carry on". BBC News. 22 April 2000.
^ a b Goodwin, Cliff. Sid James: A Biography. Virgin Books.
^ Heroes of Comedy, Thames Television, 2002
Sidney James at Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
Sid James on IMDb
Sid James at Aveleyman
ISNI: 0000 0003 6185 482X
BNF: cb134974467 (data)