Today is the birthday of actor Sid James (1913) who was born Solomon Joel Cohen 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 the UK 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 12th August 1936 and they had a daughter, Elizabeth, born in 1937. His father-in-law, Joseph Delmont, a Johannesburg businessman, 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. Toots divorced him in 1940.
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. Initially, he worked in repertory before being spotted for the nascent British post-war film industry.
James made his first credited film appearances in Night Beat and Black Memory (1947), both crime dramas. He played the alcoholic hero’s barman in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Small Back Room (1949). His first major comedy role was in 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 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) as Harry the snake charmer, 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 with 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 Hancock’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 (1960–1962) series. Sid James was now consistently taking the lead role in his television work.
James became a leading member of the Carry On films team, originally to replace Ted Ray, who had appeared in 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. His trademark “dirty laugh” was often used and became, along with a world-weary “Cor, blimey!”, his catchphrase.
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 by Phil Silvers. On 13th 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 series 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 26th 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 – who were unaware of what was happening – laughed, believing the events to be part of the show. He was taken to hospital by ambulance, but was pronounced dead. He was 62.
Here are some clips of Sid James in roles that are not the stereotypic Cockney con man:
I wouldn’t call him a great actor, but he did have a certain range and a certain naturalness when playing ordinary people.
The East End of London is noted for its pie and eel shops. I’ve already mentioned traditional London pie and mash, so here’s a video on jellied eels.