May 082019

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.[10] 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.

May 092018

The figure who later became Mr. Punch made his first recorded appearance in England on this date in 1662, which is traditionally reckoned as Mr Punch’s UK birthday. The diarist Samuel Pepys observed a marionette show featuring an early version of the Punch character in Covent Garden in London. It was performed by Italian puppet showman Pietro Gimonde, a.k.a. “Signor Bologna.” Pepys described the event in his diary as “an Italian puppet play, that is within the rails there, which is very pretty.” The Punch and Judy show has roots in the 16th-century Italian commedia dell’arte.

The figure of Punch is derived from the Neapolitan stock character of Pulcinella, which was anglicized to Punchinello. Punch’s wife was originally called “Joan.”

In the British Punch and Judy show, Punch wears a brightly colored jester’s motley and sugarloaf hat with a tassel. He is a hunchback whose hooked nose almost meets his curved, jutting chin. He carries a stick (called a slapstick) as large as himself, which he uses upon most of the other characters in the show. He speaks in a distinctive squawking voice, produced by a gadget known as a swazzle or swatchel which the professor (puppeteer) holds in his mouth. This gives Punch a vocal quality as though he were speaking through a kazoo. Other characters do not use the swazzle, so the professor has to switch back and forth while still holding the device in his mouth.

In the early 18th century, the marionette theater starring Punch was at its height, with showman Martin Powell attracting large crowds to both his Punch’s Theatre at Covent Garden in London and earlier in provincial Bath. Powell has been credited with being largely responsible for the form taken by the drama of Punch and Judy.

Mr Punch was extremely popular in Paris and, by the end of the 18th century, he was also playing in Britain’s North American colonies, where even George Washington bought tickets for a show. However, marionette productions were expensive and cumbersome to mount and transport, presented in the back rooms of taverns, or in large tents at England’s yearly agricultural event. In the latter half of the 18th century, marionette companies began to give way to glove-puppet shows, performed from within a narrow, lightweight booth by one puppeteer, usually with an assistant, or “bottler,” to gather a crowd and collect money. These shows might travel through country towns or move from corner to corner along busy London streets, giving many performances in a single day. The character of Punch adapted to the new format, going from a marionette who said outrageous things to a more aggressive glove-puppet who could do outrageous—and often violent—things to the other characters. About this time, Punch’s wife’s name changed from Joan to Judy.

The mobile puppet booth of the late 18th and early 19th century Punch and Judy glove-puppet show was originally covered in checked bed ticking or other inexpensive cloth. Later Victorian booths were gaudier, particularly those used for Christmas parties and other indoor performances. In the 20th century, however, red-and-white-striped puppet booths became iconic features on the beaches of many English seaside and summer holiday resorts. Such striped cloth is the most common covering today.

A more substantial change came over time to the show’s target audience. The show was originally intended for adults, but it changed into primarily a children’s entertainment in the late Victorian era. Former members of the show’s cast ceased to be included, such as the Devil and Punch’s mistress “Pretty Polly,” when they came to be seen as inappropriate for young audiences. Modern British performances of Punch and Judy are no longer exclusively the traditional seaside children’s entertainments which they had become. They can now be seen at carnivals, festivals, birthday parties, and other celebratory occasions.

Here is a modern performance in Brighton:

Two manifestations of Punch and Judy are of particular interest to me. First is the use of Mr Punch as the central character in Punch magazine which first appeared in 1841 at the height of the Punch and Judy show’s popularity with adults. Mr Punch was, for decades, a central figure in the magazine’s cartoons lampooning social behavior.

Second is the movie, The Punch and Judy Man (1963) written by and starring Tony Hancock ( ). The movie was Hancock’s second, and last, movie after The Rebel, and did not garner great reviews (as The Rebel had done) because audiences were used to Hancock as a cantankerous bachelor, and in The Punch and Judy Man he is married, although equally discontented. I have always ranked The Punch and Judy Man high on my list of favorite movies because of its social commentary and satire pertinent to English culture of the early 1960s.

Since the Punch and Judy show was, and still is, a fixture at English seaside resorts, a seaside recipe is in order. I always have at least one fish and chip dinner when I am on the South Coast and usually get cockles, whelks and/or mussels in vinegar as well as a snack. The days are long gone when I could get an Orange Maid ice lolly that I used to enjoy as a little boy, so now I usually settle for an ice cream – honeycomb if I can find it. Deviled whitebait with fresh tartare sauce is also a fav. Here’s a recipe for you to make it at home (if you can find whitebait – a collective term for the immature fry of fish, typically between 1 and 2 inches long, which can find more easily in Europe than elsewhere).

Deviled Whitebait


For the tartare sauce

300 gm mayonnaise
80 gm shallot, peeled and finely diced
60 gm capers, finely diced
60 gm cornichons, finely diced
25 gm parsley, finely chopped
25 gm tarragon, finely chopped
25 gm chervil, finely chopped
salt and white pepper

For the fish

1 kg fresh whitebait
250 gm plain white flour
1½ tbsp hot smoked paprika
1 tbsp cayenne pepper
3 tsp mustard powder
1 tsp salt
vegetable oil, for deep frying
1 or 2 lemons


Place all the sauce ingredients in a mixing bowl and stir until they are well combined. Place in an airtight container and refrigerate overnight.

Place the flour, paprika, cayenne, mustard powder and salt in a large, heavy brown paper bag. Add the whitebait, tightly roll the top of the bag, trapping some air inside, and shake vigorously to coat the fish with the flour mixture.

Heat the oil in a deep fryer to 180˚C/350˚F and fry the fish in batches until golden brown. Remove the fish from the oil when cooked and drain on wire racks.

Serve warm with lemon wedges and pots of tartare sauce for dipping. I like to serve some sliced wholewheat bread as well.

Jan 092018

Today is the birthday (1920) of Clive Robert Benjamin Dunn, OBE, an English actor, probably best known for playing the doddering lance corporal Jones in the BBC sitcom Dad’s Army. Dunn, like Ron Moody (Fagin in Oliver) and Joel Grey (MC in Cabaret) had his stage career dominated by that one character, but he was actually rather more versatile, even though you’d have to dig a bit to discover this side of him. I came across him first as the decrepit dogsbody, Old Johnson, in the Army Game spinoff, Bootsie and Snudge. This BBC sitcom mostly aired in the early 1960s and was occasionally shown on South Australian television, and reappeared briefly when I returned to England. I didn’t like the show in general, but was intrigued by the idea of Dunn, who was in his early 40s at the time, playing an aging Great War veteran (which Dunn was actually far too young to be). Indeed, I did not realize that he was as young as he was until my mother told me. Reprising the role of a doddering (but lovable) old fool in Dad’s Army seemed a bit of a cop out to me, but he was very popular. Meanwhile, I paid almost no attention, although my parents loved the show.

Dunn was born in Brixton in South London, the son of actor parents, and the cousin of actress Gretchen Franklin. He was educated at Sevenoaks School, and after leaving school, studied at the independent Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts, in London. Dunn played small film roles from the 1930s onwards, appearing alongside Will Hay in the films Boys Will Be Boys (1935) while still attending school, and Good Morning, Boys (1937). In 1939, he was the stage manager for a touring production of The Unseen Menace, a detective story. This was not a success as the billed star of the show, Terence De Marney, did not appear on stage and his dialogue was supplied by a gramophone recording.

In 1940, after the start of the Second World War, Dunn joined the army and served with the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars. The unit fought during the German invasion of Greece but surrendered after fighting a rearguard action near the Corinth canal. Dunn was amongst the 400 men taken prisoner, and was to be held as a prisoner of war in Austria for four years. He remained in the army after the war ended, and was finally demobilized in 1947.

Dunn resumed his acting career after leaving the army, mainly in Repertory theatre, and soon made his first television appearance. In 1956 and 1957, Dunn appeared in both series of The Tony Hancock Show and the army reunion party episode of Hancock’s Half Hour in 1960.

Here’s the complete episode. Chances are that you won’t recognize him if you know him only as an old man character.

From early on in his career, his trademark character was that of a doddering old man which first made an impression on Bootsie and Snudge. This is the first episode where he appeared:

In 1967, he made a guest appearance in an episode of The Avengers, playing the proprietor of a toy shop in “Something Nasty in the Nursery”.

Dunn was one of the younger members of the Dad’s Army cast when, at 48, he took on the role of the elderly butcher whose military service in earlier wars made him the most experienced member of the Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard, as well as one of the most decrepit. His relative youth, compared with most of the cast, meant that he was handed much of the physical comedy in the show, which many of the other cast members were not capable of.

After Dad’s Army ended, Dunn capitalized on his skill in playing elderly character roles, and popularity, by playing the lead character Charlie Quick, in the slapstick children’s TV series Grandad, from 1979-1984 (he played the caretaker at a village hall, and sang the lyrics in the theme). He had previously had a number one hit single with the song “Grandad” on his 51st birthday in January 1971, accompanied by a children’s choir. The song was written by bassist Herbie Flowers. He performed the song four times on Top of the Pops. The B-side of “Grandad”, “I Play The Spoons”, also received considerable airplay. After the cancellation of Grandad in 1984, he disappeared from the screen, and retired to Portugal. Following the success of the “Grandad” record, Dunn released several other singles.

Dunn married fashion model Patricia Kenyon in London in 1951. The couple divorced in 1958. He married actress Priscilla Pughe-Morgan in June 1959. They had two daughters, Polly and Jessica. Dunne spent the last three decades of his life in the Algarve, Portugal. He occupied himself as an artist painting portraits, landscapes and seascapes until his sight failed.

Dunn died in Portugal on 6 November 2012 as a result of complications, following an operation which took place earlier that week. Frank Williams, who played the Vicar in Dad’s Army, said Dunn was always great fun to be around. “Of course he was so much younger than the part he played,” he told BBC Radio Four. “It’s very difficult to think of him as an old man really, but he was a wonderful person to work with – great sense of humour, always fun, a great joy really.” Ian Lavender, who played Private Pike in the show, said: “Out of all of us he had the most time for the fans. Everyone at one time or another would be tempted to duck into a doorway or bury their head in a paper; but not Clive, he always made time for fans.”

A wartime recipe seems suitable. I don’t actually recommend this one, but it is a curiosity. It’s called Lord Woolton pie, a thoroughly forgettable dish. It was created at the Savoy Hotel in London by its then Maître Chef de Cuisine, Francis Latry. It was one of a number of recipes commended to the British public by the Ministry of Food during the Second World War to enable a nutritious diet to be maintained despite shortages and rationing of many types of food, especially meat. It was named after Frederick Marquis, 1st Lord Woolton (1883–1964), who popularized the recipe after he became Minister of Food in 1940. Here’s the recipe as printed in newspapers.

Here’s a better expansion of the recipe.

Lord Woolton Pie



1 lb potato, peeled and diced
1 lb cauliflower, chopped
1 lb carrot, peeled and diced
1 lb parsnip, peeled and diced
3 spring onions, chopped
1 tsp vegetable extract
1 tbsp oatmeal


4 ounces cooked and mashed potatoes
½ tsp salt
8 oz plain flour
3 oz shortening
2 tbsp baking powder


For the filling: Place all ingredients except for parsley into a large pot. Add just enough water to cover. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally to prevent the vegetables sticking to the pot. When the vegetables are cooked, turn of the heat and allow the mixture to cool. Sprinkle with parsley and season to taste.

For the crust: Combine the salt, flour and baking powder. Rub the shortening into the flour mixture. Gently mix in the potato. Add a little water if the mix is too dry. Knead the dough and then roll out on a floured board.

Place the pie filling in a deep pie dish or casserole dish. Cover with the potato pastry. Bake in a 400˚F oven for 25-30 minutes or until pastry is lightly browned.

Serve with gravy.

[I’m tempted to say, “Let cool and feed to the cat” but my cats would not have touched this.]

Feb 132017

Today is World Radio Day.  It was proclaimed on 3 November 2011 by UNESCO’s 36th General Conference after originally proposed by the Kingdom of Spain. The day is meant to celebrate radio in all its uses, so I’ll follow suit.  Until recently radio was a very important part of my life.  When I was an infant in England in the early 1950s the whole family used to sit around in the living room on a Sunday afternoon with the radio on.  Then when we moved to Australia the radio always had a central role to play.  It was on in the morning at breakfast time, partly for entertainment, and partly to keep track of the time so that we were not late. In the late afternoons there were a number of shows we listened to before dinner including my favorite, The Argonauts Club – a radio show for children featuring games and competitions, with the opportunity to send in your own contributions of poetry, essays, and plays (the best of which were read on the air).  But what caught my most fervent attention for many years was amateur shortwave radio.

My scout troop (1st Gawler) had a very active senior patrol that morphed into a rover patrol and they had an interest in shortwave radio.  They had built a radio shack with a tall antenna on the grounds of the scout hut, and used their old, beat up, valve operated shortwave system to contact scouts around the world, especially during Jamboree on the Air (3rd weekend in October).  Every year I went all day, well into the night, to take my turn chatting with scouts all over the world.  For years after I had a dream that one day I would set up my own shortwave station.  These were the days before easy global communications by telephone, let alone internet, and it resonated with me, as it did with many others.  Here’s the radio version of “The Radio Ham” by Tony Hancock (the television version is available if you hunt) to get the general flavor:

“Ham radio” and “radio ham” are slang terms for amateur radios and their operators whose origin is unknown, although you’ll find the usual nonsense about etymology if you poke around – all ridiculous folk legends.  Hancock really does capture the feel of ham radio in the 1950s and 1960s.

Having my own shortwave transmitter remained an unrealized pipe dream, but I did have a shortwave receiver for decades in the United States.  It allowed me to tune into the BBC before the days of the internet, and also to hear the news from multiple countries around the world.  Back then (and still) news in the US is confined to news about US citizens (at home and abroad), or about US interests.  500 people could die in a plane crash in Africa but if there were no US citizens aboard it would go largely unreported.  Shortwave was my antidote.  The BBC was great because it had plays, comedies, soap operas, quizzes and whatnot that I loved, and still love.

US radio is largely for car drivers and tends to consist of music, news, or talk shows. I found it exceptionally dull on my daily commute.  But when I took trips to England I would immediately explore the dial on my rental car’s radio for the wealth of programming on national and regional radio.  I can count the US radio shows that I enjoyed on the fingers of one hand, and still have fingers left over. Dr Demento and Whad’ya Know? come to mind.  World Radio Day is all about promoting the potential riches of radio for all people of all ages. I’m up for that.

Since amateur radio is known as ham radio let’s talk about ham as our food of the day. Many, many countries have their own special hams and I have been fortunate to live near many sources.  Currently I live near Parma and have made the obligatory pilgrimage to get the local prosciutto – known locally simply as crudo. You can get ham in Argentina, but it is a rarity in the land where beef is king.  China is a different story altogether.  Ham is an essential ingredient in so many regional dishes.  The most well known varieties are Anfu ham from Jiangxi, Jinhua ham, Rugao ham, and Xuanwei ham. All are richly flavorful, adding complexity to soups, stews, and stir fries.

How long would you like me to wax lyrical about Smithfield ham, jamón Serrano,  jambon d’Ardèche,  Westfälischer Schinken, etc.? I won’t.  Instead I’ll talk a little about production – which you can do yourself at home if you have patience. Ham is a method of preserving and flavoring raw pork leg by salting, smoking, or wet curing. Besides salt, several ingredients may also be used to enhance flavoring and preservation.

Traditional dry cure hams may use only salt as the curative agent, such as with San Daniele or Parma hams, although this is comparatively rare. This process involves cleaning the raw meat, covering it in salt (for about one month for Parma ham) while it is gradually pressed – draining all the blood. In Tuscan Ham (Prosciutto Toscano PDO) different spices and herbs are added to the salt during this step. The hams are then washed and hung in a dark, temperature-regulated place until dry. They are then hung to air for another period of time.

The duration of the curing process varies by the type of ham, with Serrano ham curing in 9–12 months, Parma hams taking more than 12 months, and Iberian ham taking up to 2 years to reach the desired flavor characteristics. Some dry cured hams, such as the Jinhua ham, take approximately 8 to 10 months to complete.

Ham can also be preserved through the smoking method, in which the meat is placed in a smokehouse (or equivalent) to be cured by the action of smoke. The main flavor compounds of smoked ham are guaiacol, and its 4-, 5-, and 6-methyl derivatives as well as 2,6-dimethylphenol. These compounds are produced by thermal breakdown (i.e., combustion) of lignin, a major constituent of wood used in the smokehouse.

Wet curing (also known as brining) involves the immersion of the meat in a brine, sometimes with other ingredients such as sugar also added for flavor. Meat is submerged in the brine for around 3–14 days, during which time the meat needs to be kept submerged, and the brine mixture agitated periodically to prevent separation of the ingredients. Wet curing also has the effect of increasing volume and weight of the finished product, by about 4%.

I’ve smoked and wet cured hams at home. The processes are not complex, just time consuming, and require special equipment.  The results have always been excellent, but I’m happy to pop down to the local market when I need ham for any reason. Brining is probably your easiest bet and you can find plenty of recipes online.  Here’s one that’s OK: