JAMES, SID

British Comedian

Sid James established himself as a nationally recognised figure in British broadcasting in a ground-breaking radio comedy, Hancock's Half Hour in the mid-1950s. But James was a ubiquitous supporting role film actor. Appearing in over 150 features during his career, he was best known as a regular character in the "Carry On" comedies (1958-80). He acted in numerous stage comedies and starred in several television series. With the situation comedy, Bless This House (ITV, 1971-76), James secured his status as one of the most enduring figures of post-war British popular culture. Clever exploitation of a naturally heavy-lined face to produce a variety of put upon expressions endeared him to "Carry On" and television audiences alike. His "dirty" cackle of a laugh embodied a vein of "kiss-me--quick" bawdiness that runs deep in English humour.

Christened Sidney Joel Cohen, Sid James was a South African-born Jew whose parents worked in the music hall business. James had joined a South African regiment of the British Army in 1939 and soon became a producer in its entertainment unit. As such he was typical of a generation of British performers and writers who learned their trade while in the Armed Forces. After the service, James arrived in London on Christmas Day 1946 looking to make a start in acting. His grizzled face meant that he became typecast as minor gangsters in his early film appearances. His career success came when he transformed himself into a quintessential Londoner, an ordinary bloke, who drew sympathy from his audience despite playing a rascal in many of his roles.

His television credits include some dozen plays (including some drama) and several series. He made his television debut in 1948 in a two-part BBC drama Kid Flanagan as Sharkey Morrison and played the lead role of Billy Johnson in The Front Page (BBC) later the same year. In 1949 he played an American film director in a 30 minute play called Family Affairs (BBC). After significant supporting roles in The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and The Ritchfield Thunderbolt (1953), his persona began to develop, from gangsters, into characters who lived just this side of the law in the austere conditions of 1950s Britain. Although he was best known for his comic roles, James rarely turned down dramatic work. His next television appearance was in Another Part of the Forest (BBC, 1954) one of an acclaimed 20th Century Theatre series.

Spotted by two script writers, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, James was cast as Tony Hancock's house mate in the radio comedy Hancock's Half Hour. His ability as an actor to play off a lead was recognised by Hancock. When the show switched to television, Hancock insisted that all his supporting actors from the radio version be dropped except James. The 30-minute television (1956-60), represented a defining moment in British situation comedy. The show developed huge audiences; BBC audience research estimates that 28% of the population sat down to watch it at its peak. During this four-year period, James appeared as a pirate (Shanty Jack) in The Buccaneers (BBC, 1957) and played a character from the shadier side of London's Jewish community in a six-part series for ITV called East End, West End (1958). James' dependency on the Hancock connection was broken at the start of the 1960s when he began to appear in what became a highly successful series of Carry On films (Carry on Constable was his first in 1960). These quickly-made film farces provided regular, almost annual income for its troupe of actors. James became one of the best-loved stars, appearing in almost twenty films, usually playing hen-pecked husbands desperate for extramarital sex with younger women.

He never worked with Hancock again, but he was immediately contracted by the BBC to star in a Galton and Simpson-scripted series called Citizen James, (1960-62). In a series called It's a Deal (BBC, 1961), he played a working class property dealer whose business partner was a Mayfair playboy (Dennis Price). Mismatched in class, the two characters were essentially similar rogues underneath who found themselves reluctantly dependent on one another. Throughout the 1960s, James' television work was based on characters and plots that employed variations on this theme. In Taxi! (BBC, 1963-64) he played a London cabby who gets involved in the day to day problems of his fares and his fellow drivers. The twelve, 50-minute episodes were an uneven mix of drama and comedy that did not prove successful in the audience ratings. In George and the Dragon, (ITV 1966-69), James played a chauffeur (George) to John Le Mesurier (Colonel Maynard). Both men are dominated by the over-bearing housekeeper character (the Dragon), played by Peggy Mount. The comedy came from James' challenge to her control of their social superior and employer. In Two in Clover (ITV, 1969-70) James played alongside Victor Spinetti in a series whose comic situation derived from transplanting a mis-matched pair from the city to the country.

With Bless this House (ITV, 1971-76) James secured his position as a television sitcom actor of national acclaim. It also signaled a change in emphasis from his early film and "Carry On" types to one that suited his maturing years. He played Sid Abbott, a long--suffering father/husband, to his wife, Jean (Diana Coupland) and their two children Mike and Kate. The key to his success was his ability to deliver lines for comic effect and react to those around him. His heavily lined face testified to a lot of laughter. While his characters typically gave in to their fate, his distinctive dirty cackle erased any lingering pathos. James died suddenly in 1976 on stage in a comedy called The Mating Game after the pre-recorded Bless this House series having just completed its run.

-Lance Pettit

 


Sid James
Photo courtesy of the British Film Institute

SIDNEY JAMES. Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, 8 May 1913. Attended schools in Johannesburg. Married: 1) Meg Williams; one daughter; 2) Valerie Ashton; one son and one daughter. Served in anti-tank regiment in Middle East during World War II. Worked as coal heaver, stevedore, diamond polisher and professional boxer, South Africa before World War II; gained first stage experience with wartime entertainment unit; settled in the United Kingdom, 1946, and entered repertory theater and films, playing character roles; with comedian Tony Hancock on radio and television in the late 1950s; starred in 18 Carry On films; towards the end of his career appeared on television in situation comedies. Recipient: TV Times Funniest Man on Television Award, 1974. Died 26 April 1976.

TELEVISION SERIES

1956-60 Hancock's Half Hour
1958     East End--West End
1960-62 Citizen James
1961      It's a Deal
1963-64 Taxi
1966-68 George and the Dragon
1969-70 Two in Clover
1971-76 Bless This House

TELEVISION PLAYS

1948 Kid Flanegan
1948 The Front Page
1949 Family Affairs
1954 Another Part of the Forest
1958 The Bucaneers

FILMS

Black Memory, 1947; The October Man, 1947; It Always Rains on Sunday, 1947; No Orchids for Miss Blandish, 1948; Night Beat, 1948; Once a Jolly Swagman/Maniacs on Wheels, 1948; The Small Back Room, 1948; Paper Orchid, 1949; The Man in Black, 1949; Give Us This Day/Salt to the Devil, 1949; Last Holiday, 1950; The Lady Craved Excitement, 1950; Talk of a Million/You Can't Beat the Irish, 1951; Lady Godiva Rides Again, 1951; The Lavender Hill Mob, 1951; The Magic Box, 1951; The Galloping Major, 1951; I Believe in You, 1952; Emergency Call/Hundred Hour Hunt, 1952; Gift Horse/Glory at Sea, 1952; Cosh Boy/The Slasher, 1952; Miss Robin Hood, 1952; Time Gentlemen Please!, 1952; Father's Doing Fine, 1952; Venetian Bird/The Assassin, 1952; Tall Headlines, 1952; The Yellow Balloon, 1952; The Wedding of Lili Marlene, 1953; Escape By Night, 1953; The Titfield Thunderbolt, 1953; The Square Ring, 1953; Will Any Gentleman...?, 1953; The Weak and the Wicked/Young and Willing, 1953; Park Plaza 605/Norman Conquest, 1953; The Flanagan Boy/Bad Blonde, 1953; Is Your Honeymoon Really Necessary?, 1953; The Rainbow Jacket, 1954; The House Across the Lake/Heatwave, 1954; Seagulls Over Sorrento/Crest of the Wave, 1954; The Crowded Day, 1954; Orders Are Orders, 1954; Aunt Clara, 1954; For Better, For Worse/Cocktails in the Kitchen, 1954; The Belles of St Trinian's, 1954; Out of the Clouds, 1955; Joe Macbeth, 1955; The Deep Blue Sea, 1955; A Kid for Two Farthings, 1955; The Glass Cage/The Glass Tomb, 1955; A Yank in Ermine, 1955; It's a Great Day, 1955; John and Julie, 1955; Ramsbottom Rides Again, 1956; The Extra Day, 1956; Wicked As They Come, 1956; The Iron Petticoat, 1956; Dry Rot, 1956; Trapeze, 1956; Quatermass II/Enemy from Space, 1957; Interpol/Pickup Alley, 1957; The Smallest Show on Earth, 1957; The Shiralee, 1957; Hell Drivers, 1957; Campbell's Kingdom, 1957; A King in New York, 1957; The Story of Esther Costello/The Golden Virgin, 1957; The Silent Enemy, 1958; Another Time, Another Place, 1958; Next to No Time!, 1958; The Man Inside, 1958; I Was Monty's Double/Monty's Double, 1958; The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw, 1958; Too Many Crooks, 1959; Make Mine a Million, 1959; The 39 Steps, 1959; Upstairs and Downstairs, 1959; Tommy the Toreador, 1959; Desert Mice, 1959; Idle on Parade/Idol on Parade, 1959; Carry On Constable, 1960; Watch Your Stern, 1960; And the Same to You, 1960; The Pure Hell of St Trinian's, 1960; Double Bunk, 1961; A Weekend with Lulu, 1961; The Green Helmet, 1961; What a Carve Up!/No Place Like Homicide, 1961; Raising the Wind/Roommates, 1961; What a Whopper!, 1961; Carry On Regardless, 1961; Carry On Cruising, 1962; We Joined the Navy, 1962; Carry On Cabby, 1963; The Beauty Jungle/Contest Girl, 1964; Carry On Cleo, 1964; Three Hats for Lisa, 1964; The Big Job, 1965; Carry On Cowboy, 1965; Where the Bullets Fly, 1966; Don't Lose Your Head, 1966; Carry On Doctor, 1967; Carry On Up the Khyber, 1968; Carry On Again, Doctor, 1969; Carry On Camping, 1969; Carry On Up the Jungle, 1969; Carry On Loving, 1970; Carry On Henry, 1970; Carry On at Your Convenience, 1971; Tokoloshe, the Evil Spirit, 1971; Carry On Matron, 1972; Bless This House, 1972; Carry On Abroad, 1972; Carry On Girls, 1973; Carry On Dick, 1974.

RADIO

Hancock's Half Hour, 1954=-59; Educating Archie.

STAGE (selection)

Kiss Me Kate, 1951.

FURTHER READING

Goodwin, Cliff. Sid James. 1995.

Goddard, Peter. "Hancock's Half Hour: A Watershed in British Television Comedy." In, Corner, John, editor. Popular Television in Britain: Studies in Cultural History. London: British Film Institute, 1991.

 

See also Hancock's Half Hour