Sid James (1913-1976) b. Newcastle, Natal, South Africa.
Sidney James had the jovial face of a wrinkled prune which its owner once believed would inhibit his acting career. The opposite was probably true. James’ impish leer and dirty cackle revitalised many a feeble script. His characters were extrovert, uncomplicated, fastidiously working-class creations, as home-grown, one might suppose, as fish suppers and jellied eels.
Yet James was born Joel Solomon Cohen in Johannesburg, South Africa. Both of his parents were in music hall and much of his early life was spent on or backstage; he made his first stage appearance aged 10. During his formative years, Sid worked in the South African diamond industry as a cutter and polisher and was alleged to been an accomplished ladies’ hairdresser and to have supported his income as an amateur boxer in fairground sideshows. When WWII broke out in 1939, he joined a South African regiment of the British Army and soon became a producer in its entertainment unit. After the war, Sid bought a one way ticket to London with his demob money for him and his wife and moved to London, arriving on Christmas Day 1946. He broke into repertory work almost straight away and quickly made the move into films; frequently cast as a petty crook in second-feature crime-thrillers.
Thanks to quick acclimatisation, he was giving full-blooded Cockney characterisations in films. In the Ealing Studios comedy The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), he was one of the lesser villains, a good-natured safecracker known as the Wandsworth Boy, recruited by Alec Guinness and Stanley Holloway to help with a cheeky bullion robbery. In Miss Robin Hood (1952), James was chauffeur to Margaret Rutherford, a pigeon loving do-gooder who persuades nervy magazine writer Richard Hearne to help her rake back a proportion of distillery tycoon James Robertson Justice‘s fortune, coined in the first place by swindling Miss Rutherford’s family out of top secret whisky formula.
He was one of the opponents of The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953), a bulldozer driver who engages the old loco’s steam predecessor in a track-side rough-and tumble, and owned a racetrack snack bar in The Rainbow Jacket (1954), anxious to sell it at the right price. The Square Ring (1953) was a backstage drama that depicted one night in life of a group of boxers collecting their bruises in a small-time sports stadium. The Square Ring was a passably honest attempt to recreate changing room banter and one could almost smell the liniment. James was gangster Paul Douglas’ right-hand man in Joe Macbeth (1955). The familiar Shakespearean plot, reworked into a modern gangland setting, contained more novelty than entertainment value, and its stagey New York setting did not fool anyone.
Having been impressed by his role in the Lavender Hill Mob, in 1954 writers Galton and Simpson cast him in the popular BBC radio show Hancock’s Half Hour, and subsequently cast in the series when it transferred to television. James’ established character, an ambivalent work-shy rogue, provided the perfect counterpoint to Tony Hancock‘s peevish, pompous suburbanite. Hancock’s Half Hour proved to be immensely popular with the public and established James as a natural light comedian in his own right. The Hancock partnership had dissolved by 1960 due to Sid’s growing appeal and Tony Hancock’s fear they were being regarded as a double act.
From 1962 onwards, James was a regular member of the Carry On team and would become synonymous with the franchise. After many years as the ubiquitous supporting actor in film comedy, James was to become the beloved star. He appeared in 19 Carry On comedies, including such memorable roles as the taxi fleet proprietor Carry On Cabby (1963), Mark Antony in Carry On Cleo (1964), gun-toting outlaw Rumpo Kid in Carry On Cowboy (1965), governor Sir Sidney Ruff-Diamond in Carry On Up the Khyber (1968) and bed-hopping Henry VIII in Carry On Henry (1970). James suffered his first health scare in 1967, when he suffered a heart-attack just before Carry On Follow that Camel (1967) went into production. The Dick Turpin spoof, Carry On Dick (1974), was the last to feature Sid James.
James returned to TV situation comedy in the Galton and Simpson-scripted series Citizen James (1960-62), George and the Dragon, (1966-69) and the long-suffering Sid Abott in the plodding domestic comedy Bless This House (1971-76). In 1976, he fatally collapsed during the opening night performance of the stage comedy, "The Mating Season", at the Sunderland Empire.