Thursday, 22 October 2015

Rarely Seen Sid - Look at Life: The Market Place

Throughout the sixties, the Rank Organisation produced a series of short documentary films, which were made exclusively for screening in Odeon and Gaumont cinemas. Entitled Look at Life, these often fascinating ten-minute featurettes were shown just before the main feature film. Over 500 entries in the Look at Life series were made, covering subjects as diverse as motorcycles, hot air balloon rides, fishing, space exploration and the rise of the coffee bar.

The first batch of Look at Life documentaries was produced in 1959, at a time when a certain Mr Sidney James had become hot property. Thanks to the rip-roaring success of Hancock's Half Hour on both the radio and television, Sid was now a household name. Despite the slightly crooked personae of his Hancock character, Sid was adored by the British public. The ever-present twinkle in the eyes betrayed his love for life, while his delightfully warm, crinkled features and lusty laugh endeared him to both men and women.

Another great quality that Sid possessed was that marvellously earthy, whisky-drenched voice. Sid James sounded like a man who had lived life to the full, enjoyed the experience and then come back for more. When combined with the image of loveable scoundrel which had been bestowed upon him by virtue of his screen roles, that earthy voice made Sid the perfect choice to narrate a Look at Life episode focusing on London markets.

The Market Place is a fascinating glimpse into the culture and daily life of ordinary folk in Britain as the fifties were drawing to a close. Sid James does a marvellous job as narrator, his natural delivery perfectly encapsulating the friendly atmosphere of a typical London market in the fifties.


Monday, 17 August 2015

Taxi for Mr James!

Watch the sole surviving episode of Taxi! at Sid's Place.

In 1963, if you were lucky enough to come across Sid James in real life, you could be forgiven for thinking that he had given up the acting profession altogether. You see, it is highly likely you would have spotted him driving a cab around the streets of the city. This was not to earn a little bit of extra money on the side; his acting career was still going as strong as ever! 1963 just happened to be the year that Sid landed roles in the classic Carry On Cabby and the now almost forgotten BBC television drama series Taxi!

Created by Ted Willis, the man behind the legendary Dixon of Dock Green, Taxi! saw Sid cast as Sid Stone, a cab driver who always seems to get tangled up in the problems of others, usually through no fault of his own. Sid shares ownership of his cab, at least in the first series, with the wonderfully named Fred Cuddell (pronounced Cuddle), played by Bill Owen, and acts as a mentor to the young Terry Mills (Ray Brooks).

Rather than being a straight comedy, Taxi! was a drama series with comedic elements. It gave Sid James the chance to show off his considerable acting ability, although he still managed to be the familiar Sid that we all know and love.

Running for two series and 26 episodes, only one instalment of Taxi! is currently known to survive and you can now watch it here. Entitled The Villain, the episode is from series one. Look out for Sid's future Carry On co-star Alan Curtis (Carry On Henry and Carry On Abroad) as the titular 'villain'. This a rare treat for us Sid fans and I dearly wish that one day more 'lost' episodes will surface.


With many thanks to Dave Hall. 

Friday, 22 May 2015

Sid Does It His Way

Just a short post this weekend but the contents should lighten the heart of all Sid James fans.

Not long before he sadly passed away in 1976, Sid made a home cassette recording of himself speaking the lyrics to the Frank Sinatra classic My Way. Listening to Sid's magnificent spoken rendition of the timeless classic, delivered in that tremendously emotive earthy voice, brings a tingle to the spine and, I am not ashamed to admit, a tear to my eye. Simply wonderful.


Sid, you most definitely did it your way and for that we are truly thankful.

Friday, 8 May 2015

Sid and Joan

It is quite fitting that two actors who worked so closely together for many years enjoyed birthdays just one day apart. Sid James would have been a sprightly 102 years old today (May 8th), while his frequent co-star Joan Sims was introduced to the world on May 9th 1930.

Of the many female co-stars with whom Sid worked on multiple occasions, it is his on-screen partnership with the wonderful Joan Sims that is perhaps the most celebrated, particularly as far as the Carry On films are concerned. Although the name of Barbara Windsor would likely be the first to spring to mind for many people in relation to Sid, for this writer it is the combination of Sid and Joan that provided the greatest on-screen magic.

Despite there being a seventeen year age gap between the two in real life, Sid James and Joan Sims made the perfect on-screen couple. Sid's screen image was that of the archetypal loveable rogue, a man of the people who enjoyed the finer things in life; namely birds, booze and betting! As such, when cast opposite him. Joan Sims would usually play the put-upon wife or girlfriend, tolerating these earthy foibles for want of a quiet life. Happily though, it was usually Joan who came out on top in the end, her strong-willed Queen Marie from Carry On Henry being the perfect example.

The career paths of Sid and Joan intertwined as early as the fifties, with both cropping up in such standard British comedy fare as Will Any Gentlemen...? (1953) and Dry Rot (1956). However, their screen time together in the latter was minimal, while in the first they were never on set at the same time. It was not until both had become firmly entrenched in the Carry On ensemble that their undoubted on-screen chemistry began to bubble.

Of the nineteen Carry On films to feature Sid, Joan Sims appeared in seventeen, with Cruising and Cabby being the odd ones out. Here are some of their greatest moments together...

The Rumpo Kid and Belle in Carry On Cowboy (1965)

Although this was their fourth Carry On together, Carry On Cowboy was actually the first time they had actually been cast opposite one another. Pure magic is created the instant Sid's black-hatted villain The Rumpo Kid claps eyes on sultry saloon owner Belle Armitage. Joan looks simply stunning, while Sid perfectly epitomizes the grizzled, trail-weary cowboy. It is a match made in comedy heaven and leads to one of the most celebrated and oft-quoted lines in Carry On history, as Sid mentions in a beautifully understated manner, "I'm from Texas ma'am. We all got big ones down there."

Sir Sidney and Lady Ruff-Diamond in Carry On Up the Khyber (1968)

British comedy at its very finest, Carry On Up the Khyber saw the series reach its absolute peak and many would argue that this romp through the British Empire is the greatest Carry On ever made. With the King and Queen of Carry On both on irresistible form, it is hard to refute that claim.

Nobody could pull off faux upper-class quite like Joan Sims, her Lady Ruff-Diamond betraying working class roots each time she lapses into a cockney vernacular. Meanwhile, Sid manages to inject his Governor with a calm, almost regal assurance, whilst never straying too far from the Sid we know and love.

Sid and Joan are at their battling best here, constantly bickering and throwing carefully aimed barbs in each other's direction. It's like a boxing match between two comedy heavyweights destined to go the distance.

King Henry VIII and Queen Marie in Carry On Henry (1971)

The majestic performance of Sid James as the larger than life Henry VIII was arguably the finest of his career. Chewing the royal scenery with absolute relish, Sid's monarch romps through the proceedings with admirable gusto, hunting buxom lasses on horseback and happily gorging on roast peacock (all cock and no pea!), before reacting with a royal rage at the presence of the dreaded garlic.

Indeed, it is a testament to the talent of Joan Sims that she more than holds her own opposite Sid in this kind of form. Strong of will and possessing an indomitable spirit, Queen Marie is determined to make her marriage to the philandering Henry work, even if that does mean trying to persuade him of the virtues of the aforementioned garlic.


Vic and Cora Flange in Carry On Abroad (1972)

In many ways, Carry On Abroad was the last hurrah for the Carry Ons, It was certainly the last of the series to feature such a large cast of regulars, including a final goodbye to Charles Hawtrey. Abroad is also the last of the truly great Carry Ons. Things were never quite the same afterwards.

It is quite obvious that Sid James and Joan Sims had a great affection for one another as friends. Their real-life friendship adds an extra spark to their performances in Carry On Abroad and it is an absolute joy to witness two comedy greats having such a wonderful time.

There are so many Sid/Joan moments to savour here - Sid's droll introduction of "This is the wife. Don't laugh!", his suggestive offering of a sausage roll and, of course, the now legendary scene where Sid crashes through the glass of the balcony door. "They put the bloody glass in!" Cue infectious Joan Sims hysterics.

Although Barbara Windsor may have grabbed the headlines, it is Sid's on-screen partnerships with the leading ladies of Carry On, Hattie Jacques and Joan Sims, which deserve recognition. In particular, his rapport with Joanie was magical..       

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Rarely Seen Sid

There was something marvellusly  photogenic about Sid James.With more lines than a London Undergound map, that famous craggy face was the very definition of 'lived-in'. Exuding a genuine warmth and love for life, there was rarely a time when the sparkle was absent from Sid's eyes.

Here are some rarely seen images of Sid from the archives, courtesy of Getty Images.

The fact that Carry On Cabby was made in black and white makes this wonderful colour publicity shot even more special. Not wanting to be outdone by his leggy co-star Christine Rogers, Sid is more than willing to put the James pins on show!

The rip-roaringly successful George and the Dragon remains one of Sid's most fondly remembered television sitcoms. This stunning publicity shot from 1968 sums up the character of George Russell perfectly.  

This was taken in December 1967, just over six months after Sid suffered his first heart attack. That love of life is still clearly evident!

A truly joyous shot of two comedy legends thoroughly relishing each other's company. At the time, Sid and Dame Margaret Rutherford were appearing in the play The Solid Gold Cadillac at London's Saville Theatre. The two old pros had first worked together many years previously in the 1952 film Miss Robin Hood.  

By 1959, Sid was one of the most well-known faces on cinema screens and televisions throughout the land. Complete with seemingly ever-present cigarette, Sid is seen here at London's Dorchester Hotel, at a reception to promote upcoming films for 1960, one of which was a certain Carry On Constable.

God bless you. Sid!

Sunday, 26 April 2015

For the Love of Sid

On the night of April 26, 1976, Sid James suffered a fatal heart attack while appearing on stage at the Sunderland Empire. He was 62 years old. Still fiercely busy as he approached his thirtieth year in the business, Sid planned to retire when he reached 65. Whether the events of that fateful night 39 years ago could have been averted had Sid trimmed back his work commitments, we will never know. What is certain is that Sid touched the hearts of many. He remains my ultimate comedy hero.

I was just six years old when the tragic news of Sid's passing stunned the nation. As such, I have no real recollection of the events at the time. My main memories from 1976 revolve around the incredible summer, which had the country sweltering and, ultimately, withering under the intense gaze of a permanently blazing sun. There has never been another summer quite like it since, just as there has never been another Sid.

When comedian Rik Mayall passed away unexpectedly last year, there was a huge outpouring of grief from a shocked nation, which I can only equate to the levels which met Sid's death in 1976. However, while both men often played exaggerated versions of themselves, they were loved by the public for very different reasons. Rik was a force of nature much admired for his outrageous self-confidence. In complete contrast, Sid was much more like the normal man in the street. It was easy to imagine downing a couple of pints with him in the local, while enjoying a quick game of three card brag.

There was a certain warmth about Sid James. No matter whether he was playing a booze-loving, 'bird' chaser or a villainous, black-hatted cowboy, it was impossible not to like him. Maybe it was that wonderful craggy face, once memorably described as resembling a bag of knitting, which endeared him so. That infectious and marvellously dirty laugh, not unlike the sound of the last of the water disappearing down a plughole, no doubt also contributed to his innate likeability. However, perhaps the secret as to why Mr Sidney James was so loved is that he was simply 'Sid' in whatever he did.

As his career progressed, Sid the character became very much entwined with Sid the man. Indeed, it is very much a testament to Sid's supreme skills as an actor that the public found it so difficult to distinguish between the two. I, for one, cannot think of another actor, comedic or dramatic, who always looked so relaxed in front of the camera. This aura of calm, however, belied an intense professionalism and strong work ethic which never left Sid throughout his prolific career. In an era when the British film industry was perhaps at its peak, with features rolling off the production line at a phenomenal rate, 'One-Take' James was the ultimate reliable asset to have on the cast list. There was no artistic temperament here! He simply wanted to get the work done and move on to the next job.

Warm and refreshingly down-to-earth, Sid James will always occupy the top spot on my list of personal comedy heroes. Who knows, in another time and another place, maybe I could have enjoyed that pint with him down the boozer.