Sid James: A centenary celebration

Carry On Henry. Henry VIII (Sid James). Copyright: Peter Rogers Productions
Carry On Dick. Richard 'Big Dick' Turpin / Reverend Flasher (Sid James). Copyright: Peter Rogers Productions

It was often said that Sid's face was his fortune. Indeed, in the year 2013 it is still a very familiar face. It seems to be everywhere. It adorns t-shirts, mugs and ash-trays, wall clocks, boxer shorts and poker chips. On television, scarcely a day goes by without a Carry On being slipped into the schedule.

In the last few months, Film4 have practically worn out their copies of The Belles Of St. Trinian's, The Sheriff Of Fractured Jaw and the Kenneth More version of The 39 Steps. Sid James is in all of them.

As if to endorse his self-effacing claim that all his roles were basically him but with differ hats on, the pure and simple comic essence of Sid shines through each and every one of these performances; whether he is a wry, ex-convict truck driver or a drunken stage coach passenger narrowly avoiding the arrows of marauding 'Injuns'. Still, it's the crafty, cheeky bookies' runner with a taste for the criminal that typifies Sid's work. In the 1950s, if there was a British film on the cards that centred around either boxing or horse-racing, the chances were that Sid would be in the cast somewhere. You could bet on it!

Almost from the moment he arrived in England, on Christmas Day 1946, this sharp and savvy South African reinvented himself as the archetypal Cockney. He had danced, cut hair, polished diamonds, acted and done his bit for the war effort but from 1947 he embraced the spirit of the East End. These were his people and, in turn, the people loved him back. He was much, much more than a film star. He was a national treasure and one of us.

His acting, honed on the Johannesburg stage, was natural, compelling and truthful. Looking at his very first film, Black Memory, Sid simply is that lowdown piece of human flotsam and jetsam. Everybody else, including faux-Cockney leading man Michael Medwin, looks like they have come fresh from the Guildford Repertory Company. Sid James looks like he has wandered onto the sound stage off from the street. He looks like he could do you some damage - and he could.

It was unsurprising then that a string of supporting turns resulted. He was making eleven or twelve or thirteen films a year at his peak: barrow boys and policemen, publicans and cowboys, American film directors and Italian nightclub owners. Hammer Films gave him a rare lead role - in The Man in Black - as well as one of his most emotive turns - as the dogged reporter in Quatermass II. Ealing Studios used him time and time again, never better than as part of The Lavender Hill Mob alongside Alec Guinness, Stanley Holloway and Alfie Bass.

Sid James during rehearsals for ATV sitcom George And The Dragon. Sid James

Sid gives a performance that stands on the shoulders of all his other petty criminals. It is dripping with confidence under the direction of Charles Crichton and with a word-perfect T.E.B. Clark script. More importantly, it is dripping with heart. This is a crook with a conscience. So ingrained in the devious plot of solid gold tourist novelty Eiffel Towers is he, that it's always a surprise to discover just how limited Sid's role is. It's ages until his first appearance and he's absent for the entire third act, but it works. Oh, how it works! The Lavender Hill Mob is one of those rarest of creatures: the perfect film. Go on, treat yourself to the Blu-ray and see. It was certainly a vital cog in Sid's career.

Clearly, Sid had been adept at comedy before but it was The Lavender Hill Mob that caught the imagaintion of writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson. A caricatured version of the familiar Sid James persona proved perfect foil fodder for Tony Hancock in Hancock's Half Hour; first on radio and then on television. "Is there nothing you wouldn't do for money?" enquired Hancock in one episode. "Nothing I can think of off hand!" replied Sid matter-of-factly. It captures the Hancock-Sid relationship perfectly. By the by, the episode in question is the radio classic The Wild Man Of The Woods (Series 4, Episode 16). Give it another listen, you know you want to!

Sid's work with Tony Hancock made him a national figure of comedy. The decline and fall is well documented but undoubtedly without that fall Galton & Simpson would not have crafted Sid's very first starring television comedy vehicle, Citizen James. To this day, the writers insist this first series of episodes is really not very good. It is the only thing Ray and Alan and I disagree over. They are so wrong. Citizen James is a brilliant show, perfectly taking the wheeling and dealing Sid of the Hancock days and elevating him to pole position.

Moreover, without that fall it is unlikely that Sid would have had the inclination to join and eventually reign the Carry On empire...

A Hancock and Sid franchise of television, film and stage was a distinct possibility. Instead, Sid embraced the already hugely popular world of pie-fights, trouser-dropping and giggling dolly birds. In actual fact, Sid's first foray into Carry On was fairly atypical. Carry On, Constable cast him pretty much against the Sid grain, as a disgruntled authority figure - and a copper, to boot. However, one thing was clear from the outset: Sid fitted into the Carry On style like a dove-tail joint. By 1960, for the next film in the series, Carry On Regardless, Sid was up to his ankles in boxing bouts and scantily-clad nurses. This was Sid's environ for sure.

For the next fifteen years, Sid would be the undisputed figure head of Carry On. The films would make him an international figure. They would boost his bank balance and his prolife and they would supplement his gambling. They would lead to headlining tours in farce across England, Australia and the land that gave him birth.

Bless This House. Image shows from L to R: Mike Abbott (Robin Stewart), Jean Abbott (Diana Coupland), Sid Abbott (Sid James), Sally Abbott (Sally Geeson). Copyright: Thames Television

On television, Sid seemed to choose roles that reflected his current Carry On leanings - either by choice or happenstance. 1963 saw him almost permantly behind the wheel for both Carry On Cabby and his last series for BBC television, comedy drama series Taxi!. His move to Thames television and the Vince Powell and Harry Driver-penned situation comedies George And The Dragon and Two In Clover happily complemented his gear-shift to fast-talking, plot-hatching wide-boy for films such as Carry On Doctor and Carry On Camping. By 1971, Sid was well aware that his days of playing the bit of rough rebel may well be over. At Thames Television this concern was countered by the domestic, generation-gap comedy of Bless This House. Pinewood Studios followed suit with a rather more broad and farcical picture of family life in Carry On At Your Convenience. It was not to last, not within the Carry Ons at least.

If anything, the Sid of the early 1970s became a complete and utter hound dog. That racuous Sid James laugh, a fairly tethered signifer for laughter previously, was actively encouraged to under-line every single off-colour joke in the script. Hard-drinking, hard-gambling and as often as not with a roving eye on the overly-exposed clevage of Barbara Windsor, this was Sid in defintive 'dirty old man' mode.

The holiday-maker on the make of Carry On Abroad, the randy Town Councillor of Carry On Girls and the gaffuwing highwayman of Carry On Dick have eternally cemented the Sid image in the hearts and minds of a nation...and beyond. It is perhaps unfair that the parallel performance of the gentle, slowly-spoken Reverend Flasher in Carry On Dick is far less revered. It is a performance of beauty and as near as the Carry Ons ever got to highlighting the profoundly good actor that Sid James certainly was.

No matter, he went in to that good night making people laugh. He would have much rather ended his days fishing on the gentle riverbank, packed lunch and whisky flask by his side, but it was not to be.

Bless This House. Sid Abbott (Sid James). Copyright: Thames Television

On television, his comedy worlds collided with joyful mugging and near-the-knuckle japery for Carry On Laughing alongside rather more world-weary family fun in Bless This House. Still, it was on stage that the laugh was finally silenced. A nation-wide tour of Sam Cree's farce The Mating Season reached the Sunderland Empire. On 26th April 1976, the first night performance was curtailed almost immediately. Sid collaped on stage and died during the ambulance-journey to hospital.

Now, on 8th May 2013, one hundred years to the day since Sid James was born, that ill-fated evening in Sunderland seems an awfully long time ago. That's probably because it was an awfully long time ago. But in the nigh on forty years that have rolled on by since, the legend of Sid James has refused to fade. In our post-modern fever of how far you can push political correctness without losing the plot completely, Sid is still lauded and, yes, loved as the ultimate lad.

He is base pleasure personified, and today is the day to raise a very large drink to his legacy...

From Hancock's Half Hour.

Robert Ross is a comedy archivist, historian and biographer who has written extensively on the Carry On films. His comprehensive Sid James biography, Cockney Rebel, is now available in paperback as Smasher! - The Life Of Sid James. Find him on Twitter @RobertWRossEsq and at

Smasher! - The Life Of Sid JamesSmasher! - The Life Of Sid James

Everyone thinks they know the Sid James story - the wife-beating womaniser who seduced his Carry On leading lady, Barbara Windsor, and drank himself to death after the affair ended. Sid was certainly a lover of the flesh - be it chorus girls or race horses - but the rumours that have enlivened hundreds of newspaper exposes fail to tell the whole story of this complex actor.

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The Complete Sid JamesThe Complete Sid James

Robert Ross's comprehensive guide to Sid James's career; on television, on stage and on film.

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The Tony Hancock CollectionThe Tony Hancock Collection

The complete surviving TV collection of Ray Galton and Alan Simpson's Hancock's Half Hour is included over the 8 discs in this box set, many of which star Sid James in one of his most iconic and beloved of roles.

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Citizen JamesCitizen James

All but a spin-off from Hancock's Half Hour, this series was created by Galton & Simpson for Sid, lifting his Hancock character almost lock, stock and barrel. Sadly only 10 episodes survive, but they include the complete Series 1, which Galton & Simpson penned.

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George And The Dragon - The Complete SeriesGeorge And The Dragon - The Complete Series

Sid James stars alongside John Le Mesurier (Dad's Army) and Peggy Mount in this late 1960s sitcom from ATV, George And The Dragon. It was the first of three sitcoms created for Sid by Vince Powell and Harry Driver. This 4-disc set includes every episode of the series.

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Two In Clover - The Complete SeriesTwo In Clover - The Complete Series

The second of Powell and Driver's sitcoms was Two In Clover. Some 6 years before The Good Life, the series saw Sid star with Victor Spinetti as a pair of office workers who pack in the busy, stressful City rat-race and buy a farm together, despite having next to no rural or agricultural knowledge whatsoever. Running for two series, all episodes are included in this double-disc set.

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Bless This House - The Complete SeriesBless This House - The Complete Series

By far the most famous and successful of the three sitcoms was the last, Bless This House. With scripts not only by Powell and Driver but writers including then fresh-faced Carla Lane and Myra Taylor (The Liver Birds), it ran for 6 series on TV, a feature film spin-off, and was only brought to an end by Sid's death. Every episode and the film are included in this 12-disc set.

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