Biography: Sid James - Part 2
Tony Hancock had been appearing in just such a radio, 'All-Star Bill', when the series producer, Roy Speer was taken ill. His replacement, Dennis Main Wilson, unhappy with the shows content, enlisted the writing talents of two relatively unknown, but talented newcomers, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson. Then in 1953, Galton and Simpson, knowing that the BBC were anxious to give Hancock his own starring vehicle, came up with the concept of a rather pompous character who would hold court in a bed-sit somewhere in London. The show would be centred around the character's hopes and misadventures, and would star other comedians but be devoid of catchphrases, silly voices or musical numbers.
For the series to work, Hancock needed a small circle of friends and a girlfriend, to whom he could impart his words of wisdom, or blame for his misfortunes. Australian actor Bill Kerr, an old Hancock chum was the first to be cast. Second was the former South African radio starlet Moira Lister. To complete the trio of flate-mates, Galton and Simpson knew exactly who they wanted. The just didn't know his name.
The pair had seen the actor they wanted in 'The Lavender Hill Mob', and in order to discover his identity they had to track the film down to a cinema in Putney, where it was enjoying a second release. 'We had to sit through the entire film until the credits came up.' Said Ray Galton. The actor they wanted was, of course, Sid James.
Dennis Main Wilson arranged a meeting with Sid, but to everyone's surprise Sid refused to commit himself to the radio series. Sid wasn't sure that he could cut it in radio comedy, although the excuse he used at the time was that he was earning more money making around ten films a year than he was likely to earn for each of the proposed thirteen radio shows. In the end, Hancock and Main Wilson talked him into doing the first show. 'So I tried one,' said Sid. 'And then I tried two, and I'm very glad I did.'
Alan Simpson vividly remembers Sid's first 'Half Hour' show. 'Sid was so scared he had a trilby hat pulled down over his head and had the scripts arranged on a stand so that he could hide behind them. There was just something he hated about doing radio in front of an audience. We never found out what it was.' Although nervous, Sid still put in a professional performance and Ray Galton remembers him as a tremendous support to Tony Hancock.
Year's later, Moira Lister recalled: 'from the start he (Hancock) was very neurotic and worried about everything. It was never a relaxed and happy show. Sid, on the other hand, was relaxed and easy going.' But the combination worked very well. 'Because Sid was un-neurotic, he was able to cope with Tony's neurosis and was probably a very good balance for him, both in and out of the studio.'
One other joined the cast for that first programme - Kenneth Williams. Although Sid and Ken are always thought of as friends as well as working partners, mainly because of their involvement in the 'Carry On' series of films, they had a very uneasy relationship. Sid didn't care much for Ken's overt homosexuality, and made no secret of the fact.
Personality clashes or not, 'Hancock's Half Hour' became an enormous hit with the public, and was a benchmark series by which all subsequent sitcoms were judged. Sid's first experience of the popularity of the show came eight days after the series ended. As he strode onto the stage at London's Prince's Theatre he was greeted by rapturous applause by the audience, which lasted for a full three minutes. By 1955, 'Hancock's Half Hour' was emptying theatres' pubs and chip shops up and down the country. The TV series, which arrived the following year, had exactly the same effect.
Although Hancock was undoubtedly the star of the series, his performances were enhanced greatly from the benefit of Sid's experience in front of the camera. 'Sid was a very good technician,' said producer Duncan Wood. 'He knew what a reaction shot was all about, and so Tony quickly twigged the reaction shot business.' Through 'Hancock's Half Hour', Sid was rapidly becoming a television star in his own right. Perhaps the BBC should have looked after him better, because to their horror in January 1958 he was poached by Independent Television.
Associated Rediffusion had offered Sid a staring vehicle, playing alongside Miriam Karlin in the Wolf Mankowitz scripted series 'East End, West End'. In it Sid played the part of a Cockney, not far removed from his 'Hancock' character, who tried to make an honest(ish) living by ducking and diving, wheeling and dealing. The series was scheduled to run for a six-week series followed by a seven week break and then another series of thirteen episodes. The first series was to go out on the same night as the 'Hancock's Half Hour' radio series.
Tom Sloan, the BBC's Head of Light Entertainment, wrote to Sid concerned that the second series of 'East End, West End' might make the star unavailable for the next 'Hancock' series. But as it turned out, 'East End, West End' didn't go down too well with the viewing public and the second series was never made. However, determined not to let Sid go again, the BBC offered him a series of his own, to be broadcast between the next two series of the TV "Hancock" shows. Sid turned them down.
After the failure of 'East End, West End', Sid was worried that he may be outstaying his television welcome. Instead, he accepted an offer to appear in the Tommy Steele movie, 'Tommy The Toreador'. Another film offer, which was made in 1959, was to change Sid's career forever, and inscribe his name indelibly in the minds of the British public.
Shooting for 'Carry On Constable' started on November 9th 1959. The movie was inspired by the popularity of the BBC series, 'Dixon Of Dock Green'. Sid played the part of Sergeant Wilkins, whose job it is to lick into shape the most incompetent set of new recruits imaginable. The film starred Kenneth Williams, who Sid had previously worked with on "Hancock", and Kenneth Connor, with whom Sid struck up a great friendship.
In the autumn of 1959, Tony Hancock called for a meeting with TV producer Duncan Hill Wood and writers Galton and Simpson. The temperamental star had decided that he'd had enough of the 'Hancock's Half Hour' format and wanted to try something different. He agreed to do one more series, but only if Sid James was dropped. He was concerned that the public thought of them as a double-act, and felt it was time to re-emphasize his own persona. However, Hancock was not prepared to give his friend and co-star the news himself. He left that to the BBC executives.
Sid was summoned by the BBC, unaware of the bombshell they were about to drop on him. Liz Fraser, occasional 'Carry On' star who had also appeared in the 'Hancock' TV and radio series, said that there had never been any deterioration in the relationship between Tony and Sid. 'Suddenly it just stopped.' She added: 'Sid was distraught. He just couldn't believe it.'
The following June the BBC gave Sid his own TV series, 'Citizen James'. The writers were Ray Galton and Alan Simpson. Both men later admitted that they wrote it because they felt sorry for the way Sid had been treated. In it, Sid played the part of Sidney Balmoral James (a name that has often, but incorrectly been cited as his real name), a fast-talking, quick-thinking gambler who only just managed to stay on the right side of the law. Alan Simpson said that it was exactly the same character that Sid had played in "Hancock". 'We just took Sid away from Hancock so he could carry on working on his get-rich-quick schemes.'
In fact, it wasn't until Talbot Rothwell started writing the scripts for the 'Carry On' films, with 'Carry On Cabby', that Sid was able to break away from the lovable rogue character that the British public had come to know him as. In it Sid plays Charlie, the owner of a cab company who is a workaholic to the point of neglecting his wife, Peggy (Hattie Jacques). When Charlie fails to show up for their wedding anniversary Peggy comes up with a scheme to teach him a lesson. She sets up a rival cab company staffed entirely by glamorous women, and steals all his business.
'Carry On' director Gerald Thomas recalled Sid's great comedy timing and his generosity as an actor: "He never resorted to any tricks at all, and he never upstaged anyone. He was a kid at heart. In 'Carry On Cowboy', I'd find him behind the scenery twirling a six-gun and trying to practice a fast draw. And he always liked to gamble. He would run a sweepstake every day based on how many minutes of film we'd shoot." The 'Carry On' series of films were hugely popular and each one managed to turn a profit within a month of their release. But the most Sid ever earned from a production was £5,000. Even so, this was around 7pound;2,000 more than many of the other actors were getting.
In 1966 Sid was offered a new series in which he would co-star with Peggy Mount. The sitcom, written by Vince Powell and Harry Driver, was called 'George And The Dragon'. It proved to be a big hit with viewers and Thames Television commissioned a second series, which went before the cameras in 1967. It was during the filming of an episode on May 13th that Mount noticed that Sid didn't look too well. Sid, in spite of suffering from chest pains, insisted that they finish the recording before going home. Early the next morning Sid was admitted to hospital in a serious condition. He had suffered a heart attack.
On hearing of Sid's heart attack one of the first people to phone Valerie was Tony Hancock. The call was short, Hancock wished his old friend well and ended the conversation abruptly. Neither Sid nor Valerie ever heard from Tony Hancock again. A year later he would take his own life.
In October 1967 Sid returned to work on the second series of 'George And The Dragon', although most of the people he worked with agreed that there were times during the recording of those episodes when he looked awful. Within days of completing 'George And The Dragon' he was back on the set for the latest 'Carry On' film. Because he was still not too well most of his scenes were rewritten so he spent most of 'Carry On Doctor' confined to a hospital bed. It was the first 'Carry On' in which Sid starred alongside Barbara Windsor.
Whenever one television series finished for Sid another wasn't far behind. In 1968 he began filming 'Two In Clover' with Victor Spinetti. They played a pair of stressed out city workers who turn their backs on the rat race and buy a small country farm. It can fairly be described as an early version of 'The Good Life', sans Surbiton. It proved popular enough to run for two series from February 1969 to March 1970. When it finished Sid was offered what would turn out to be his most successful and best-remembered sitcom; 'Bless This House'.
Created by Vince Powell and Harry Driver, 'Bless This House' was a studio based domestic comedy in which Sid starred, for the first time, as a family man. The character he played, Sid Abbott, was probably the closest he ever got to portray his real self on screen. Apart from the obvious difference (Sid Abbott worked by day as a rep for a stationery firm) the character's favourite pastimes were birds, booze and football. He may have also enjoyed the occasional flutter on the horses, too. In real life, Sid James 'occasional flutters' were nothing short of compulsive.
Also in 1971, Sid filmed 'Carry On Henry', in which he played a lecherous monarch in pursuit of the lovely Bettina, played by Barbara Windsor. Again, fiction was not far removed from the truth. Sid had become infatuated with Windsor through successive 'Carry On' films and by the time the series had reached the stage, in 'Carry On London', at the Victoria Palace in 1973, that infatuation had become an obsession.
Sid continued to pursue Barbara and shower her with gifts until they did in fact end up having an affair, but according to her, she never loved him. In her autobiography she wrote, 'I just wanted to get it over with. 'It'll get it out of his system,' I told myself.' Sid had other ideas. He confided in his friends that he was prepared to leave Valerie. In the end Barbara broke off the affair, but Sid was distraught and told Barbara that without her he'd be dead within a year. Sid's agent, Michael Sullivan, said that Sid never got over her. 'When he lost Barbara,' said Sullivan 'he lost the will to live.'
That year, 1975, Sid was preparing for a sixth season of 'Bless This House' and there was talk of a 'Sid James Television Special'. First though, Sid was due to go to Australia and star in the touring farce, 'The Mating Season'. It played to sell-out performances. When he returned to England with the same production in 1976, Thames Television signed a contract to record the play for transmission at Christmas.
On Monday 26th April 1976, the curtain came up at the Empire Theatre, Sunderland. 'The Mating Season' was in the early weeks of a full-length provincial tour. Sid and co-star Olga Lowe delivered their opening lines. Sid was standing behind Lowe, so when she delivered a particular line she didn't understand why Sid did not responded to it. By this time Sid had opened his mouth to speak, then stepped back and lowered himself onto a sofa. At first Lowe thought that Sid was playing a trick so she ad-libbed. The audience thought it was part of the act and roared with laughter. But it was no trick. It was not part of the act. Sid James was dead.
Whatever the role, lovable rogue, lecherous lady-killer, or downtrodden husband, Sid James always came across as 'one-of-the-lads'. He effortlessly projected natural personal warmth and it was that that endeared him equally to his many fans as well as his fellow actors. After his death affectionate tributes poured in from the many showbiz personalities that had worked closely with him throughout his long career. 'Carry On' producer Gerald Thomas said; 'He was a super person to get on with. He had great comedy timing and he was a generous actor. He always encouraged young people. He never upstaged anyone. We've lost a fine comedy talent, and I have lost a great friend.'
Biography: Laurence Marcus 2003