1913 - 1976
Part One of Two
With his battered features, wicked leer and possibly the most recognisable laugh in show business, Sid James appeared to the world as a streetwise Cockney ex-heavyweight boxer, an image that he actively encouraged because he knew that it would endear him to millions of fans worldwide. But Sid was no more an East End boy than he was a fighter. "Nobody could ever think of me as a star, " Sid once said. " All I can do is play myself." But being 'himself' was all he needed, because Sid James was loved by millions worldwide, and when he tragically died on stage at the Sunderland Empire on 26th April 1976, the world lost a unique talent.
Laurie and Reine Cohen had been living in Johannesburg for a year when Reine discovered she was pregnant. In 1911 she gave birth to a boy, who they decided to call Maurice after one of Laurie's older brothers. The couple had been touring the theatres as an accomplished vaudeville act, usually as second-spotters, and with Maurice's arrival the act was temporarily broken up. Thankfully, Laurie, billed as Lou James, was an accomplished stand-up comedian, so he was able to support the family fairly comfortably.
However, news began to reach Reine that during her absence Lou had been entertaining a number of ladies in his dressing room. So, when Reine discovered that she was pregnant for a second time she was determined that the impending birth was going to cause as least disruption to the act as possible.
On May 8th 1913, Reine gave birth to a second boy in the back room of her grandmother's house in Hancock Street, Newcastle, Natal. The boy was named Sidney Joel Cohen although it was shortened by other family members to Sollie. 'As soon as my mother was able to get up and about my parents were on tour again,' Sid later recalled. 'I was in a skip in the wings while my mum and dad were on stage doing their act.'
By the age of three Sollie found himself thrust in front of the footlights and for a time it must seemed as though this was destined to be his future, as part of the family vaudeville act. But in 1919 Reine and Lou were spotted by an agent who offered them a tour of Australia. They had no hesitation in accepting the offer. Sollie and Maurice were unceremoniously left with relatives in Natal while their parents left to pursue their careers. As far as Sollie was concerned it was an act of betrayal that shattered his relationship with his parents -especially his mother - forever.
When the Australian tour finally finished in 1921, Reine returned home alone to collect her children. Now eight years of age, Sollie was sent to Hospital Hill Primary School, where his cousin Joel Cohen was a pupil. To add further confusion, the family had taken to calling Joel 'Sidney'. It was the young lads class teacher who resolved the problem. 'From now on you will be Joel, and Sollie, you will be called Sidney.' Sidney returned home and informed his mother of the name change. 'Okay,' she said 'we may as well change your surname, too.' The following day Sidney walked into school and told his teacher that from now on he would be known by a new name...Sidney James.
Sid was not a good pupil. Academically he showed very little ability or interest and was often playing truant. He left school without any formal qualifications and was allocated a place at a nearby Trade School where it was hoped he'd learn to be an electrician. When that failed his mother handed him an ultimatum. He could either join the family business (Reine had opened a hairdressing salon a few years earlier) or he could get out and fend for himself. He chose the former.
Surprisingly, Sid found that he had an aptitude for cutting hair and after serving a year's apprenticeship under his uncle, Sonnie Solomon, he was cutting and styling hair for some of Marie Tudor Salon's more valued customers. One of them was the daughter of Joseph Delmont, a rich and respectable member of Johannesburg's Jewish community.
Berthe Sadie (Toots) Delmont shared Sid's interest in music and dance -in particular Jazz and the Charleston. This interest rekindled Sid's childhood enjoyment of performing and began to undermine his 'forced' career. After several arguments he quit his job although his growing reputation as a hairdresser meant that offers from other establishments came flooding in. But Sid decided he wanted a complete change of scenery and moved to Kroonstad some miles away. It was 1932.
The move did little to placate Sid's dissatisfaction with his career and in an effort to break away he opened a dance school. He hired a large hall at the back of a Kroonstad restaurant and soon found that he had a steady stream of patrons. Not all of them, however, were simply interested in dancing lessons. At 19 years of age, tanned and athletic, Sid James discovered sex, and by all accounts there was no shortage of females who would turn up for dance lessons and then expect a little extra for their money.
By late 1934 Sid had become tired of Kroonstad and was ready to return to Johannesburg. Marie Tudor welcomed him back and before long Sid and Toots Delmont were making plans for their wedding. Joe Delmont was horrified that his daughter should be marrying Sid, but also realised there was little he could do. On 12th August 1936 they married. Joe's wedding gift was a salon that he purchased for Sid in the basement of the Carlton Hotel. The hotel was owned by the Schlesinger family who almost twenty years later would invest in one of Britain's first independent TV companies.
By this time Sid had acquired another obsession -gambling. Johannesburg had two racetracks and Sid was a constant visitor to both. Now the owner of a thriving business employing around thirty stylists, Sid enjoyed the freedom that being a boss allowed him. He was full of self-confidence, had an instantly likeable manner about him and made friends very easily. Too easily. By the end of October 1936 - just eighty days after he married Toots, Joe Delmont discovered that Sid had been having an affair with a fellow hairdresser who was now pregnant. For the sake of his daughter, Joe paid the woman a substantial amount of money on condition that she leave South Africa and never disclose the truth.
By February the next year Sid had got himself involved in another relationship with the same result. Once more Joe paid the girl off and once more Sid returned to his wife. A month later it was Toots' who informed Sid that she was expecting a child. Sid was furious. He claimed it was a plot by Joe to try and control him. Elizabeth James was born in December 1937 but Sid, who took little or no interest in the pregnancy was equally unmoved by the birth.
Some months earlier Sid had joined the Johannesburg Repertory Players and just before Christmas was offered a small part in 'Double Error' by Lee Thompson. Through his connections at the Rep, Sid was offered a part in a new series of children's radio broadcasts. He arrived at the studios of the South African Broadcasting Corporation and was partnered with a sixteen-year old girl called Moira Lister. 15 years later the two of them would work together again on another radio show -'Hancock's Half Hour'.
Sid had more offers of work coming in from the SABC and was soon offered his first Johannesburg Rep lead in John Steinbeck's 'Of Mice and Men'. In the meantime his and Toot's relationship had reached breaking point and ultimately it ended in divorce. Joe Delmont demanded the return of the salon he had purchased as a wedding present, but Sid refused to relinquish control. Delmont promptly put a price on Sid's head. Sid, perhaps wisely, decided it was time to join the Army.
With his theatrical background, Sid, after spending some time with the South African Tanks Corp in Abyssinia throughout 1940, was ordered to return to Pretoria and join the Entertainment Unit. Charged with putting on a show to entertain the troupes and promoted to Corporal, Sid took his company, known as 'The Crazy Gang', to the Middle East, starting in June 1942. The tour lasted eight months during which time the company found themselves pinned down under heavy fire at Tobruk. On his eventual return to Pretoria Sid was promoted to Staff Sergeant.
In 1943 Sid married Meg Sergei. The couple had known each other since 1939, when Sid was still married to Toots, and Meg had volunteered for the Army when Sid signed up. In September 1945 Meg fell pregnant, and with the war almost over the couple began planning their future. An acquaintance of Sid's, Larry Skikne, had received a government grant to travel to London and enrol at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. On hearing this Sid and Meg applied for, and received a grant of £450.00. Enough to get them to England and tide them over until Sid could find a job. (Years later Sid would help Larry Skikne to chose a new name -one that he became internationally known by; Laurence Harvey.)
Sid and Meg arrived in England on Christmas Day 1946. They arranged to stay at 3 Queens Gate Mews near London's Gloucester Road. Sid had bought with him a letter of introduction to playwright Emlyn Williams and had also been given the names of two BBC producers. He wasted no time in writing to them outlining his stage and radio experience and informed the BBC producers that he was able to do American or Cockney accents as well as play tough-guy parts. He was also capable of some comedy.
One of the recipients of Sid's letters, Peter Richmond, invited the unknown South African actor to an interview on Thursday 16th January at 11.30am. A few days later Sid and Meg were out walking through London's West End when they bumped into John Tore and Olga Lowe, some old friends from their last Entertainment Unit party. Tore and Lowe were on their way to an audition to play a gangster and his moll in a British film. At Tore's suggestion Sid accompanied them to Archie Parnell and Company, a theatrical agency that was now being run by Archie's widow, Phyllis Parnell.
On arrival at Parnell's office in Golden Square, Sid was promptly offered the part of the gangster, Eddie Clinton, in the film 'Black Memory'. Sid agreed to allow Phyllis to represent him. He had been in England for nine days and had got himself both a film role and an agent.
'Black Memory' was released without much ado; most critics agreed that it was a miserable and insignificant film but during its shooting Sid made friends with Michael Medwin who in turn got Sid a part in a film called 'Night Beat'. As previously, Sid's role was unaccredited. But he was beginning to get noticed and by August had signed a standard BBC contract to appear in a Light Programme drama, 'The Fabulous Miss Dangerfield'. By December he had been offered a second radio part and had already appeared in five films.
'It Always Rains On Sunday' is often (incorrectly) cited as Sid's first British screen appearance. The film, made by Ealing Studios, starred Jack Warner and Googie Withers. It was actually Sid's fourth film but was the first for which he received a credit. Critically it was well-received and brought Sid to the notice of a wider audience. Impresario Jack Hylton was one of them. Hylton was looking for new talent for his play, 'Burlesque', which would open in Manchester in December 1947 and transfer to Her Majesty's Theatre in London in January 1948. Sid was offered a small part as a loveable drunk. By the time the play transferred to London Sid's part had been expanded to include an extra scene especially written for him. By the time the play ended its run Sid was already being offered other parts. As well as appearing regularly on the London stage he continued to accept a number of small, walk-on film parts.
On 1st August 1948 Sid took the first steps in a new medium -television. Sid played Sharkey Morrison in two episodes of 'Kid Flannagan', broadcast on 1st and 5th August. Ten days later he landed his first lead role since arriving from South Africa when TV audiences saw him play Billy Johnson in a two-part drama, 'The Front Page'.
On the home front things were not great between Sid and Meg. Although Meg had given birth to a baby girl on 26th April 1947, the couple's relationship was rapidly deteriorating and rumours began to reach Meg of Sid's extra-marital affairs. As a result of this she began drinking heavily and on many occasions Sid would return home to find her drunk, which then led to further arguments. Sid had, in fact, also begun a relationship with a nineteen-year old actress, Valerie Assan.
Early in 1951-film director Charles Chrichton, who was about to begin shooting a new comedy for Ealing Studios, approached Phyllis Parnell as he wanted to hire one of her clients but couldn't remember his name. From Chrichton's description, a rugged looking, gravel-throated actor, it soon became apparent that the man he wanted was Sid James. The comedy, written by T.E.B. Clarke, was about a plot to smuggle gold to the continent. Alec Guinness and Stanley Holloway had already been cast, and Chrichton wanted Sid to play a Cockney safecracker. The film was to be called 'The Lavender Hill Mob'. It was Sid's first 'A' feature movie, and it won an Academy Award for best script.
From that moment on Sid appeared in a number of impressive films and was eventually offered a starring role in 'The Square Ring' in which he played the owner of a boxing ring. It was one of a number of films that Sid used to propagate the misconception that he had, prior to his showbiz career, earned a living in the boxing ring. There's no doubt that Sid was quick with his fists whenever it suited him, but in reality he'd never been anything more than a bar-room brawler. Still, the legend was good for the image.
By 1953 Sid was a highly bankable British star and was even attracting interest from America, MGM being the first to cast him in a US production 'Crest Of A Wave' starring Gene Kelly. Another film of note that Sid appeared in that year (in all, he made 10 movies in 1953) was 'Orders Are Orders', a British comedy which starred Peter Sellers, Eric Sykes and Tony Hancock.
A wind of change was in the air for British comedy. The standard format for a radio light entertainment show was for it to feature the 'star name' or double act, accompanied by a number of upcoming comedians in small supporting roles, all partaking in a number of different sketches that were broken up by musical interludes. On 1st May 1953 an outline for a new type of comedy series landed on the desk of BBC's Head of Variety. Sid James' star was about to rise even higher...
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