James in the early 1970s
|Birth name||Solomon Joel Cohen|
8 May 1913|
Johannesburg, Transvaal Province, Union of South Africa
|Died||26 April 1976
Sunderland, Tyne and Wear, England
|Spouse||Berthe Sadie Delmont (m. 1936; div. 1940)
Meg Williams (m. 1943; div. 1952)
Valerie Ashton (m. 1952; his death 1976)
Appearing in British films from 1947, he was cast in numerous small and supporting roles into the 1960s. His profile was raised as Tony Hancock's co-star in Hancock's Half Hour, first in the radio series and later when it was adapted for television and ran from 1956 to 1960. Afterwards, he became known as a regular performer in the Carry On films, appearing in nineteen films of the series, with the top billing role in 17 (in the other two he was cast below Frankie Howerd). Meanwhile, his starring roles in television sitcoms continued for the rest of his life. He starred alongside Diana Coupland in the 1970s sitcom Bless This House until his death in 1976.
Remembered for a lascivious persona in the Carry On films, with the Snopes website describing him as "the grand old man of dirty laughter", he became known for his amiability in his later television work. Bruce Forsyth described him as "a natural at being natural".
On 26 April 1976, while touring in The Mating Season, James suffered a heart attack while performing on stage at the Sunderland Empire Theatre; he died in hospital an hour later. Some, including comedian Les Dawson, claim to have seen the ghost of James at the theatre, and subsequently refused to appear at the theatre again.
James was born Solomon Joel Cohen, on 8 May 1913, to Jewish parents, in South Africa, later changing his name to Sidney Joel Cohen, and then Sidney James. His family lived on Hancock Street in Hillbrow, Johannesburg. Upon moving to Britain later in life, he claimed various previous occupations, including diamond cutter, dance tutor and boxer; in reality, he had trained and worked as a hairdresser.
It was at a hairdressing salon in Kroonstad, Orange Free State, that he met his first wife. He married Berthe Sadie Delmont, known as Toots, on 12 August 1936 and they had a daughter, Elizabeth, born in 1937. His father-in-law, Joseph Delmont, a Johannesburg businessman, bought a hairdressing salon for James, but within a year he announced that he wanted to become an actor and joined the Johannesburg Repertory Players. Through this group, he gained work with the South African Broadcasting Corporation.
During the Second World War, he served as a lieutenant in an entertainment unit of the South African Army, and subsequently took up acting as a career. He moved to Britain immediately after the war, financed by his service gratuity. According to rumour, Sid had an affair with the daughter of an important member of Johannesburg society; his decision to move away from South Africa was partly because he was "advised" to leave due to the possible controversy. Initially, he worked in repertory before being spotted for the nascent British post-war film industry.
James made his first credited film appearances in Night Beat and Black Memory (1947), both crime dramas. He played the alcoholic hero's barman in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Small Back Room (1949).
His first major comedy role was in The Lavender Hill Mob (1951): with Alfie Bass, he made up the bullion robbery gang headed by Alec Guinness and Stanley Holloway. In the same year, he also appeared in Lady Godiva Rides Again and The Galloping Major. In 1953, he appeared as Harry Hawkins in The Titfield Thunderbolt, and also had a major, starring role in The Wedding of Lilli Marlene. In 1956, he appeared in Trapeze (1956), a circus film which was one of the most successful films of its year, and he played Master Henry in "Outlaw Money", an episode of The Adventures of Robin Hood. He also had a supporting part as a TV advertisement producer in Charlie Chaplin's A King in New York, a non-comic supporting role as a journalist in the science-fiction film Quatermass 2, and he performed in Hell Drivers (all 1957), a film with Stanley Baker. The next year, James starred with Miriam Karlin in East End, West End by Wolf Mankowitz, a half-hour comedy series for the ITV company Associated Rediffusion. Set within the Jewish community of London's East End, the series of six episodes was transmitted in February and March 1958, but plans for further episodes were abandoned after a disappointing response. For a while though, it had looked as if his commitment elsewhere might end his work with Tony Hancock, one of the most popular television comedians of the time.
In 1954, he had begun working with Tony Hancock in his BBC Radio series Hancock's Half Hour. Having seen him in The Lavender Hill Mob, it was the idea of Hancock's writers, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, to cast James. He played a character with his own name (but having the invented middle name Balmoral) who was a petty criminal and would usually manage to con Hancock in some way, although the character eventually ceased to be Hancock's adversary. With the exception of James, the other regular cast members of the radio series were dropped when the series made the transition to television. His part in the show now greatly increased and many viewers came to think of Hancock and James as a double act.
Feeling the format had become exhausted, Hancock decided to end his professional relationship with James at the end of the sixth television series in 1960. Although the two men remained friends, James was upset at his colleague's decision. The experience led to a shift away from the kind of roles for which he had become best known. He remained the lovable rogue but was keen to steer clear of criminal characters - in 1960 he turned down the part of Fagin in the original West End staging of Oliver! for that very reason . Galton and Simpson continued to write for both James and Hancock for a while, and the Sidney Balmoral James character resurfaced in the Citizen James (1960-1962) series. Sid James was now consistently taking the lead role in his television work. Taxi! (1963-64) was his next series. A comedy-drama rather than a sitcom, it was created by Ted Willis, but although it ran to two series, the programme was not particularly successful.
James became a leading member of the Carry On films team, originally to replace Ted Ray, who had appeared in Carry On Teacher (1959). It had been intended that Ray would become a recurring presence in the Carry On series, but he was dropped after just one film because of contractual problems. James ultimately made 19 Carry On films, receiving top-billing in 17, making him one of the most featured performers of the regular cast.
The characters he portrayed in the films were usually very similar to the wise-cracking, sly, lecherous Cockney he was famed for playing on television, and in most cases they bore the name Sid or Sidney, including, for example, Sir Sidney Ruff-Diamond in Carry On Up the Khyber. His trademark "dirty laugh" was often used and became, along with a world-weary "Cor, blimey!", his catchphrase. His laugh can be heard here . (Similarly, other regular members of the Carry On cast abbreviated their real first names in the films: Bernard Bresslaw was Bernie and Barbara Windsor Babs.)
There were Carry On films in which James played characters who were not called Sid or Sidney: Carry On Constable (1960), in which he played Sergeant Frank Wilkins; Carry On Henry (1971), a parody of the TV series The Six Wives of Henry VIII; Carry On Abroad (1972), in which James's character was named Vic Flange; and Carry On Dick (1974), a parody version of the legend of the highwayman Dick Turpin. In Henry and Dick, James played the title roles, while in Carry On Cleo he played Mark Antony. In Carry On Cowboy, he adopted an American accent for his part as "The Rumpo Kid". According to Adrian Rigelsford:
The cast make valiant attempts to maintain American accents, with the most convincing belonging to--surprisingly--Sid James, who made no attempt to disguise his accent in any other film, either before or after this one.
In 1967, James was intending to play Sergeant Nocker in Follow That Camel, but was already committed to recording the TV series George and the Dragon (1966-1968) for ATV, then one of the ITV contractors. James was replaced in Follow That Camel by the American comic actor Phil Silvers. On 13 May 1967, two weeks after the filming began of what eventually became an entry in the Carry On series, James suffered a severe heart attack. In the same year in Carry On Doctor, James was shown mainly lying in a hospital bed, owing to his real-life health problems. After his heart attack, James gave up his heavy cigarette habit and instead smoked a pipe or an occasional cigar; he lost weight, ate only one main meal a day, and limited himself to two or three alcoholic drinks per evening.
Meanwhile, his success in TV situation comedy continued with the series Two in Clover (1969-70), and Bless This House (1971-1976) as Sid Abbott, a successful enough series in its day to spawn its own film version in 1972.
On 26 April 1976, while on a revival tour of The Mating Season, a 1969 farce by the Northern Irish playwright Sam Cree, James suffered a heart attack on stage at the Sunderland Empire Theatre. Actress Olga Lowe thought that he was playing a practical joke at first when he failed to reply to her dialogue. When he failed to reply to her ad libs, she moved towards the wings to seek help. The technical manager (Melvyn James) called for the curtain to close and requested a doctor, while the audience (unaware of what was happening) laughed, believing the events to be part of the show. He was taken to hospital by ambulance, but died about an hour later at the age of 62.
James has been the subject of at least five tribute shows: a 1996 one-off tribute, The Very Best of Sid James; as the focus of a 2000 episode of the series The Unforgettable; a 2002 episode of Heroes of Comedy; Channel Four's With Out Walls, Seriously Seeking Sid in the late 1980s; and in 2013, the BBC's The Many Faces Of Sid James.
James married three times. He and his first wife divorced in 1940, mainly as a result of his many relationships with other women; it was a pattern which continued throughout his life. In 1943, he married a dancer, Meg Sergei, née Williams (born 1913). Five years later they had a daughter, Reina, before divorcing on 17 August 1952.
On 21 August 1952, James married Valerie Elizabeth Patsy Assan (born 1928), an actress who used Ashton as her stage name. In 1954, they had a son, Steve James, who is now a music producer. During the latter part of their marriage, they lived in a house partly designed by James himself, called Delaford Park, situated in Iver, Buckinghamshire, a location close enough to Pinewood Studios to allow him to return home for lunch while filming. During his marriage to Valerie, he had a well-publicised affair with Carry On co-star Barbara Windsor lasting more than 10 years. The affair was dramatised in the 1998 stage-play Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick and its 2000 television adaptation Cor, Blimey!. James's obsession with Windsor was such that it was rumoured that her then husband Ronnie Knight had all of James's furniture rearranged at home as a subtle threat and, on another occasion, that he had put an axe in James's floor, but close friends of the time, including Vince Powell and William G. Stewart, have dismissed the suggestions.
James was an inveterate and largely unsuccessful gambler, losing tens of thousands of pounds over his lifetime. His gambling addiction was such that he had an agreement with his agent, Michael Sullivan, under which his wife was not told how much he was being paid, so that a portion could be set aside for gambling.