The writer Deborah Ross once referred to Joan Sims’s ‘brilliantly cheering, seaside-postcard, iconic face’. It was an image that the actress did not entirely welcome; in 1955 she complained that British cinema made her look like ‘the battered back of a tram’, unlike Judy Holliday in the USA – ‘and they always give her a boyfriend’.
But Sims was so often unfair to herself, as her early film roles show-cased a character actress of great range. She was the harassed ice-cream vendor in Lost, the “Fairy Queen” coping with an unreliable pantomime star in Meet Mr. Lucifer and the vampish Miss Dawn in The Belles of St. Trinian’s. The response of her shop assistant to Margaret Rutherford’s request for a more ‘seductive’ hat in Trouble in Store, was worth the 1/9d cinema ticket. And for those of us of a certain age, she was one of the highlights of Southern Television’s Worzel Gummidge as the formidable Mrs. Bloomsbury-Barton.
Irene Joan Marion Sims was born on the 9th May 1930 and raised in Laindon, where her father was the station master. Post-RADA, Sims achieved fame in West End revues; The Sketch raved of 1954’s More Intimacy at Eight – ‘Ronnie Stevens as a spiv barber and Joan Sims as a thwarted station-announcer both stop the show’.
Sims’s film career commenced with the 1953 George Cole comedy Will Any Gentleman? and by the late 1950s, she regularly appeared on television, including The Adventures of Robin Hood. At that time, it was virtually a rite of passage for a young actor to co-star with Richard Greene’s ultra-Brylcreemed hero, among the prop trees of Nettlefold Studios. In 1960, Sims was one of the stars of ABC TV’s Our House – alas, a mere three episodes survive.
As for the Carry On films, it is more fruitful to note Sim’s remarkable versatility rather than focus on the extreme parsimony of Peter Rogers – it is easy to envisage him raiding the gas meter for spare shillings. She was especially good as the ingenue in Teacher and Sidney James’s long-suffering wife in Abroad, while the actress was equally well-deployed in the Betty Box/Ralph Thomas Doctor series. Her Russian ship’s captain provides one of the few redeeming moments in 1970’s In Trouble. Sims was too seldom cast in dramatic roles during her 49-year screen career. The terrifying Amelia Elizabeth Dyer in Granada’s Lady Killers and the vulnerable Miss Murgatroyd in the BBC’s Miss Marple: A Murder Is Announced, are reminders of talents frequently overlooked by the British film and TV industry
Joan Sims died on the 27th June 2001, and The Guardian obituary described her as ‘That extreme rarity, a natural rather than thought-out comedian’. She was also an actress who could instantly create a character without the need for dialogue. There is a moment in the 1965 short San Ferry Ann when she uses the mirror of David Lodge’s Bedford “Romany” to refresh her lipstick – and you see an entire suburban world in microcosm. Lesser actors would require pages of lines – Joan Sims needed just one reaction shot.
Film Historian Andrew Roberts MA PhD FRSA