Men of Character: Sidney James

July 21, 2020


Great Myths of British Cinema Number 496 – ‘Sid James always played himself’. This is the actor who worked with Powell & Pressburger, Gene Kelly, Burt Lancaster, Charlie Chaplin, Sean Connery, Joan Crawford, Bob Hope and Katherine Hepburn. You might find him portraying a spiv fleeing across a bomb site, an American sergeant, a Scotland Yard superintendent or even a journalist despatched by alien forces.  Small wonder that in 1956 the director Ralph Thomas stated, ‘It wouldn’t be a British picture if it didn’t have Sidney James in it’.

Hell Drivers

A year earlier the film reviewer of The Tatler wrote of John and Julie ‘for those who like a little salt with their cinema there is always Mr. Sidney James, who barges through the piece grumbling splendidly as only an Englishman can’. Of course, the actor born Solomon Joel Cohen hailed from South Africa, and he was already aged 33 when he arrived in the UK. His never-quite-lost accent became part of his appeal; as the guest narrator of the Rank Look at Life travelogue The Market, James rhapsodises about the East End in that distinctive Jo-Burg twang. 

George and the Dragon

By that time Sidney James was one of the great supporting players of British cinema.   ‘You don’t stay a star as long as you stay a character actor – and I’d much rather stay in work than be left with a “star” tag and nothing to justify it’ he informed The Stage of 20th October 1960.  In fact, James’s first Carry On film, Constable, had been released eight months earlier, and by the end of the decade, James was regarded around the world as the team’s leading light. 

Of the series CabbyCleoCowboyUp the Khyber and Matron showcase his mastery of timing, but the highlights of James’s 29-year screen career lie outside of the Carry Ons. One might cite The Small Back RoomThe Lavender Hill MobThe House Across the LakeHell Drivers and the surreal Joe Macbeth. And the warmth of his relationship with his screen son Robin Askwith helps to make Bless This House the Citizen Kane of the TV sitcom spin-off films.

The House Across The Lake

But for many, the finest work of Sidney James was in Hancock’s Half Hour, where he was the perfect foil to the star’s ‘baroque moth-eaten paranoid grandeur’, to quote the critic Maurice Richardson. The inmates of 23 Railway Cuttings were never billed as a double act, but in the minds of the viewing public, they were inseparable. As John Fisher wrote in Tony Hancock: The Definitive Biography:

For British audiences they represented the most popular comic association to come along since the little fellow from Lancashire and the big guy from Georgia hit the big time. Not even the soon-to-be successful combination of Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise hit the same note. 

Bless This House

Such praise is reserved only for the best of comedy acting. And to watch James, the Sancho Panza of East Cheam, responding to Hancock’s quixotic attempts at improvement is to experience an unassumingly great talent. 

Film Historian Andrew Roberts MA PhD FRSA


  1. Lee Beardshall Reply

    Enjoyed Watching sid James great comedy actor.

  2. Terry Christie Reply

    Sidney James was born on Thursday May 8th 1913 in South Africa and he was the great British Actor & Comic when he arrived in Britain on Christmas Day 1946 and the following year when he got big break as Eddie Clinton in Black Memory.
    He appeared in British Films,BBC,Independend Television & Stage Shows including Night Beat,Paper Orchid,The Small Back Room,Last Holiday,Hancock’s Half-Hour,The Lavender Hill Mob,Lady Godvia Rides Again,The Man in Black,Jokers Wild,Park Plaza 605,The House Across The Lake,Hell Drivers,The Wedding of Lilli Marlene,Taxi,Juke Box Jury,George & The Dragon,Bless This House,This is Your Life with the late Eamonn Andrews,Two in Clover,The Belles of St’Trinians,Father Brown,The Weak & The Wicked,The Green Helmet,Make Mine A Million,Too Many Crooks,The Titfield Thunderbolt,The Sid James Show,The Bruce Forsyth Show,Wedding Fever,19 Carry On Movies,Quatermass 2,The Front Page,A Weekend With Lulu,Double Bunk,Cosh Boy,Idle On Parade,Desert Mice,Dry Rot,Tall Headlines & The 39 Steps.

    Sadly on Monday April 26th 1976 Sid’s Final Stage Show The Mating Season at The Sunderland Empire Theatre and he passed away on stage during the performance at the age of 62 years.
    The Great Wonderful Memories of The British Actor & Comic Star icon is the late Sidney James and The Legend Lives On.

    Terry Christie,
    Sunderland,Tyne & Wear.

  3. Patrick Cleary Reply

    I was so happy to see you give Sid’s work with Tony Hancock your attention. Tony and Sid together were solid gold. I believe he said that he enjoyed the work he did with Tony more than anything else he ever did.
    That’s how I prefer to look back on Sid, him and Tony together.
    Sid was so much more than the Carry On films.

Comment on this feature:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *