SIDNEY JAMES: 8TH MAY 1913 – 26TH APRIL 1976
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’.
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.
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 Cabby, Cleo, Cowboy, Up 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 Room, The Lavender Hill Mob, The House Across the Lake, Hell 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.
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.
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