Sid James

Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.

Sid James Pencil Portrait
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Last update: 16/2/16

In the UK, it is estimated that around 350,000 people are suffering from a gambling addiction. In recent years, the number of people experiencing problems with gambling has increased due to economic troubles associated with the global recession and an increase in the number of gambling outlets. It is now easier than ever before to place a bet, with a huge number of online shops and games sites enabling people to indulge themselves twenty four hours a day. Every year, a staggering £7 billion+ is spent on gambling.

Such opportunities were not as plentiful in the 50’s and 60’s but Sid James was nevertheless an inveterate gambler and a largely unsuccessful one, losing tens of thousands of pounds over his lifetime. His addiction was such that, in a prior agreement with his agent, Michael Sullivan and unbeknownst to his wife Valerie, a portion of his monthly salary was set aside for gambling. It wasn’t therefore, just a love of the camera that maintained his unrelenting work schedule for years; the need to generate speculative income would contribute to his first heart attack in 1967 and ultimately kill him nine years later.

Born Soloman Joel Cohen in Johannesburg South Africa, Sid James arrived in England in 1946, looking for his fortune. He worked in many jobs before he became a professional actor. Initially starting in the theatre, he managed to break into post-war British films, the most famous one being the 1951 film The Lavender Hill Mob’. In 1954, he began working with Tony Hancock (1924-1968) on his popular radio show, ‘Hancock’s Half Hour.’ His most famous acting roles were to begin in 1960, when he starred in Carry On Constable.’ He went to star in 19 of the films, receiving star billing in 17 of them. As his career rolled into the 70s, he starred as the doting father in the series ‘Bless This House.’ During a performance of The Mating Season at the Sunderland Empire Theatre in April 1976, Sid had a fatal heart attack and died whilst still on stage, as fellow comedian Tommy Cooper would do 8 years later. He was survived by his wife of 24 years, Valerie. He was cremated, and his ashes were scattered at Golders Green Crematorium, London.

Reviewing what we know of his life through the recollections of friends, loved ones and work colleagues, a picture emerges of a unique actor and artiste, forever punctual, generous with his time, well liked and a welcome presence on any film set. His generosity with money however, was not so apparent, his scrooge like tendencies falling subservient to his gambling addictions.

His work ethos fell somewhere between the drudgery of the everyday amateur thespian and the disparaging views of the profession expressed by a contemporary major star like Richard Harris. Whilst he treated acting as a job, he respected it and aspired to do it well. Close friend Victor Spinetti observed a man capable of overcoming the excesses of a previous evening to maintain his professionalism at all costs. His rapscallion image may have courted favour amongst men but there was a steely resolve to maintain his standing in an essential superficial industry.

He was a ladies man, capable of relentless charm offensives, and therefore probably unsure where the thrill of the chase ended and genuine feelings began. Persued ardently for three months, his future wife Valerie reluctantly agreed to a date for some peace and quiet. Talking to The Daily Mail twenty two years after his passing, she admitted he gave her confidence in herself. Observing the reticent blond dancer of the “Touch and Go” revue show they were both appearing in, he would encourage her to see her own beauty and to forsake her inferiority complex. Despite being twice her age she was soon in love with him. “I loved him in a total way (and) we had twenty four fantastic years together. We had an unbelievable love. We were so close; Sid and I were like one skin, that’s the way he used to put it. We were lost without each other”.

The fly in Sid’s marital ointment was of course Barbara Windsor. His relationship with the former chorus girl is analysed in chapter 13 of “Sid James – Cockney Rebel” by Robert Ross. At the heart of the affair lies the malaise that affects so many men of a certain age. As his colleague Victor Spinetti, a veteran of three film collaborations with The Beatles, put it; “Sid was like John Lennon. Barbara could have been his Yoko. It could have happened. But Barbara didn’t want to play that part. John was always saying to me: “Is that it, Vic, you know? I’ve got the wife. There’s food on the table. The kid’s in school. The fucking privet hedge around the house. Is this it? And then Yoko poked her head over the privet hedge and called “Hello.” That could have been Barbara for Sid. If Barbara had been a slightly different woman they might have gone off together. The domestic situation kept Sid going, but the free spirited relationship with Barbara was like a new world opening up for him. Like all of us, Sid wanted to share a life with someone but not have that tight rein of “What have you been doing? or “Who have you been sleeping with?” I’m a great believer that if you want something you give it away. You want love. Give it. You want freedom. Give it. Sid wanted love and freedom. And he gave it”.

The affair came to an unnatural end with no firm resolution. He stayed in his marriage and perhaps subconsciously saw the wisdom in the old maxim, ‘never wish for anything too hard – you might just get it’. After a whirlwind period with Barbara, friends suspect he would have ended up bankrupt. They shared a common interest in the theatre and this passion fueled their intimacies; concentrated rehearsal time for plays contrasting with the stop-start nature of filming for the ‘Carry on’ series. Both were married yet Barbara relished Sid’s growing appreciation of her professional abilities and his protectiveness. She appeared to reason that sexual acquiescence would dilute his incessant ardour and reinvigorate the close ‘near paternal like friendship’ she craved as a refuge from marriage to her gangster husband Ronnie Knight.

Her husband’s subsequent life after fleeing to Spain is recounted in the following articles from 2007 and 2012. James was fortunate to avoid severe repercussions for his involvement with a gangster’s moll.

It would appear that James was incapable of maintaining a sense of perspective with Miss Windsor. Devoid of the pressures associated with domestic life and with the time to simply focus on each other, the attraction of life with Barbara must have mushroomed out of all proportion; a dozen red roses every week and little notes became the norm.

Valerie was eventually made aware of the affair and suffered the pain of her husband’s continuing contractual obligations to work with Barbara on two remaining projects, the stage show ‘Carry on London’ and one last movie Carry on Dick.’ It was reportedly Windsor who finished it as Sid never could, yet like millions, he found he didn’t die without her. One of the greatest mistakes people make is to fantasise about a failed relationship and to dwell on what might have been. If James had moved onto a fourth major committed relationship what factors involved would have ensured continuing contentment in his life? Can we presume that Barbara would have had no cause to ever complain about domestic trivia, to have steadfastly avoided the menopausal period, to have lit up every time James came into her orbit, and to have maintained harmony whatever the potentially differing trajectories of their professional careers? What also, the ramifications of his continuing gambling addiction once the large pay days became a thing of the past, the continuing guilt over the breakup of his family and its effect on his two children, and the shared connection with Valerie over the loss of their third stillborn child. Fanciful notions of “love” soon give way to the realities of life. Even as I write this commentary, there are millions of men lying in bed alongside their new partners with one all pervading thought running through their minds – “What the hell have I done?” And then there are the women picking up their partner’s socks and shoes strewn all over the place and thinking to themselves, “Christ I didn’t sign up for this.” How else are we to deduce what really happens when so many relationships fail? How many times have I heard a woman of a certain age inform me that she’s met someone really nice and within a year it’s all over? Whenever I’m researching material for this site, I’m bombarded with cyber dating advertisements seeking to engineer relationships amongst people who don’t know the first thing about each other. Even today, God forbid, if I was a single man, it wouldn’t occur to me early on with someone important enough, to avoid detailing the predominantly smooth but occasionally rough aspects to my life, and yet I know by experience that the thought to behave in a similar fashion would barely occur to any woman I might meet. Of course there is the counter argument that certain subject areas are sensitive and not to be revealed until there is a committed relationship. Unfortunately, statistical evidence suggests that this approach continuously fails. In the case of Sid and Barbara, both went back to their career and marriage.

In her autobiography, ‘All of Me,’ Windsor talks about her five abortions, the first three of which took place before the age of 21, the last when she was 42. She has said that she never wanted children as a result of her father rejecting her. Speaking further on the subject, she has gone on record as saying: ‘I don’t have any regrets about not having kids. I’ve just never had those maternal feelings. I am a nurturer by nature, but I nurture adults: my friends, the people I work with. I don’t want to nurture children’. It is interesting to reflect on the duality of thought processes men go through with women like Miss Windsor. On the one hand, there is the prospect of a concentrated relationship devoid of interference from siblings, and yet there is equally, if not more greatly, concern at the apparent absence of an almost instinctual aspect to a woman’s very being. In redressing some balance here, she did express regrets to Caroline Waterston in “The People” in October 2010 saying, “A little part of me regrets not having children but I never had the opportunity. I think I would have been a good mother.” She remains a ‘national treasure’ in the UK, but in her private life has consorted with some highly questionable characters from her native East End of London. Can anyone really be that naive? She would have us believe so, yet I remain less convinced. Nevertheless, she is a consumate professional and her third marriage endures.,,368877,00.html

Sid belonged with Valerie, she was his wife, the mother of his children and the woman he had fallen in love with all those years ago. They shared a history of good and bad times, and the tragedy of their third child had clearly affected them differently. As ever, Sid hid his heartbreak in front of Valerie but broke down on the phone to his close friend Kenneth More. She hoped for another child but it didn’t happen and within a year, Sid was reminded of his own mortality with his first heart attack. We can but surmise here that as Valerie quietly dealt with her own grief and concerns over her husband, he sought to reassure his employers and their insurers that all was well. The horse race bets, the bottle of vodka and sixty cigarettes a day had to go and go they did; unfortunately to be replaced by dog racing, pipe tobacco and various alternative tipples. The strong work ethic remained for the man, who despite his fame, was consigned to a view of himself as little more than a “jobbing actor.” There would be nothing but the best for his family yet for himself at the age of fifty four, there was the nagging doubt of something still missing in his life. These thoughts invariably become all pervading when one’s timeline becomes truncated yet in reality he had it all, even the daily monotony that went with it. He’d have only realised what he’d lost when it was too late. If Valerie was the one woman who had truly loved him, one can only hope that he had come to realise that fact in the last years of his life. He would have found, as we all do, that whatever the feelings, the fact remains that for the other person involved, there is an interchangeabilty between ourselves and other potential partners. For millions of a certain age, there is deep seated denial about the practicality of creating a life and involving a partner, with the emotional ructions of yesteryear ensuring a lack of heartfelt intensity usually found only in the young. I mistakenly presumed for several years, that maturity would bring wisdom to most people whereas in fact, the accumulation of regrettable experiences invariably brings emotional derangement. We naturally prefer to imagine that we have counted for something with many people. I know differently now, and whilst the realisation is unpalatable, I don’t delude myself. Sid hopefully found himself in the same place at the end of his life.

As for male relationships, the split with Hancock was very upsetting for Sid. Tony had already told him months before the official announcement that he was extremely concerned about the audience seeing the pair as a double act. They weren’t a double act in the strictest sense of the word but out in public Tony would invariably be asked, “Hey Hancock, where’s Sid then?” The association was affecting him quite badly. The problem for Tony was that Sid was an actor whilst the perception of Tony was very much a comedian. He had done his variety act around the country without Sid and he was eager to hold a television series together on his own as well. Up to that point Sid had been a constant fixture of the radio and television shows that had made Tony a national star yet he could go off and make a very lucrative film cameo before breakfast whilsy all Hancock’s professional aspirations rested on his ‘Half Hour’ shows.

It was a bombshell for Sid. His wife remembers him saying, “Tony doesn’t want me in the show anymore, he wants to go it alone.” He was absolutely shattered.’

In 1969, whilst Sid was starring in the Thames television series “Two in Clover,” he had a rare moment of reflection with his co-star, the welsh actor Victor Spinetti.

‘As you know, Sid was never one for looking back on his career. What was done was done and on with the next thing. But he was extremely cut up about Tony Hancock’s death and kept on wondering why he had dropped him from the series all those years ago. He was very upset about that and he still couldn’t understand it. That broke his heart because, he said that, at the time, he thought the two of them had had it made and that the show was going to run for years and years. Indeed, if Hancock had lived, I can’t see why that partnership couldn’t have continued well in to the 1970s, like Eric Sykes and Hattie Jacques did. As far as Sid was concerned they had a good thing going on and there was no need to change it. As far as I could tell Sid looked upon the Hancock years as his best years. They gave his career a real touch of class and quality. Something all those knockabout comedies and Carry On films didn’t. Don’t get me wrong. I love the Carry Ons. They never employed me but I still love them! But I certainly think once you had performed those marvellous Galton and Simpson scripts, something akin to mini Harold Pinter plays disguised as situation comedy, then you were spoilt for life.’

Unfortunately, the final professional engagement between Hancock and James was a disastrous recording studio session in 1965 to record new versions of two television scripts, ‘The Missing Page’ and ‘The Reunion Party,’ for Decca Records.

Graham Stark, a mutual friend and valued member of the Galton and Simpson repertory company, worked with Hancock during this period and was shocked to see him. ‘I hadn’t seen Hancock for years. There he was. Honestly. He looked like my father. He was grey. And fat. He just couldn’t do it anymore. The timing was all gone.’

The reunion was certainly an ordeal for Sid as Hancock’s escalating drink problem was by now seriously affecting his comic timing. Less than a year later, while on set with Kenneth Williams filming ‘Don’t Lose Your Head,’ Sid allegedly warned his ‘carry on’ cohort to steer clear from resurrecting the celebrated ‘Test Pilot’ sketch from the radio show, ‘The Diary,’ with Hancock. The lad ‘imself was due to give a one man performance at the Royal Festival Hall show in September 1966 and the pressure of including substantial all new material was compelling him to seek solace in familiar scripts from his halcyon period.

The last time Sid saw Hancock was in 1967. It was just before Sid’s major heart attack and he was driving down Piccadilly when he spied the dishevelled figure of his old cohort. ‘He looked dreadful,’ remembered Sid. ‘I tried to pull up and get over to him. I got the car parked, but by then he had disappeared.He was so full of liquor he didn’t see me. I wish to God I had been able to catch him, because little things like that can change people’s lives.’

Recommended listening

Hancock’s half Hour (1954-1959) BBC Radio

If Philip Purser was right, when he once said of Tony Hancock that his appearance was, “of a frog nearly, but not quite, transformed into a handsome prince by the kiss of a sub-standard princess”, then Sid James was perennially on hand to rub salt in the wound.

Hancock was pure fodder for Sid’s financial opportunism : “Did Rembrandt look like a musician? Of course she didn’t.”

Sublime comedy and timeless.

Recommended viewing

Hancock’s Half Hour BBC Tv Series (1956-1960)

When Hancock mimes a dark thriller to James in a public library, complete with black hat, rope and all, Sid can only smile. For a man whose literary aspirations began and ended with the Racing Gazette, it all appeared ‘poetry in motion.’ I loved them together and so did millions of others.

All in all, there’s impeccable team work at play, even if Hancock would ultimately come to resent the public’s perception of the pair as a double act. Tony of course, loved him and even amidst the drink fueled tawdriness of his final days, was still compelled to make a telephone call to the James household after Sid’s heart attack. There would be no felications, no social graces, just a barely recognisable voice enquiring of Valerie – “How is he then?” Short and sweet then, but a call that meant everything to Sid.

Carry on regardless (1961)

The fifth entry in the series, with a now firmly established and settled regular team. Sid is Bert Handy (great name), who along with his secretary Miss Cooling, is attempting to fill vacancies at a new enterprise called Helping Hands. Notable for an appearance by “Professor” Stanley Unwin, who makes more sense to me than most people these days, this Carry On is essentially a series of separate sketches linked together by Sid’s agency. A staple feature on British television in recent years, and for me personally, a warm memory of school holidays and double features at the local flea pit.

Carry on cruising (1962)

Captain Wellington Crowther (Sid James) runs a tight ship aboard the SS Happy Wanderer but when five crew members are replaced at short notice his latest voyage appears to be anything but smooth sailing.

Crowther promises his new crew positions aboard his next command if they manage to get through their inaugural voyage without incident, but with unrequited love on deck and a decidedly unappetising cake in the galley, it looks like his hopes for promotion are sunk.

The first Carry On movie in colour but little in the way of exotic locations for the cast. Stock footage may have deceived cinema audiences but shooting was confined to Pinewood. Sid is Sid, albeit sartorially more elegant than usual in his naval “all whites”, and embues his character with a mix of authoritarianism and foreboding.

Carry on cabby (1963)

The best of the early ‘Carry Ons’, a monochrome delight that pits workaholic Sid James against his wife, the long-suffering Hattie Jacques; the battle between Speedee Taxis and Glamcabs packed with hilarious incidents and cracking performances, not least from Kenneth Connor and Esma Cannon as the respective loyal lieutenants and Charles Hawtrey as the hapless Pintpot.

Sid James takes centre stage in this one, playing Charlie Hawkins, the workaholic husband of Peggy (Hattie Jacques). Peggy’s starved of attention because Charlie devotes all his time to his thriving cab company and the oddball assortment of drivers he employs. So when he breaks one promise too many, Peggy takes her revenge, starting her own company and populating it with nubile young lady drivers possessed of a willingness to deploy their obvious assets to lure fares into their cabs inevitably bringing Charlie’s company to its knees in a matter of weeks.

Veering fractionally from its seaside postcard roots, the script deals with female empowerment, something of an an oxymoron for a series based on smutty innuendo, yet these were early days in the 60’s womens liberation movement and the campaign did not have universal support from all quarters. Hattie reflects these conflicting views in her screen portrayal; she wants to make a point but she’s not out to ruin her husband.

The Big job (1965)

When is a ‘Carry On’ film not a ‘Carry On’ film? A tricky one to answer, especially when viewing the next best thing, which this movie most assuredly is.

In this Brit comedy from the 1960s, a crook named George ‘The Brain’ (Sid James) and his two accomplices have served fifteen years behind bars after a large bank robbery. Before being banged up, George managed to stash the loot in a hollow tree, and the thought of picking this up when they get out has kept the felons sane when inside. However, fifteen years is a long time, and when they go to seek out their ill-gotten gains, they find what was once the middle of nowhere is now a housing estate – and their precious tree now standing in the yard of the local cop shop.

Carry on cowboy (1966)

Carry on camping (1969)

When Sid Boggle and Bernie Lugg decide to take their girlfriends on a summer holiday to Paradise Camp, they think they’re off to a nudist colony but they couldn’t be more mistaken.

Yes, this is the one in which Babs (Barbara Windsor) bursts out all over and Sid discovers flower power.

Eagle eyed viewers, or at least those unconcerned with the whereabouts of Barbara’s bra, will observe the proliferation of bare trees in all the background shots. Filming took place in the autumn of 1968 and the cast suffered accordingly.

The 17th entry in the series and all rather formulaic, subsequent television screenings highlighting the virtual interchangeability of one film with another. They outstayed their welcome and sadly outlived several key cast members but the ride, whilst it lasted, was predictable fare and fun in equal measure.

Carry on Henry (1971)

The last memorable entry in the series in which Sid as Henry VIII, saves on alimony payments by beheading his wives. Queen Marie (Joan Sims), is sister to the king of France and garlic drenched, an unforgivable faux pas on her wedding night, and enough to send her husband’s wandering eye in the direction of Bettina (Barbara Windsor), daughter of the Earl of Bristol* (oh dear!) and he starts his plot to get rid of his French Queen.

*A fine pair of bristol (cities)

In Cockney slang it means “titties.”

Some words in cockney slang are fequently abbreviated. A cockney may say “A fine pair of bristols” instead of saying “ A fine pair of bristol cities.”

Probably the last great ‘Carry On’, helped in no small part by a witty script and exotic looking locations. Kenneth Williams as Thomas Cromwell, downplays his usual campness and spars effectively with Terry Scott’s Cardinal Wolsey. Barbara Windsor as the buxom Bettina displays real chemistry with Sid, thereby allowing her burgeoning affair in real life to spill over into their screen time together.

Citizen James Tv series (1960 – 1962)

These are the only known surviving episodes and comprise the complete Series One, along with two episodes each from Series Two and Three – now available on a 2-DVD Set.

Seriously Seeking Sid (1992)

This programme talks to friends, family, colleagues and even Sid’s bookies to show the man behind the Yak Yak Yak. Using some never before seen photographs, rare cine footage from his Army days, as well as clips of his films, a composite picture emerges of a skilled actor with a range of techniques and an acute understanding of camera work.

The programme follows Sid’s life chronologically from living in South Africa, serving in the Army, coming over here on Christmas Day 1946 with his wife of the time Meg and his daughter Reiner. There are interviews with his agent (Michael Medwin), people he worked with (Galton and Simpson, Joe Brown and Gerald Thomas etc), as the programme builds a picture of a gentle man albeit one with faults, namely gambling, womanising and the occasional drink.

The most insightful moments come courtesy of an interview with his third wife Valerie, who paints a quite different picture of the man that we all thought we knew from previous documentaries, interviews and books. She recalls him as a shy, gentleman who was essentially a family man; a view reinforced by Gerald Thomas who explains that he and his family spent a lot of time together, and he was great with his children.

The programme winds up naturally at the Sunderland Empire on 26th April 1976, talking to the people who were around him on that fateful performance when he died onstage.

Perhaps conditional upon Valerie’s participation, there is barely a ripple of a mention to the affair with Barbara Windsor.

The last scene of this generally excellent and absorbing programme, is the unveiling of the famous blue Dead Comic’s plaque on the front of his Gunsbury Avenue home, with all his friends, colleagues and hangers-on celebrating the man and the legend.

Cor Blimey! (2000)

Before finding national fame as “Minted Mel” in ITV’s “Benidorm,” Geoffrey Hutchings was one of the unsung heroes of stage and television, a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company and a first rate character actor. His sudden death in 2010 was a sad loss to the profession, and the series that had provided his ‘indian summer’ would never be the same again.

‘Cor Blimey’ recounts the story of Sid’s affair with Barbra Windsor, an infatuation that got out of hand. Hutchings had originally played the part of James in Terry Johnson’s play “Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick,”

The ‘two dimensional’ yet much loved characters of the ‘Carry-on’s’ – Britain’s longest running film series – have a life that endures beyond the era in which they flourished on the big screen. In this drama, and running parallel with the central theme of the star crossed lovers – is the gradual decline in the quality of the films and its effect on the principal cast members. There are revelatory moments in this drama, when the masks of their onscreen personas are removed, the performances transcending mimicry to reveal very real people behind the familiar faces. Samantha Spiro plays Barbara Windsor as an intelligent forthright woman, the equal of her male counterparts, yet caught in the crossfire between two polar opposites – the alpha male James and the effete kenneth Williams, played equally superbly by Adam Godley – characters that engender genuine love and affection in her heart. Hutchings’ Sid is a loveable fella with hidden depths, and when Barbara succumbs to his affections it is entirely believable. Their love scene is a particularly tender moment with the two at their most human.

Lightening the emotional intensity of their affair is the tragic comic tale of Williams’ piles and an obsession with flashing himself at all and sundry. Adam Godley portrays him as the tragic figure he would truly become, his once promising career as a thoroughbred shakespearian actor derailed by ever more bawdry comedies and chat show appearances. As the death knell sounds on the series it also rings out for Sid and Barbara’s affair, as they both knew it would and ‘Cor, Blimey!’ comes to a touching finale as the real Barbara Windsor seamlessly replaces her acting counterpart for an emotive exchange with Kenneth in Sid’s now dilapidated trailer.

“Cor Blimey” works on several key levels, the trio of perfectly attuned performances imbuing their characters with a depth and humanity that reveals them as flawed yet endearing characters in equal measure. That was perhaps no surprise, but afforded the opportunity of re-appraising the programme on ‘YouTube’ I was horrified to discover it was more than fifteen years old! At this rate, I really will be pushing up daisies before I’ve time to blink.

Recommended reading

Sid James: A Biography (Cliff Goodwin)

Blimey! It’s the Sid James Book (Gary Wharton)

A copiously illustrated biography of the “Carry On” legend that includes easy-to-read sections detailing his extensive radio/ theatre/film & television work across four decades.