If You See Sid: The Life & Times Of A Comedy Legend

From pock-marked kid in South Africa to Carry On via Hancock's Hour and more, Sid James was a living, breathing, legend...
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From pock-marked kid in South Africa to Carry On via Hancock's Hour and more, Sid James was a living, breathing, legend...

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October, 1968, Pinewood studios, Iver Heath, Buckinghamshire: the first day of shooting on Carry On Camping, number 15 in the bawdy bums’n’bosoms franchise which had begun with Sergeant a decade earlier. Despite the film’s sunny, happy-holidays theme, it is rather damp and dreary, and the mud has been sprayed with green paint by the overalled chaps in special effects to create the illusion of verdancy.

Barbara Windsor, in her fourth Carry On role, is playing Babs, a pupil at Chaste Place convent whose jet-propelled puce bikini top will later catapult her into cinema iconitude. The scene we are shooting today, however, involves Babs in a shower cubicle, where she is being spied upon by the aptly-named fellow campsite-dweller Sid Boggle. To borrow the style of an American film trailer: Sid James is Sid Boggle.

Windsor is determined to dispel her Cockney sparrer image and play the part, as Kenneth Williams puts it in his autobiography, “as a wide-eyed, well-bred coquette”, who squirts toothpaste in Sid’s eye through the offending peephole and cries, plummily, “Get away, you filthy snooper!” However, when the scene comes to be filmed – and she sees Sid’s roving eyeball on the other side of the aperture, for real – her guard drops, and she instinctively blurts, “Get aht of it, yer dirty snoopah!” in fluent Bermondsey, thus determining her accent for the rest of the film.

“Oh blimey, I meant to play it posh,” she complained afterwards, towelling herself off.

Sid James. The very glimpse of him would make Cockneys of us all.

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 Sidney Joel Cohen, known as “Sollie” in early childhood, was a liar. Born a century ago on 8 May 1913 to music hall parents, Reine and Lou (or “Reina And Laurie James”, as they were professionally known), the boy who would be Sid grew up in Johannesburg, living in Reine’s mum’s boarding house on – presciently – Hancock Street. Later in life, Sid would gloss over his years in South Africa and his family’s nomadic roots by paraphrasing wildly: “My Granny was a Cockney seamstress”, he would chirp.

In fact, Granny – Rahle Davidoff – was of Spanish Jewish ancestry, and met Sid’s Granddad in Lebo on the German-Russian border. They relocated to London in 1859, produced 15 kids, and moved out to Johannesburg in 1910. And it wasn’t until Christmas Day, 1946, that an emigrant Sid James first stepped foot in London to seek his actorly fortune. Whilst not exactly denying the cosmopolitan cocktail that was his pedigree, Sid simplified it for the purposes of his own legend, in the same way that he claimed to have been a boxer: “I used to fight as a middle-weight,” he told an interviewer in the ’60s, “The biggest purse I ever got was 50 bob and it was in that fight I had my nose broken.” These pugilistic boasts are refuted by associates of the time. “Boxing? No. Boxing without gloves? Yes,” recalls Hanna Opert, with whose family Sid lodged in Kroonstad in the ’30s.

Cliff Goodwin, in his definitive book Sid James: A Biography, notes that much of Sid’s early CV is a tissue of lies: “His ‘education’ – which in truth lasted no more than eight years – ranged, according to him, from attending a primary school in the exclusive Johannesburg suburb of Yoeville to studying at various colleges … Grey College in Bloemfontein and Houghton College, both far beyond Sid’s academic ability.”

Sid also chalked up fantasy jobs “loading ships and trimming coal” in Durban and Cape Town, when in truth he was just hanging around his mother’s hairdressing salon at the time; a spell as a diamond sorter was elevated to the romantic level of either digging for gems, or polishing them. The paradox was, the reality of Sid’s life was interesting enough to require no embroidery whatsoever …

History has thrown up but a handful of famous Sids. Sydney Greenstreet, the rotund, 325-pound English thesp of Maltese Falcon immortality; Sidney Bechet, temperamental jazz saxophonist from New Orleans; Hissing Sid, serpentine villain of the Captain Beaky songs; Sid Caesar, Syd Little, Cyd Charisse, Sid Vicious, Syd Barrett and Sid Owen from EastEnders. But aside from the Godot-like “Sid” in the 1986 British Gas shares adverts, there is only one whose legend truly transcends the usefulness of a surname.

Although Sid exists only as a guffawing, leering example of an extinct species in nostalgic TV hagiographies about British comedy’s cinematic heyday in the 60s and 70s, those of a certain middle age will have fond childhood memories of the Carry Ons, which were once never off telly, and have this century been preserved forever in the digital aspic of a sixty-quid Ultimate Collection DVD box set. Though not exactly critically reappraised, like the films of Howard Hawks, they are certainly held in a sort of historical regard. Archivists will also remember Sid, be-cardiganned and puffing on a pipe, as the put-upon patriarch in ITV’s Bless This House, whose 70-plus episodes ran from 1971 to 1976 at a time when studio-audience sitcom bestrode the earth like a mugging colossus. For the generation before, Sid will forever be Tony Hancock’s spiv foil in Hancock’s Half Hour, firstly on the radio from 1954 to 1959, and on TV between 1956 and 1960.

True worshippers of Sid will have immersed themselves in all of the above, and, after numerous noughties hagiographies on TV, including TheUnforgettable Sid James and a Heroes of Comedy (not to mention The Many Faces Of …this year on BBC4), sought out some of the great man’s lesser-cited cinematic triumphs: as Loch Ness pub landlord Harry in What A Whopper! (1961), as a circus snake-handler alongside Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis in Trapeze (1956), or as an singing, dancing taxi driver in whimsical and quite crap musical Three Hats For Lisa (1965).

Actually, his long, underdiscussed yet illustrious career in film provides yet another insight into the colourful rogue that we loved so much. By the beginning of 1960, records show that Sid had appeared in a monumental 80 films. (Few leads as yet, but that many notches in 14 professional years was pretty good going.) At the same time, Rank publicity massaged the tally to closer to 140 films; not to be outdone, for his 1960 shot at Desert Island Discs, the hardest-lying man in showbiz himself rounded it up to 151. At his death, the IMDb logs 116 film appearances. (Oh, and for the record, he chose a double bed as his luxury for Radio 4’s desert island, the Encyclopaedia Britannica for his book, and, among his discs, I Got Plenty Of Nuttin’ by Sammy Davis Jr, Scheherazade 2nd Movement by Rimsky-Korsakov and the Can-Can.)

By all accounts a rebellious child who grew up a ruthless control freak where women were concerned (probably because his mother, by then separated from Lou, practically gave him up to an aunt and uncle aged 12 and only took him back when convenient, at 15), by his late teens Sid was a charming, sexy young buck whose wrinkles and pock-marks had yet to invade his face. (The former, according, to Goodwin, was “a feature of all the Cohen men”, the latter the result of nervous acne, although the ever-inventive Sid would cite “malfunctioning sweat glands”.)

In 1930, he became a full-time hairdresser at his mum’s Marie Tudor salon, proving adept at the holiday-enquiring patter that is half the stylist’s skill. According to fable, he once cut a customer’s earlobe, but had her laughing so much, he managed to pop next door to the chemist for cotton wool without her noticing (he left her hair longer on one side, saying “That’s how everyone’s wearing it in Johannesburg”). Here, he met Toots Delmont, daughter of loaded Johannesburg businessman Joseph, and they married in 1936, she obviously unaware that, during their courtship, when Sid had moved to a salon in Kroonstad, he was methodically seducing the town’s womenfolk.

He devised his own brand of massage, using ice cubes, saying they improved and beautified the skin, and lured lady customers back after hours to stealthily have his wicked way with them by getting them to undress and lie on a couch while he set about them with ice cubes around the neck and – whoops! – breasts. (He later invited friends to secretly view the sex sessions when he started getting “bored” with them.) By 1940, set up by Toots’ wealthy father, Sid had his own salon, and employed 30 stylists and beauticians – most of whom, along with the clientele, he continued to shag. “Sid was totally immoral,” observes relative of the Delmont family Joy Kaplan, “His libido was stupendous. He simply could not help himself.”

Daddy Delmont twice paid off stylists impregnated by Sid to leave South Africa and never breathe a word. Yet his own first child, Elizabeth, born in 1937, he “took very little interest in” and Toots divorced him in 1939. (Elizabeth met her father 17 years later and reported “no emotion”.) It is said that Delmont actually put a contract out on Sid after a third reproductive indiscretion in 1941, ordering thugs to remove his bollocks. He promptly joined the army.

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Whilst in the South African Army’s entertainment unit – a near institutionalised rite of showbiz passage for Sid’s generation – in 1943, Corporal James married former receptionist Meg Sergei, and the couple developed quite a reputation on camp for drinking prowess – fellow soldier Harry Raboniwitz recalled to Cliff Goodwin, “They were in a class of their own,” adding, “I don’t remember Sid ever standing a round of drinks.”

However careful with money and careless with women Sid was, his charisma and acting ambition drove him on. Before the war, he’d produced a fund-raising dance show, Hoopla, in aid of refugee children, memorable to one 15-year old hoofer, Olga Lowe, for Sid’s old feller popping out of his dancing trousers one night (on seeing it, she promptly left the stage, squealing – he dragged her back on, saying, “You silly bitch, you’ll see a lot worse than that before you’re older”).

Even a recurring haemorrhoid problem couldn’t slow Sid down: after an unsuccessful operation at an army hospital, his piles were described as “most horrible” by the surgeon.

By 1950, now relocated to England, Sid had appeared in a number of crime and war dramas at the cinema (in an introductory letter to the BBC, he’d said he “specialised in American and Cockney dialects … also capable of handling tough-guy parts”). In contrast to these early successes, Meg’s boozing and Sid’s gambling destroyed their marriage, leaving her with their daughter Reine, who years later recalled the partnership as “combustible”. The stress of marital breakdown had caused a psychosomatic outburst of “angry carbuncles” on Sid’s neck.

Though scarred, Sid and his neck bounced back. In 1952, he married headstrong actress Valerie Ashton, by which time he’d landed a couple of American film roles (The Johannesburg Sunday Times had already dubbed him “an English Humphrey Bogart”), two Ealing comedies, and a number of West End stage shows. It was the gift of Hancock’s Half Hour that jettisoned Sid to true stardom – and, ultimately, diverted bankruptcy following a £10,000 back-tax bill in 1955, after which all BBC cheques went to James (Arts) Ltd, a company set up by wily Valerie, and of which bookies’ pal Sid was not even a shareholder.

Balancing Tony Hancock’s highly-strung neuroses with his own laid-back, laughalong nature, Sid became his perfect foil on and offscreen. And, true to now-legendary Hancockian form, after six gloriously successful years (28 per cent of the population were tuning in to watch by 1960), Sid was unceremoniously dropped from the show, amid whispers that Hancock was simply jealous of his partner’s big screen ubiquity, and wanted to aim the spotlight squarely on himself. Sid was hurt by the undemocratic rejection – though no stranger himself to dishing out the hard-faced rebuff – but, having already made his first Carry On film, he was all set for career take-off.

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Sid became a household face. Through lead roles in 19 out of the 29 canonical Carry Ons (trousering a paltry £5,000 a film), he embodied their now-discredited male lechery/sexual humiliation shtick. He was in his fifties for the bulk of them – although the wizened Cohen physiognomy put ten years on him – and might’ve cut a rather pathetic figure chasing “dollybirds” and “sorts” in their twenties, were it not for that uniquely harmless, guffawing presence. Though Valerie disapproved of his lewd antics in front of he camera when she visited the Carry On sets, off-duty, the ageing Sid cut a chivalrous figure among the series’ regulars.

Joan Sims talked of his “feelings of protection about women”. Dilys Laye said he was “a gentle man as well as being a gentleman”. True enough, in front of his own wife, Sid became prudish and over-protective. Hancock and he had once holidayed in France, where, for a giggle, they’d visited a “risqué” Parisian restaurant where all the food is suggestively shaped. Valerie and Cicely Hancock were presented with two huge desserts shaped like penises (with cream oozing out of the top) and told it was “traditional” to eat them without cutlery. Sid was so offended, he walked out.

His embarrassment over “impropriety” also manifested itself in a macho aversion to dressing up in drag (a Carry On standby). In Don’t Lose Your Head, he was called upon to dress as a demure wench, at which co-star Kenneth Williams whispered, “Ooh, I couldn’t half fancy you!”, causing him to lose his head completely (“Let’s get this scene shot and out of the way!”). It was as if Sid thought it might ruin his chances.

A heart attack in 1967 (aged 54) was a warning sign of his mortality (as indeed was Hancock’s suicide in the same year), but Sid threw himself into his work, investing in diamonds for an imagined retirement. However, his years were numbered, and these would be dominated by a tragic infatuation with Barbara Windsor.

Dramatised for the National Theatre in 1998 by Terry Johnson as Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick (and subsequently adapted for ITV as Cor, Blimey!), the sordid saga began in 1970 on the set of Henry. Sid’s seduction technique involved suggestively unpeeling a passion fruit in front of her (“It was highly sexual, X-rated stuff,” she recalls) – and worsened during an Australian TV special, Carry On Sid, in which he presented clips from a television control room and ran saucy Windsor sequences in slow motion. “I just thought he wanted to give me one – wallop!” she confessed, and, after endless gifts and backstage prowling during a theatre run called Carry On London, she succumbed. “I just wanted to get it over with,” she confesses in her autobiography, Barbara, “I liked Sid, but I never fancied him.” Inevitably, this quickie made matters worse, and Windsor had to cut him off completely. They had to perform a ribald seduction scene in Carry On Dick, and, with Windsor eager once again to “get it over with”, Sid stretched it out as long as possible. (“It was ghastly,” she says, “I felt sick and degraded.”)

Unperturbed by the rejection – or else out of sheer, ego-fuelled desperation – Sid attempted to get off with his own agent’s French actress wife whilst on a golfing holiday in Marbella. Dany Robin (she was in Don’t Lose Your Head) was Michael Sullivan’s fifth wife, and, while he was away in Barcelona on business for two days, Sid appeared both nights at Robins’ bedside in the middle of the night – the second time, naked, slipping in beside her while she was asleep (“Come on, Dany, what about it?”). Furious, she knocked him back, and only told her husband about the sorry show six months later. “I laughed, and wondered about the supreme egotism of the man,” Sullivan wrote later.

Named TV Times’ Funniest Man On Television 1974, a decidedly unfunny Sid met Barbara Windsor at the Dorchester and declared, “If we are not going to get together I’ll be dead within a year.” She dumped him, for good, by post from Auckland, in February 1976. He died, troubled, beaten and unhappy on Monday, April 26, 1976, laid out by a second heart attack, whilst onstage at the Sunderland Empire in The Mating Season. It’s only what he would’ve wanted up to a point.

Hancock writers Galton and Simpson had inadvertently written Sid’s epitaph in a line for him back in 1954: “If you ain’t got it, get it. When you’ve got it, spend it. Eat, drink, be merry – for tomorrow we snuff it.”