Sid James: Cockney Rebel book review

Alex checks out a new look at the life of Sid James - and finds it's something of a treat...

We all know Sid James, don’t we? The archetypal cockney with the dirtiest laugh in the history of showbiz. Star of Carry On films, a man with an eye for the ladies – especially his co-star Barbara Windsor – and a regular at the bookmakers, gambling away his hard-earned cash. Ask most people and some or all of the above will be the first things they mention about the late, much loved comedy actor.

Robert Ross’ Sid James: Cockney Rebel attempts to shed some light on the real Sid. For a start, he wasn’t a Cockney, despite cornering the market  as such in hundreds of films and several television shows from the 40s to the 70s.

Sid was born Sidney Joel Cohen in Johannesburg in South Africa in May 1913. Before taking up acting, Sid worked as an electrician, was a keen boxer and, perhaps most surprisingly, was a hairdresser with his own salon (a skill he put to use later in his career when he gave Tony Hancock a much needed trim before a recording). After entertaining the troops during the Second World War, Sid decided to emigrate to England to make his fortune.

The book concentrates on Sid James’ life from his arrival in England on Christmas Day 1946 (when he became Sid James) up to his death on stage during a performance of The Mating Season at the Sunderland Empire in April 1976. It encompasses his early work in now long forgotten movies, his Ealing comedies, Hancock’s Half Hour on radio and television; Citizen James, Taxi!, George And The Dragon and Bless This House and, of course, his role as the figurehead of the long running Carry On film series.

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Cockney Rebel also reveals Sid’s passion for women, horses and hard work. It details a heroic man (few will be aware Sid saved Diana Dors from a house fire) and a surprisingly reluctant radio star. Sid spent the first few episodes of the radio series of Hancock’s Half Hour hiding from the studio audience beneath his trilby, until a sudden gust of wind blew it away!

Where Sid James’ own words are included, he comes across as a very likeable and self-deprecating man, generous to his colleagues and good to his understanding wife and family. The book undoubtedly scores highly with its remarkable range of anecdotes and reminiscences by a wide circle of Sid’s friends and colleagues. They are almost uniform in their praise and generosity. Unfortunately, this means the book can feel a tad repetitive.

On the one hand the reader is treated to an array of descriptions of Sid’s crumpled face (a legacy of his boxing career) and dirty laugh (perhaps best summed by Barry Norman as sounding like “dirty bath water running down the plughole”), on the other hand (and not wishing to denigrate the warm tributes) we hear over and over again how Sid would be a best mate, warm, friendly and generous to a fault, if occasionally his fondness for the horses made him a bit of a wily character. All good, but we get the idea!

Contrary to popular opinion, Sid didn’t feature in every Carry On film. He made 19 of them in total. According to Carry On producer Peter Rogers, Ted Ray was the original choice of figurehead for the Carry Ons. Sid’s first role in Carry On Constable is an authority figure, which allowed him to indulge in playing against type, though clearly the role was tailored to Ted Ray’s abilities following his success as the headmaster in Carry on Teacher. Compare the desk sergeant role with Sid’s next Carry On appearance as Bert Handy, the head of a skills agency, who through a clever plot twist, finds himself  inspecting some scantily-clad nurses. At once this is the Sid we know and love.

Being an incredibly popular and successful actor, Sid wasn’t always available for Carry On duties for one reason or another and his role would (in a purely business-like way) be recast. Indeed, Harry H. Corbett, Phil Silvers and Windsor Davies amongst others all appeared as rather thinly-veiled ‘second choices’ for the plum ‘Sid’ role in Carry On Screaming, Follow That Camel and Carry On Behind, respectively. Harry H Corbett even plays Sidney Bung and according to screen writer Dave Freeman, the Windsor Davies character of Fred the Butcher in Carry On Behind would have been monikered ‘Sid’ had the great man been able to play the role. Although Carry On Dick was Sid’s last movie (Carry On or otherwise) only a tour of Australia with the theatre play The Mating Season kept him from an appearance in Carry On Behind. Production began on Carry On England only weeks after Sid’s death and, again, would have featured Sid had he not been on the sadly fateful British tour of the same play.

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The book follows Sid’s acting journey from being ‘Sid the lad’ to ‘Sid the Dad’. Although delighted with his early roles and especially his work with Tony Hancock (a yardstick by which he measured all subsequent success), Sid was being typecast as a loveable Cockney rogue. Sid relished roles that cast him against type or were a slightly more sympathetic version of his stock in trade.

The second series of Sid’s sitcom Citizen James saw his character soften, much to the actor’s approval. A different side of Sid was seen in Taxi!, a comedy drama long before it became a familiar genre (eg. Minder). Sid was particularly keen to develop the show but felt frustrated by BBC management’s attitude when it came to scheduling. The programme was seen as a perfect ‘filler’ for Z-Cars when it took a break and consequently was rather haphazardly scheduled, often its run would interrupted by sporting events. Taxi! was the last show Sid made for the BBC.

By the early 70s, Sid was ‘King of Thames TV comedy’ as the patriarch in family comedy Bless This House. Sid embraced this ‘pipe and slippers’ version of his character, which reflected his maturity and general contentment with where his career was going. By the mid-Seventies he divided his time almost exclusively between Bless This House on televison, the Carry Ons at the cinema and the stage play The Mating Season. The blurring of his work was such that he appeared in a big screen version of Bless This House directed by Carry On director Gerald Thomas.

Robert Ross has written several books on the Carry On films, including The Complete Sid James, which was published in 2000 by Reynolds and Hearn. Anyone familiar with his work won’t be disappointed by this meticulously researched volume. Ross has managed to combine a well written, engrossing biography of the Carry On legend with reminiscences from Sid’s many friends, colleagues and family. The book has clearly taken several years to put together as many of the contributors are, sadly, no longer with us, notably Jack Douglas to whom the book is dedicated.

Anyone with an interest in comedy will notice the chapter headings are, rather neatly, all sitcom titles. Most are wonderfully appropriate to the chapter’s subject matter though some are arguably poor sitcoms in themselves. Then again, if you follow anything to its logical conclusion you begin to clutch at straws. Rather frugally only eight pages are given to photographs, all of which are in black and white. There is a useful appendix detailing Sid’s acting engagements over the years, a list of his homes and the many plaques erected in his memory.

Sid’s overriding quality was his sheer likeability. The public, especially the working classes, loved him. He came across as a really good mate, a lad’s lad with a perhaps unexpected sexual magnetism for women. All of which makes the closing chapters, which detail his death on stage at the Sunderland Empire, particularly moving.

Robert Ross points out that Sid, a keen fisherman, would probably have preferred to slip away after a richly deserved retirement, with his rod in his hand (no innuendo intended). In the event, Sid’s wife Valerie took comfort from the fact her husband died with the sound of laughter in his ears. That was Sid, entertaining the public to the end. 

4 stars

Sid James: Cockney Rebel is out now.

Rating:

4 out of 5