Sid James - Comedy Hero

Sidney James 1913-1976
The Early Days

On May 8 1913 in Johannesburg, South Africa, Laurie and Reine Cohen became the proud parents of one Solomon Joel Cohen. As he grew up, little Solomon - using the name Sidney James - would go on to be one of the most popular and beloved comedy stars of the sixties and seventies and, despite his South African heritage, would become the archetypal British 'bloke'.

After stints as a dance tutor and a hairdresser, James served as a lieutenant in the South African army during World War II, eventually moving from the Tank Corps to an entertainment unit. From a young age it seemed it was Sid's destiny to become involved in the entertainment industry, as his parents had long been a double act on the vaudeville circuit. Sid and the entertainment unit went on an eight month tour entertaining the troops and would come under heavy enemy fire at Tobruk.

After the war ended, Sid - following a friend's lead - applied for, and received, a government grant to enrol in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. The man formerly known as Solomon Cohen arrived in England on Christmas Day 1946 and the rest, as they say, is history.

Career Beginnings

Amazingly, after just a couple of weeks in England, Sid landed himself a small role in the film Black Memory. While not being a particularly memorable feature, it was a start for Sid and numerable small character roles followed in productions such as Night Beat, The Small Back Room and Once a Jolly Swagman. 

The first real chance that Sidney got to show off his comedic skills, whilst still retaining that shady edge, was with the part of small-time crook Lackery in the classic Ealing comedy The Lavender Hill Mob (1951). Relatively inexperienced at the time, Sid more than held his own against the likes of Alec Guinness and Stanley Holloway. 

Scriptwriters Ray Galton and Alan Simpson have stated that it was Sid's performance in this classic of British comedy cinema that led to them offering him a role in their upcoming radio series Hancock's Half Hour. Looking for a foil for star Tony Hancock, someone who could both prick the pomposity of Hancock's character and involve him in ever more elaborate shady deals, Galton and Simpson found their perfect man in Sid.

Sid James was a mainstay throughout the entire radio run of Hancock's Half Hour; appearing in every episode, a feat that even Hancock himself couldn't manage. It was therefore a given that Sid would be a part of proceedings when the show transferred to television in 1956. The ever-reliable professional, Sid was a huge help on-set to Tony Hancock, who was pretty inexperienced in the medium of television. However, it was Sid's superb performances in front of the camera that eventually led to the increasingly insecure Hancock lobbying for his co-star to be removed from the series; the Birmingham-born comedian concerned that the public now regarded himself and Sid as a double-act.

As well as starring in Hancock's Half Hour, the fifties saw Sid remain incredibly busy in film and building a reputation as a superb character actor. His credits during this period included Trapeze (with Burt Lancaster), Quatermass II for Hammer and The 39 Steps with Kenneth More. Perhaps the biggest endorsement of Sid's excellent reputation was his casting by none other than Charles Chaplin in the screen legend's 1957 release A King in New York.

Carry On Sid

By 1960, Sid James was a very familiar face to both the cinema-going public and television viewers, so it was a wise Peter Rogers - producer of the Carry On films - who cast James in the fourth of his already successful series, Carry On Constable. Given the starring role, Sid immediately looked comfortable and slotted into the newly established team with ease. From this starting point he became the lynchpin for the entire series, his down-to-earth ruggedness and macho image contrasting perfectly against the often outrageous camp of Kenneth Williams. Despite Williams being apparently unimpressed with the acting skills of his co-star (probably a dash of jealousy no doubt), the two very different comedy stars sparked off each other wonderfully on camera and were at their best in the Carry Ons when their characters were set against each other - Up The Khyber, Cowboy and Don't Lose Your Head being prime examples.

Sid James' performances in the Carry On series cemented his place in the hearts of the British nation and he became the man who every male in the country would be happy to share a pint of beer with, as well as an unlikely sex symbol to many a lady. It is a testament to the affection that the British public had for him that, as the Carry On series wore on, the lines between the character he played and the man himself became ever more blurred; Sidney James was now just Sid.

As the seventies approached the midway point, Sid was as busy and popular as ever but was beginning to show concern that he may be over-exposed. His Carry On stint was still going strong and the most successful TV sitcom of his career, Bless This House, was playing to millions every week. Despite these concerns, 1974's Carry On Dick was never intended to be his last hurrah for Peter Rogers. Indeed, Sid appeared in a few episodes of the Carry On Laughing television series a year later in 1975 and was only absent from the same year's Carry On Behind because of a prior commitment to a tour of the stage play The Mating Season.

However, as fate would have it, Carry On Dick would be the last chance fans would have to see their man on the big screen. On 26 April 1976, Sid James suffered a heart attack and died on the stage of the Sunderland Empire whilst performing in The Mating Season. He was just a couple of weeks away from his 63rd birthday. News of his passing brought a huge outpouring of grief from the British public.

Sidney James was more than just the cackling, double-entendre delivering rascal of Carry On fame. He was a consummate professional and a character actor of supreme skill.

There will never be another Sid.



  1. Very well said. This man was a god of TV, film, radio and the theatre. In the next 500 years there won't be another Sidney James. My personal favourites, What A Carve Up! with Kenneth Connor, Double Bunk with Liz Fraser and Three Hats For Lisa. Andy Lillie.


Post a Comment

Popular Posts