In recent times I have acquired a greater tolerance towards the Carry On films. Whereas, once, like many people who thought of themselves as modern/intelligent/liberal/progressive, I believed they represented everything old-fashioned, unsophisticated, crass and unpleasant in British culture!
One reason for my change of heart has been an increased appreciation of the link between the Carry On series, all directed by Gerald Thomas between 1958 and 1978, and earlier British cinema.
Many of the regular actors in the series – Hattie Jacques, Charles Hawtrey, Joan Sims, Bernard Bresslaw, Terry Scott – had begun their careers in the 1950s or even in the 1940s and had appeared in these other, better regarded, films. The most diverse career perhaps belonged to Kenneth Williams (performing with Maggie Smith, in Peter Brook’s The Beggar’s Opera with Laurence Olivier, directing plays by Joe Orton) – but another of note was definitely that of Sidney James.
James’ early film career was varied and productive. He features in The Small Back Room, one of the films made by the great writing/directing partnership of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the J.B. Priestley-scripted Last Holiday, two of the most fondly remembered Ealing comedies The Lavender Hill Mob and The Titfield Thunderbolt, another famous comedy The Belles of St Trinian’s, Carol Reed’s circus drama Trapeze, Basil Dearden’s boxing drama The Square Ring, the gangster Shakespeare Joe MacBeth. A later return to his native South Africa for the drama Tokoloshe suggests a continuing appetite to expand his range.
In these films he appears with stars like Alec Guinness, Alistair Sim, Burt Lancaster, Kenneth More, Laurence Harvey and Peter Sellers.
Alongside James’ film work was his fame as Tony Hancock’s regular co-star on Hancock’s Half-Hour, on both radio and television. In fact it was widely rumoured that James was removed from the programme at the star’s request because of his popularity.
The first Carry On film in 1958 was Carry On Sergeant. Those first few films bear closer resemblance to other British comedies of the 1950s like Doctor in the House or Folly to be Wise or Brothers in Law or Love in Pawn or The Galloping Major in their tone and casting and observations of post-war British life than to the series’ broader, farcical later titles. James’ own first appearance in the fourth film Carry On Constable has him not yet typecast, playing a long-suffering but even-tempered police sergeant. Later he was invariably the manipulative, lecherous and cackling centre of his social group, whether in Tudor England, the Wild West, the Indian Raj or the contemporary Britain of either local government or the “permissive society”.
An interview with James’ daughter on Talking Pictures TV raises the point that, if James had lived longer – he died in 1976 – he might have benefitted from the new fashion of encouraging veteran comic actors into dramatic parts. Contemporaries of James who did benefit included Max Wall and Charlie Drake each in Samuel Beckett and Charles Dickens and Jimmy Jewell in Trevor Griffiths’ Comedians. Later on, Robbie Coltrane, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Lenny Henry would all be able to combine careers in TV comedy and perhaps more challenging dramatic work. Certainly James seemed to have a reputation for being well-prepared and hard-working, and many stereotyped actors have flourished through a good script, co-operative fellow performers and an imaginative director.
Perhaps we see signs of what might have been in the few surviving episodes of his post-Hancock TV series Citizen James where the scripts present him with the opportunity to develop a character more fully. However, the stronger, richer version of his character is definitely the one created by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson in the first series, who is a disresputable Soho gambler and shirker of responsibility, in contrast to the more suburban and respectable man which he became later as written by Sid Green and Dick Hills. That makes Citizen James rather similar to his Carry On characters, so maybe that does clinch the argument that in the second half of his career James had moved into a productive routine which it might have been difficult to deviate from. But at least he seemed to enjoy and appreciate his career, which, by all accounts and tragically, his co-star Kenneth Williams did not.