‘He was an actor who had no sell-by date. If he’d have been alive today he’d still be working and making people laugh. He’d make a good landlord of the boozer in EastEnders.’ Harry Fowler
With his cauliflower face, crinkly, twinkly eyes, nicotine-ravaged voice and dirty chuckle, famous for his birds, booze and betting, James was the definitive working-man’s man over three post-war decades. He appeared in more than a hundred movies, achieved fame as the nemesis of Tony Hancock, starred as a womaniser in several TV sitcoms and was one of the most prominent Carry On members, appearing in 19 of the films. Long years after his death, he retains a place in the nation’s affection, his work and lifestyle continuing to fascinate.
Although he became famous as an archetypal cockney, SIDNEY JAMES was born a long way from London, in a suburb of Johannesburg, on 8 May 1913, and his real name wasn’t James but Cohen. His grandparents were Latvian Jews who sought sanctuary in Western Europe in the mid 19th Century. His London-born father established a vaudeville double-act with his wife, Reine and Laurie James, before leaving for South Africa. Sidney (as he preferred himself to be called) grew up in Johannesburg – he was a hairdresser, boxer and actor – and didn’t arrive in England until Christmas Day 1946.
Within just six weeks of docking at Tilbury, James made his screen debut in the film Black Memory, playing a shady cockney who traded stolen goods. He had found his niche…