Posted on: February 13, 2015

Sid James, of the rugged, beaten-up face (said to have been a legacy from his days as a boxer), and the legendary filthy laugh, was one of the best loved actors to ever appear in British film.  Although South African by birth, he seemed to embody the classic cheeky chappie British working-class lad, giving out bawdy chuckles as he ogled the ladies, and always up for a flutter on the horses.  He’d had a hugely successful career in the long-running Carry On films, as well as appearing as sidekick to Tony Hancock in the 1950s.

Sid though had been plagued by ill-health for years.  He had suffered a heart-attack in the late 1960s, and had had to pull out of Carry On Follow That Camel (American comedian Phil Silvers was drafted in to replace him), and in another he had to spend most of the film as a hospital patient in bed.  His punishing work-schedule can’t have helped matters, but Sid flatly refused to turn down any job offers.  He had a gambling addiction which constantly ate away at his funds, and he could be notoriously mean with money.

By 1976 the Carry Ons were coming to the end of their long run of success, and Sid was also reeling from Barbara Windsor, his Carry On co-star and mistress, calling time on their relationship.  In April Sid accepted the lead role in a farce called The Mating Game at the Sunderland Empire.  It was a gruelling role for a man not in the best of health.  He was on stage for most of the show, and being a farce was probably quite a knockabout physical role too.  At one point Sid appeared to keel over on stage.  The audience and his co-stars thought it was all part of the act (extremely similar to when the great Tommy Cooper collapsed with a fatal heart-attack on stage a few years later).

Les Dawson was appearing in pantomime at the Empire a short while later.  Les, another much-loved comic performer, famous for his bad piano-playing and mother-in-law jokes, had a much deeper side to him than his public persona would have you believe.  He was very much into spiritualism, and had yearnings to be a great writer.  Whilst alone in his dressing-room, Les heard that distinctive filthy laugh, and smelt the aroma of whisky.  It is said that Les always flatly refused to describe what he saw, but the author Tom Slemen describes Les as saying that Sid’s ghostly apparition was a terrible sight.  Dressed in white, pale and clammy, with black eyes.  Sid shouted something at Les, who vowed never to tell anyone what was said, and to the best of my knowledge never did.  Les left the building, and refused to return for quite some time.

Ironically, Les, who passed away in 1993, has also been sighted several times in different locations since his demise.

In the true spirit of showbusiness, I will close with a dark joke.  When a colleague was informed that Sid had died at the Sunderland Empire, he replied “don’t worry, everyone dies in Sunderland”.  Boom boom.



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