Sid James – was the famous ‘cockney’ Jack the Lad star of the “Carry On” movie series with his legendary trademark ‘naughty’ laugh. He epitomised a London ‘wide-boy’ and exists in British comedy as Super-Star.
But did you know Sid James was in fact a South African and served in the South African Armed Forces during World War Two?
Not many know this as off-screen Sid was a very private man, and when not in his ‘cockney wide-boy’ character, his South African accent would find its voice.
Sid James was born Solomon Joel Cohen, on 8 May 1913, to Jewish parents, in South Africa, later changing his name to Sidney Joel Cohen, and then Sidney James.
His family lived on Hancock Street in Hillbrow, Johannesburg. Upon moving to Britain later in life, he claimed various previous occupations, including diamond cutter, dance tutor and boxer; in reality he had trained and worked as a hairdresser.
It was at a hairdressing salon in Kroonstad, Orange Free State that he met his first wife. He married Berthe Sadie Delmont, known as Toots, on 12 August 1936 and they had a daughter, Elizabeth, born in 1937. His father-in-law, Joseph Delmont, a Johannesburg businessman, bought a hairdressing salon for James, but within a year he announced that he wanted to become an actor and joined the Johannesburg Repertory Players. Through this group he gained work with the South African Broadcasting Corporation.
Sid’s abandonment of his hairdressing career and then his young bride and child was the last straw for her wealthy father (who apparently ‘put a price’ on our man’s head), so Sid decided to cut his losses and join the army. Sid was never to look back, as when he volunteered to join the South African army World War Two just had broken out, and funnily it the war aided that aided his emerging career in the performing arts.
After a stationing with the South African Tank Corps in Abysinnia, Sid felt his talents were better used in troop morale, so he joined the Entertainment Unit of The South African Army, he was initially made a corporal and proceeded to put on shows for his fellow troops.
During this time, he was also caught under heavy fire at the notorious ‘Fall of Tobruk’, South Africa’s largest capitulation of arms, he managed to escape Tobruk ahead of Rommel’s forces and was eventually promoted to the rank of Staff Sergeant. Sid was eventually given a commission as a lieutenant in the entertainment unit, and subsequently took up acting as a career.
Around this time he acquired for himself a second wife, another South African – dancer Meg Sergei, and come the war’s end and his demobilisation, the couple’s showbiz ambitions saw them leave their homeland for the glamour of London.
Sid and Meg arrived in the UK on Christmas Day 1946 and, amazingly enough, within days he’d landed himself not just an agent but a small role, the rest is movie and show-biz history.
Ironically Sid died in complete character with his trademark ‘dirty laugh’ at the Empire Theatre on Monday, April 26, 1976. He was appearing in a suitably smutty comedy called ‘The Mating Game’. Sitting next to Sid on the stage was actress Olga Lowe, an old friend from his early days in his native South Africa, and he died of a heart attack staring at her breasts … a “Jack the Lad” to the end.
Related Work and Links:
Fall of Tobruk: “Defeat is one thing; Disgrace is another!” South Africa’s biggest capitulation of arms – Tobruk
El Alamein; “General Pienaar, tell your South African Division they have done well”; The Battle of El Alamein
Written and Researched by Peter Dickens. Reference Wikipedia and The ghost of comic legend Sid James by Ian Robson. Video Clip – YouTube, master image of South African troops in North Africa during World War 2, Imperial War Museum copyright.