The Carry On star, the on-stage tragedy - and the reason Les Dawson refused to set foot in Sunderland Empire
When Sid James took to the stage at Sunderland Empire 44 years ago today, he was one of the most recognisable faces in the country.
The South African-born actor had appeared in 19 of the hit Carry On comedies after replacing comedian Ted Ray in the cast of 1960's Carry On Constable.
And he was a national TV star, having played the lead in Bless this House for the last four years.
But his appearance on the Empire stage on April 26, 1976, in a revival of the 1969 farce The Mating Season was to be his last performance.
Who was Sid James?
Sidney "Sid" James made his career as the archetypal lovable Cockney rogue – but he was actually born Solomon Joel Cohen to a middle-class Jewish family in South Africa in 1913.
After initially working as a hairdresser, he joined the Johannesburg Repertory Players and served as a lieutenant in an entertainment unit during the war, before moving to Britain.
He made his film debut in 1947, and appeared in a series of roles in such well-loved movies as The Lavender Hill Mob and The Titfield Thunderbolt.
Sid first became a household name when he was cast in the radio version of Hancock's Half Hour in 1954, and was the only member of the regular cast to accompany Tony Hancock into the television version two years later.
He took his Carry On bow in Carry On Constable in 1960, and became one of the names most associated with the series, taking top billing in all but two of his 19 films (losing out to Frankie Howerd in Carry On Doctor and Carry On Up The Jungle).
By the time he arrived at the Empire, he was a prime time TV star too, having emerged from Hancock’s shadow to take the lead role of Sid Abbot in Bless This House for four years.
What happened on the evening of April 26, 1976?
Sid was touring in a revival of farce The Mating Season when he arrived at the Empire.
Having survived a serious heart attack nine years later, he had embarked on a major health drive, giving up cigarettes, losing weight and reducing his alcohol intake.
Sadly, it was not to be enough, and Sid suffered a severe heart attack during the opening night.
Co-star Olga Lowe, an old friend from his days in South Africa, later recalled: “I came on, said my first lines and he answered as normal.
“Then I sat on the sofa with him. I said my next line and he didn’t answer.
“His head had slumped and his eyes had gone back into his head. I thought it was a gag. Well, you would with Sid. He was such a rascal.”
Eventually realising something was seriously wrong, she told the crew to bring down the curtain.
Technical director Mel James’ appeal ‘Is there a doctor in the house?’ was greeted with laughter but a doctor did emerge from the audience.
“Sid was in a coma,” said Olga. “The doctor called the ambulance and I believe he died on the way to hospital. It was awful. Ten minutes earlier, he had been the same old laughing Sid.
“After the curtain came down we sat in the dressing room, not knowing what to say. We were all so shocked.”
Interviewed by the Echo later, Carry On actress Barbara Windsor claimed Sid, who despised touring provincial theatres, would have been mortified by the headlines: “It was everything Sid hated.
“He liked his films and his television. The only time he did theatre was if he could have some lovely location,” she said.
“Everyone said to him: Don’t go up to Sunderland. He looked so ill, so unhappy. He went up to Sunderland and the rest is history.”
Why did Les Dawson refuse to set foot in the Empire?
So notorious was the Empire’s reputation as a comic’s graveyard, that when manager Roy Todds phoned producer Bill Roberton to inform him of the terrible news, Roberton reportedly thought it was a joke.
Told “Sid James has just died in Sunderland,” he is said to have replied: “Don’t worry, everybody dies in Sunderland.”
The story may seem too good to be true, but certainly, the Empire audience was famously unforgiving.
Its reputation would have been no secret to a veteran comic such as Les Dawson and the Blankety-Blank host was reportedly less than enthusiastic about a stint at the Empire in a 1989 production of Jack and the Beanstalk.
In his book Liverpool 24, author Tom Slemen recounts what supposedly happened in the star’s dressing room: “Dawson was sitting before the dressing room mirror, when he heard a rather familiar staccato laugh to his left. He saw the ghost reflected in the mirror, and felt a stabbing pain in his chest. It was Sid James – and he looked ‘ghastly’.”
Dawson, supposedly, vowed never to set foot in the Empire again and apparently proved as good as his word until his death four years later.