When Joan Sims and I had finished our lunch in the restaurant at Pinewood Studios, we walked across the set of ‘Carry on Henry,’ In the film Joan was playing Queen Maria of France, fated to become one of the brides of Henry the Eighth. Through an inspired piece of casting that high-living monarch was being played by none other than the incorrigible Sid James. Sid, suitably togged up, was waiting to get cracking on the next scene, which was a royal ball. Also gathered around the set were a few more ‘Carry On’ stalwarts - Terry Scott, Barbara Windsor, Kenneth Williams, Charles Hawtrey and Kenneth Connor.
Joan has, of course, been a leading member of the ever-popular ‘Carry On’ team for a long time now. Although she wasn’t in the first of this inimitable series (Carry On Sergeant), Joan has appeared in most of the 20 made since. Her comedy flair and buoyant, attractive personality have won her a vast following among filmgoers. I need hardly add that she has appeared in many films besides the Carry On series, and that she is well established as an actress on stage, television and radio.
I've heard lots of stories about how show business personalities started their, but I'd never met one who did so on a station platform before. That’s the way it was with Joan.. She was born in Laindon, Essex, in the early thirties. She was the only child of John Sims, the local stationmaster, and his wife, Gladys. The family lived in a house on the station.
Joan, who had talked to me about her life during lunch and continued to do so during breaks from takes on the set, says of her childhood, “It was going to the local flicks which put me into a fantasy world. I would wander around pretending to be Rita Heyworth or some other star of the day. I had a mania for dressing up and collecting all sorts of clothes from various sources. Why, I even scrounged them from passengers. I realised that in waiting passengers, I had a captive audience who would smile when I showed up in some of my weird and wonderful clothes and started singing, or doing a few dance steps, or telling them I was Ginger Rogers. During long gaps between train, when there were no passengers waiting, I had the porters for an audience. My other pastime with the porters was to take them on at shove ha’penny”.
Joan was educated at a private school in Billericay, a few miles from her home in the station. From there she went on to Brentwood High School for girls. Not surprisingly, she was a ready volunteer for school shows. Her zeal for acting resulted in appearances with local drama societies even before she had left school. But her real turning point came when she was 16. She appeared at the South East Essex Drama Festival, playing a Lancashire millhand. The adjudicator was novelist, L.A.G. Strong. He awarded her the prize for the best individual performance of the festival and what’s more, he gave her the recommendation which won her a grant to go to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
The record books say that Joan studied at RADA from the age of 17, but it wasn’t quite as simple as that... “My grant only entitled me to a preparatory course which the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art ran in those days”, Joan told me. “To get into RADA proper, you had to pass an audition, I took one audition, failed and thought, ‘better luck next time’. I took a second audition and failed again. I remember I got the news on Christmas eve and spent the most miserable Christmas of my life. “I suppose many families would have given up at this stage, but my father wrote to Sir Kenneth Barnes, then head of RADA, enclosing some of my press cuttings from local productions. “He stressed how much it meant to me to be an actress, and suggested that it might well have been nerves that caused me to fail my auditions. “He even asked Sir Kenneth if he could see it in his heart to let me go on studying at Pre-RADA with a view to taking further auditions. “We got a sweet letter back from Sir Kenneth, saying I could carry on. I took two more auditions without getting the necessary marks required to get into RADA, but persistence paid off and they eventually admitted me.”
Although Joan’s parents did all they could to help, she recalls that at first they had doubts about her devoting herself to an acting career. They must have watched anxiously as, after her RADA training, she took the traditional steps of going into the modestly-paid world of repertory. “My first job after RADA,” Joan told me, “Was with a rep company near Manchester. Harry H Corbett was there at the same time. I went from there to do pantomime at the rep theatre in Salisbury. “I remember, I was paid £5 a week, out of which I had to buy clothes and make-up and pay my rent.”
But at least Joan managed to keep going in those early years without having to take a job outside the theatre, providing one excepts a week during her RADA days when she worked in an Oxford Street store during the sales.
A key figure in Joan’s career since the early days, has been Peter Eade, her agent and manager. But she confesses that, at first she ignored his offer of help! “While I was at RADA,” Joan recalled. “I was friendly with an American student there named Bill Becker. One day he said, ‘I know an agent who has seen you work and wants to represent you. His name is Peter Eade. Why don’t you give him a ring?’ “But I was terrified, I had visions of being chased round the office and forced onto the casting couch. So, I did nothing about Bill’s suggestion. “A couple of weeks later, when Bill found out, I explained how nervous I was. He just laughed. ‘I’ll come with you and hold your hand!’ he said. “So, off we went to Peter’s office. After I’d met him I signed with him quite readily and came away telling myself how silly I'd been to have worried. “Peter has been more than just a business representative, he’s been a remarkable friend. When I had spells out of work in my early days, he helped me financially. It wasn’t just a question of money, but of someone having the faith that I was going to succeed.”
I great handicap to Joan while trying to get herself established was the fact that she was ‘hopeless’ at auditions. “When I auditioned,” she says, “My personality vanished, I became a sort of Minnie Mouse figure. Soon after I'd signed with Peter, he sent me to audition for John Redway, who was then the casting director for Associated British Pictures. “Nothing came of it. A year later I was appearing at the Little Irving Theatre in London, playing revue parts and doubling as assistant stage manager. “I’d only been there for a few nights when John Redway phoned Peter. ‘I was at the Irving last night’, he said. ‘I’ve never seen Joan working before. Now that I have, I think we may have something to offer her.’ “That was how I landed my first film part in ‘Will Any Gentleman?’ starring George Cole.”
After that Joan appeared in a quick succession of films during the next few years. They included ‘Emergency Ward Ten’, The Naked Truth’, No Time For Tears’ and her first carry on film ‘Carry On Nurse'. On radio, Joan built up a name for herself through such series as ‘Ted Ray Time’, The Floggits’, Play It Cool’ and ‘Larger Than Life’.
Her first important stage appearance in the West End was in the revue ‘High Spirits’, and her first West End play ‘Breath Of Spring’. As for television, Joan’s debut was, to say the least, unconventional. She wasn’t seen at all, she just did the voices for Millicent Mushroom, Barbara Beetroot, Oscar Onion and other characters in a children’s puppet show called ‘Vegetable Village’. But she went on to play many adult TV roles and was well established on our home screens by the end of the Fifties. She boosted her popularity in the early sixties in ‘The Stanley Baxter Show’ and ‘The Dick Emery Show’ She also appeared in a number of Brian Rix’s TV farces from the Whitehall Theatre. And now, in the seventies, she’s in great demand for the cinema.
The ‘Carry on Henry’ scenes that I saw in the making were so funny that the cast, and the unit as a whole, kept falling about with laughter. Unusually, they managed to contain themselves until the camera’s had stopped, but once or twice, everyone burst into fits of uncontrollable mirth during a take.
“This is quite common with Carry on films”, Joan told me later. “Its not too bad if your out of camera; you can stuff a handkerchief”. “But in front of the camera its often terribly difficult not to react, because the scenes are so funny. If one person starts twitching at the mouth it can be enough to set everybody off. “But make no mistake - the Carry on films are made in a highly professional style. Everyone shows up knowing their part off pat and you hardly ever hear anyone fluffing a line. “Usually we finish a scene in two or three takes, whereas in films generally they sometimes do 20 takes of a scene. They really are a marvellous bunch to work with and the atmosphere they create is just terrific”.
Joan has made over 30 films. When I asked whether she had copies of any of them at home, she laughed and replied she very rarely even sees her films at the cinema. “I wouldn’t mind going to a premiere of one of the films I'm in”, she says. “There would be other members of the cast there to keep me company. But usually I can’t get to premieres because I'm working. “Then why don’t you go and see the film when it’s on general release?”, I asked. “Because I'm terribly shy of doing that, I'm scared stiff of someone saying ‘Oh look, there’s Joan Sims! and then being surrounded by people.”
Joan has little time for hobbies, being unmarried, she has forced herself into becoming a competent gardener. She told me she had recently bought a set of golf clubs and was having a go at that illustrious sport. I have always thought of Joan as an actress who specialises in comedy roles rather than as a comedienne. When I mentioned that to her, she replied that her wish for the future was that she might play more straight roles. I want to broaden”, she say’s, “I’m not talking about my figure, of course, but about the scope of my career”.
Inevitably, Joan is recognised wherever she goes. Well, nearly always. When I asked for her favourite story of her contact with the public, she replied. “A few years ago I went into the local butcher’s. There was a queue. I could see I was being recognised as I made my way along it. The butchers, in their straw hats and stripped aprons were muttering things and nudging one another. So I bought my lamb chops and moved along to the girl at the cash desk. She was sure she knew better than the butchers. “As I went to pay my money she said confidently, ‘That’ll be eleven-and-fivepence........Do you know, love, that lot actually think your somebody famous!’”