The Unforgettable Sid James

4 December 2000
10.35pm, ITV
25 mins

Producer/Director: Steve Jones
A Watchmaker/Chrysalis Production

'Yes of course he had an affair. I accepted it when he told me it couldn't end straight away with the lady in question… It was a hiccup, but our marriage was too strong to be severed. We got over it.' VALERIE, SID JAMES' WIFE

For the first time on television, Sid James' widow, Valerie, talks exclusively to The Unforgettable about life with Sid, and speaks candidly about Sid's well-documented affair with Barbara Windsor.

Sid James, the much-loved craggy-faced star of the Carry On films, is fondly remembered as the characters he played - a womanising, drinking gambler and as the archetypal cheeky Cockney.

But The Unforgettable Sid James shows the man to be a dedicated workaholic and doting father.

South African born James arrived in London on Christmas Day 1946, at the age of 33, to seek his fortune as an actor. A chance meeting led to Sid's first audition and subsequent part in the 1947 feature film Black Memory.

From then on, Sid was swamped with work and no matter how big or small the part, or whether it was stage or film work, Sid took it. As a character actor it wasn't long before Sid James was earning the highest daily rate, often earning double than any of his contemporaries.

Now a successful actor, Sid was introduced to his future wife, 19-year-old stage starlet VALERIE ASHTON, and she candidly reveals to The Unforgettable Sid James her first impressions of him: 'He didn't mean anything to me when I first met him,' recalls Valerie. 'I thought he was conceited and rather full of himself. Actually he irritated me and I thought "leave me alone"! But when I finally went out with him it was just electric and I fell madly in love with him... He just had something about him that just won you over instantly.' In 1952 Sid and Valerie were married.

Sid James' career then took a new direction as he went into a comedy partnership, on radio, with TONY HANCOCK. 'He didn't feel that happy playing comedy,' recalls Valerie, 'he was far happier playing the straight man in what he termed the heavies. That, to Sid, was easy but comedy he found quite difficult.' Indeed, Sid was lost when first standing in front of a mic - but he soon got the hang of it! When Hancock's Half Hour transferred to the small screen, Sid was in his element.

The show was a great success commanding up to a 70% share of the audience. But Hancock resented the fact that the public was beginning to regard him and James as a comedy duo. Hancock wanted to go solo.

Hancock's decision, though initially shattering, was a great career move for Sid. He went on to star in his own TV show, Citizen James (1960s), which, ironically, made Sid one of the biggest comedy stars in the country. His 1966 sitcom, George & The Dragon, with co-star Peggy Mount was an absolute ratings runaway.

In 1960 Sid played Sergeant Frank Wilkins in Carry On Constable, the first of his 19 Carry On appearances. Writer Vince Powell tells The Unforgettable Sid James that Sid viewed the Carry On films as 'well-paid crap'. FREDDIE HANCOCK remembers Sid lavishing his wife and children with 'all the things he thought he was deprived of as a child' and Valerie goes on to tell how Sid viewed his money - if he was earning it, he wanted to spend it.

'Money didn't matter,' says Valerie, 'just so long as he had enough to do what he wanted to do.' But it wasn't long before Sid's betting habit got out of hand and it was a terse time in the James marriage: 'Sid was a compulsive gambler. I must say that I never, never tried to stop him. I just asked him to try and control it because it was getting a bit out of hand at one stage. But it was something he loved and you can't take away from somebody something they love.'

Sid's hard working and living took its toll in 1966 when he suffered his first heart attack. Against doctor's orders, Sid continued to smoke and drink and wouldn't stop working: 'Sid didn't turn anything down. He was a workaholic and sometimes he'd work at the theatre at night and a film during the day - far too much,' says Valerie, 'but I didn't push him to do that, that was his own decision. He was his own boss.'

In 1973, rumours about the nature of Sid's relationship with Carry On co-star BARBARA WINDSOR were rife.

Barbara's husband of the time, gangster Ronnie Knight, also heard the rumours. But not even Knight's calling card - an axe left embedded in a floor in Sid's house - deterred the lovers.

'The truth was, yes, of course he did have an affair but it didn't rock our marriage,' Valerie tells The Unforgettable Sid James. 'He was completely honest with me. I accepted it. He told me it couldn't end straight away as he had another film with the lady in question and he said, "Darling, it's not going to be easy, but will you stand by me. I've made a mistake. I have had an affair but my life is to be with you."

'What can one say? It's what I wanted so I didn't mind how long I had to wait. I just stood by him and I helped him through it because it was what he wanted and that's what I did. It was a hiccup but our marriage was too strong to be severed. We got over it.'

On 26 April 1976, whilst on stage at the Sunderland Empire in The Mating Season, Sid James, aged 62, suffered a fatal second heart attack.

Valerie James tearfully concludes The Unforgettable Sid James: 'I just loved Sid deeply and I'll continue to do so for the rest of my days.'

Contributing guests in this show are: Valerie James (wife), Donald Assan (bother-in-law), Peter Rogers (producer, Carry On films), Freddie Hancock (ex wife of Tony Hancock), writers Vince Powell, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, and actors and co-stars Peggy Mount, Liz Fraser, Jack Douglas, Patsy Rowlands and Olga Lowe.

The Unforgettable Sid James is narrated by Daniel Abineri. The Producer and Director is Steve Jones, the Series Producer is Karen Steyn and the Executive Producer is Elaine Bedell.

A Watchmaker/Chrysalis Production for ITV