Joan Sims' Obituary

Los Angeles Times, 5/7/01

Appeared in 'Carry On' Series of British Film Comedies

By Myrna Oliver

Joan Sims, British actress and zany comedian of the classic slapstick film series "Carry On," has died. She was 71.

Sims, who appeared in 24 of the 31 comedies, died June 28 in London after a lengthy illness.

Since 1994, she had fractured a rib, her spine and a hip in separate falls and suffered an attack of Bell's palsy. Painfully shy, she also battled repeated bouts of alcoholism and clinical depression.

During her half-century career, the actress appeared in more than 100 motion pictures and television productions. She had roles in such productions as the 1975 film "Love Among the Ruins" starring Laurence Olivier and Katharine Hepburn, and the early 1990s BBC sitcom "As Time Goes By" with Dame Judi Dench and Geoffrey Palmer. Last year, Sims co-starred in the BBC film "The Last of the Blond Bombshells" with Dench.

But her greatest fame came from the "Carry On" films. Second only to Kenneth Williams' 25 "Carry Ons," Sims' 24 episodes spanned 21 years, from "Carry On Admiral" in 1957 to "Carry On Emmannuelle" in 1978.

Her co-stars included Sid James, Barbara Windsor, Hattie Jacques and Williams in the farcical scripts concocted by writer Talbot Rothwell and directed by Gerald Thomas. Sims recently explained why she never became rich, saying that women were paid $2,500 and men were paid $5,000 per episode of the low-budget series.

Sims matured from naive nurse Stella Dawson in "Carry On Nurse," to the glamorous saloon queen Belle enamored by James' Rumpo Kid in "Carry On Cowboy," to the shrewish wife Calpurnia opposite Williams' Julius Caesar in "Carry On Cleo."

She was cherished as Lady Ruff-Diamond ("Oh dear, I seem to have got a little plastered") in "Carry On Up the Khyber," considered the best of the series and included by members of the British Film Institute among their 100 favorite films of the 20th century.

Although innocent compared to today's fare, the films were considered saucy, ribald updates of British music hall comedy, laced with double-entendres.

"That the 'Carry Ons' are supremely silly and even at times inane is what endears them to their fans," The Times' Kevin Thomas wrote after a 1972 Los Angeles screening of "Carry On Henry VIII," in which Sims portrayed an unknown wife, garlic-loving Marie of Normandy. "Freewheeling, old-fashioned burlesque is always the order of the day. Anyone whose taste in comedy is limited to sophisticated satire had best avoid them entirely."

Later that year, Thomas wrote of another "Carry On" screening: "At a sneak preview of 'Carry On Doctor,' a number of viewers cursed the film loudly for being so corny--only to break up with laughter.

"The 'Carry Ons' may be an acquired taste at that," he added, "but some of us find their sheer silliness welcome relaxation." Looking back on the film series last year, Sims said: "We were all frightfully eccentric, I'm quite sure. A box of licorice, all sorts. But very dear, very lovable. I can't emphasize enough that it was a joyous experience. Like a family."

Williams, flamboyantly homosexual, even proposed marriage to Sims, saying: "You and I--we'd make the most wonderful couple. We'd give fabulous parties; we'd be the talk of the town."

Sims declined, as she revealed last year in her book "High Spirits," which a London Daily Mail reviewer termed "a surprisingly frank--and often frankly sad--autobiography."

Although the actress had a few serious liaisons with men, she never married. When she lived briefly with divorced actor Tony Baird, Sims' dominating parents wrote her a long letter that stated in part: "Fingers of shame will be pointing at you. . . . Remove this seducer from your home. God knows how you have persecuted us."

An only child who grew up in the isolated English village of Laindon, Sims was rejected three times by the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, which told her: "We would seriously advise you to discontinue your training as you are quite unsuitable for the profession." She was accepted on the fourth attempt and graduated in 1950.

Although Sims worked steadily on stage, screen and television, she never overcame her shyness, and remained somewhat reclusive when not performing.

"Acting has been my only freedom," she said in 1998. "I've used acting as a substitute for all the joy and happiness that I've missed out on. That's the time when I can laugh and cry and be happy with other people."

This obituary appeared in the LA Times on July 5, 2001.