Sunderland Empire Theatre - 26th April 1976
The following is a tribute to the late Sid James. Sid was one of the most popular members of the Carry On series of films and an asset to the British film Industry. He was a very private man and loved by everyone. With this in mind, the following article is written as a tribute to Sid who died doing what he loved most.
‘Theatre comedy ends in tragedy’. This was the title of the front page story leading in the local newspaper on that tragic evening. The report continued ‘ As a mark of respect to Sidney James, who collapsed and died on stage at the Empire Theatre, Sunderland last night, the rest of the weeks performances of ‘The Mating Season’ in which he starred have been called off’.
Sid was appearing in this run of ‘The Mating Season’ with Audrey Jeans. This particular performance was the opening night at the Empire, the start of what was hoped would be a successful week long run. The performances that were due to follow were indeed called off, those familiar words "The show must go on" simply didn't apply here, Sid was irreplaceable and there was simply no option.
Irene Young, an usherette on duty that night told me.
"I knew at once that something was wrong, I could see at once that Audrey Jeans was beginning to fluff her lines, it was clear that there was some ad-libbing".
Also in the audience that evening was Mrs Olga Bolton from Seaham, Co Durham, she told me.
"It was very upsetting, I was with a friend who thought that Sid was acting up, I knew at once. Sid took a few steps back without speaking, there was a couch just behind him, he just collapsed onto it. A lady member of the cast (Audrey Jeans) came forward and shouted in the direction of the wings - ‘close the curtains’, at that point the curtain fell".
A majority of the audience still believed at this point that this was all part of the show, to the point that much laughter was evident. Mr Mel James, the theatre manager (who is still currently theatre manager) came forward to the curtain and appealed for a doctor. His efforts were still thought to be part of the performance and he had to repeat his plea by asking.
"In all honesty, is there a doctor in the house".
There was indeed a doctor present, he was sitting in the front stalls and had already realised there was something wrong, he was making his way towards the stage area anyway. Irene Young met the doctor and escorted him to the door leading onto the stage.
Valerie Ashton (Sid’s wife) was with him in Sunderland that evening, she was standing in the wings and was present throughout. The doctor called for an ambulance and Sid was taken to the Sunderland Royal Infirmary. It was later reported that Sid James had died of a heart attack on stage of the Sunderland Empire Theatre.
Sid was 62 when he died, his show-biz career spanned over nearly 60 years. Barbara Windsor said at the time his death was announced.
"I can’t believe it, out of all the people I know in show business, Sid was such a gentleman, he was just wonderful and I loved him so much, it’s awful, terrible". Hattie Jacques said; "He was a true gentleman and the parts he played in the films belied his true character". Diana Coupland, Sid’s TV wife in ‘Bless this house’ said "I hadn't seen Sid since Bless this House at the end of February, he was certainly very healthy and robust then".
Sid had gone on tour with the Mating Game as soon as the then current series of Bless this House had finished. Sid and Diana were in the middle of negotiating a new series of the show which was due to start at the end of 76’.
Sid once said regarding the Bless this House series, "The television series itself is very hard work, we sometimes have to film on our day off, things sometimes have to be done over and over again until they are as near perfect as possible". Recalling the Carry On series of films, he was to remark. "The Carry On films are very important to me, because wherever I go in the world, somebody generally recognises me just from them".
Theatre usherette Irene Young summed up that sad evening at the Empire theatre, telling me, "At the end of the evening when the staff were leaving the theatre, we had to leave by the stage door. We crossed the stage on our way out to be confronted by the set and props from the play, not one thing had been moved. It was such a sad and emotional feeling".
The audience were told that they could have their money returned, but as Olga Bolton said, "We didn't want our money back, no one did, not after what had happened".
* Sid would have enjoyed his producer’s comic reaction to the news of the opening night tragedy and have chuckled at the lasting effect fellow performers.
* Within minutes of Sid’s collapse, the manager of the theatre telephone The Mating Season’s producer, Bill Robertson. "I’ve got something terrible to tell you," muttered the shocked manager. "Sid James has just died in Sunderland." Robertson replied : "Don’t worry, everybody dies in Sunderland."
* But one of Britain’s favourite comedy stars has refused to leave the Empire stage.
* Soon after Sid’s death, actors and actresses began to report strange sensations in the late star’s dressing room.
* SINCE then, there has been a steady trickle of stories among the show business fraternity - which has always been denied by the Empire management.
* International stars have claimed to have seen or heard Sid. None will openly admit to their experiences.
* One who hinted he was badly shaken by an encounter with Sid’s ghost was Les Dawson.
* In the year prior to his own death, comic Dawson refused to return to the Empire, claiming what he saw was the worst experience of his life.
* Barbara Windsor has refused to appear at the Empire.
Sid died laughing I was told, if this is true then this is how he would have wished it - god bless you Sid.