This week marks the 40th anniversary of the death of the Scot who was arguably the most popular comedy actor that Britain ever produced. Alastair Sim, who died on August 19, 1976 at the age of 75, was a comedy genius. He loved to make people laugh and left behind some of the most memorable performances in British cinema history. In just 25 years, he clocked up an impressive 61 films, many of them classics and all of them worth watching for his performance alone.
If the characters portrayed by Sim were assembled for an identity parade, they would make a motley crew. Millicent Fritton, the amply bosomed headmistress of St Trinian’s, would rub shoulders with her male oppo, Weatherby Pond, the frazzled headmaster of the boys’ school in The Happiest Days of Your Life.
Neither Sim’s Scrooge nor Sir Norman, the stressed-out diplomat he played in Innocents in Paris, would have any patience with Bingham, the time-wasting sidekick in the Inspector Hornleigh series of films, or with the dithery middle
-aged man who stands to inherit a fortune only if he gets arrested in Laughter in Paradise.
Although Sim’s celluloid characters are a diverse mob, there are certain similarities in their make-up which are quintessentially Alastair Sim. His rich, commanding voice and heavy-lidded, dark-shadowed eyes lent him an air of menace upon which he capitalised to memorable effect in Scrooge and as various other characters of dubious morals. Sim appeared to play these parts – the lecherous lodger (with dyed black hair combed over to one side) in London Belongs to Me, the initially frightening author in Hue and Cry, and the mysterious title character in An Inspector Calls – with relish and gusto. Indeed, so strongly was he associated with dour, sinister characters that Alec Guinness’s imitative performance as just such a figure in The Ladykillers has often been mistakenly attributed to Sim.
A more true-to-life feature of many of Sim’s characters was the near wicked glee which bubbled just under the surface. Alastair Sim loved to laugh, and once they were underway, his infectious chuckles were impossible to resist. Many of his characters have a mischievous twinkle in their eye. Miss Fritton, who twiddled her pearls as St Trinian’s burned, is an unforgettable example.
Sim could unleash the most manic mirth when required: one of the greatest moments in British cinema history was Scrooge’s childlike joy when he awakes on Christmas morning to find that he has been given a second chance in life. Sim dances around, performs handstands, musses up his hair, kisses his housekeeper, and giggles uncontrollably in a performance that outdoes even James Stewart’s similarly exhilarating “Merry Christmas, Bedford Falls!” routine in It’s a Wonderful Life.
Alastair Sim was born in Edinburgh in 1900. His father was a tailor, and the family lived above his shop on Lothian Road (the Filmhouse on Lothian Road bears a plaque in Sim’s memory). With four children to look after – Alastair was the baby – as well as the shop to clean, it must have been a struggle for his mother, but the family’s fortunes improved around the time Sim was six years old, and they moved to Bruntsfield.
After leaving school (Gillespie’s) at 14 and before he went to study chemistry at Edinburgh University, Sim did a stint working as a messenger boy for his father’s business, but proved to be far too easily distracted from his job and was sacked when he failed to deliver a suit at the promised time. His excuse? He had spotted some of his friends playing cricket in the Meadows and had stopped to watch.
Towards the end of the First World War, Sim was in the Officers’ Training Corps but luckily the Armistice was signed before he saw any action. Shortly after that, he lived rough in the highlands for a year, joining a group of itinerant workers. On returning to Edinburgh, he had various jobs before he eventually turned his attention to speech training and elocution, a subject about which he was passionate. By 1927, he was at Edinburgh’s New College, lecturing parsons on how to avoid sounding like parsons. He was also running his own School of Drama and Speech Training in the city.
It was around this time that he first met his future wife, Naomi Plaskitt. She was 12 years old and her school, St George’s, was staging a production of WB Yeats’s The Land of Heart’s Desire in which she was to feature. Her teacher had met Sim and invited him to play a key part in the production. Over an afternoon tea with Sim and her teacher, who, she later realised, probably saw him as a potential beau, Naomi first fell in love with her future husband. He was undoubtedly unaware of this, but he became a friend to her family – her mother was bringing her and her sister up alone – and their marriage, just after her 18th birthday, in 1932, seemed to be the logical next step after years’ of close friendship.
After she left school, Naomi had become Sim’s secretary at his school, where she also studied. She is the first to admit, in her memoirs, that their relationship – although endorsed by her mother – must have looked highly suspect. At one point, shortly after Sim moved to London, he shared a flat with Naomi and her mother. “I wonder now,” she wrote in Dance and Skylark in 1987, “what his friends must have made of our relationship – the tall man looking older than his years and the small, shy girl looking younger than hers. I must have been like a happy dog, always at his heels… I don’t think it occurred to either of us that our relationship might appear unusual.” They went on to have a daughter, Merlith, in 1940, and their marriage lasted until Sim’s death. Naomi died in 1999.
Sim had moved to London in the early 1930s to pursue his dream of working in professional theatre – he had staged many successful amateur productions in Edinburgh and was keen to become a professional director. He was advised to establish himself as an actor first so he gave up his lectureship and closed down his School of Drama and Speech Training. His first job was a small part in a production of Othello starring the great black star Paul Robeson. Before long, he was winning rave reviews for his performances as Shylock, Captain Hook and Prospero.
It was the silver screen, however, which catapulted Sim into the public consciousness. Between 1935 and 1940, he honed his abundant, and largely physical, comic skills in no fewer than 25 supporting roles. His performance as a genie in Alf’s Button Afloat in 1938 left an indelible impression on the future Minder star George Cole who later said that he waited for the end credits to roll in order to find out who this bug-eyed actor was.
Three years later, George Cole made his film debut, appearing with Sim in Cottage to Let. Sim had befriended Cole when they both appeared in a Ministry of Information film about saving fuel. In it, the schoolboy, played by Cole, reprimands Sim’s Nero for “wasting good fuel” and hits him over the head with his violin.
Cole, an adopted teenager, became the Sims’ evacuee at their country cottage during the Blitz, and soon became part of the family. He went on to act alongside his mentor in many movies and has described Sim as “a deeply caring person who had a passion for teaching young people to think for themselves”. Sim’s respect for the young was reciprocated: in 1948, he was voted rector of Edinburgh University with a landslide victory over Harold Macmillan. Hundreds of students turned out to greet him when he was installed in his post.
By then, Sim was a British box office star. His first starring role was as the droll Inspector Cockrill in the 1946 mystery Green for Danger. However, his best known work dates from the 1950s when he starred in Scrooge, The Happiest Days of Your Life, Alfred Hitchcock’s Stage Fright, Folly to be Wise, Innocents in Paris, The Green Man and the St Trinian’s films. His performance as Miss Fritton is said to have influenced Robin Williams when he did his own transvestite turn as Mrs Doubtfire.
Merlith McKendrick, who has clearly inherited her father’s impish sense of fun, tells a story about how she used to show a publicity shot of her father as both Millicent Fritton and her ne’er do well brother Clarence, from the St Trinian’s films, to classmates and tell them the couple in the picture were her parents.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Sim continued to work – on TV, in films and, mostly, in the theatre where, in 1969, he gave one of his greatest performances – as the hapless title character of The Magistrate. He continued to work right up until not long before his death from cancer.
Throughout Sim’s career, he was keen to be seen as an actor, rather than a celebrity, and he was consistent in his refusal to play the celebrity game: he would not sign autographs and he avoided giving interviews. Nevertheless, he was voted the most popular British star in 1950 and is undoubtedly still one of the best-loved even today.