Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Sid's Technicolor Turkey

by Geoff Collins

Sid Field? Haven't we mentioned him before? Well, yes, and it's about time we mentioned him again. If you'd care to take a little dip into our Archive for December 2005 you'll find an article in which I attempted to explain why this beloved but shamefully neglected mobile-faced buffoon was so influential; but in 2005 we didn't have the film clips....

Exactly why is such an important and talented comedian so obscure? For a start, he died when he was 45; that doesn't help. Neither does the sad fact that dear old Sid only made three movies and they're all deeply buried in various vaults. Since 2005 there's been no news at all of his first effort That's the Ticket, reportedly a rare survivor of the Doodlebug attack on the Warner studio at Teddington. After a frustrating evening on Google (I have many such evenings) I could find no trace of its whereabouts, not even a production still. Readers: Helllpppp! We need to find this film!!!!

London Town hasn't been shown anywhere since its almost apologetic appearance in an afternoon slot on Channel Four in the summer of 1986, in a much-edited version. This is why That's the Ticket would be such a welcome find; it would be a short, cheap, sharply-edited little quota-quickie, whereas London Town is a vast, lumbering behemoth. The full version runs 126 minutes. Channel Four discarded about a quarter of this, including Sid's "spiv" sketch (think of James Beck as Private Walker in Dad's Army and you'll get some idea of it) but at least lucky viewers were able to watch him as the Photographer, the Golfer and the Drunk. So how does London Town hold up after all these years in the wilderness?

Frankly, it still stinks. England's finest comedian (yes, at the time, this was demonstrably true) flounders for two hours because nobody gave him anything funny to do. Sid's a very appealing actor and the intentions are surely honourable but the whole premise is just so wrong. It's loosely based on the real Sid Field Story - our hero is trapped in provincial obscurity for decades and finally becomes a star in middle-age - but it's depressingly weighed down with dreary plot scenes and truly horrific musical numbers. Nearly an hour into the film, frustrated understudy Sid finally gets his Big Chance in the Big West End Show. With the immortal - and uncredited - Jerry Desmonde as his straightman, this is what he does:

That was "Portrait Study" from the 1944 stage show Strike It Again, and it was written by "Martin Lane", a pseudonym for the Punch contributor J. B. Boothroyd; hence Sid's name in the sketch. There's a BBC airtake of this material, with a live audience, in which Sid and Jerry take it much more slowly, to far greater effect. Many of the lines, including one or two not in the movie ("Ohhh...hasn't it been cold?!!") get huge laughs. In the film, presumably because Sid's supposed to be "nervous", he races through it, and the lack of audience laughter make it seem as if he's dying out there.

Anyway, as we've now established that Sid's been a success, the audience can relax and enjoy/endure approximately fifty-two more musical numbers - during which they will become morose and suicidal - until at last, more than an hour and three-quarters into this mess, Sid and Jerry take the stage again for the Golf Sketch. Not the greatest script in the world, but this was one of the routines that made Sid a star after all those years trudging around the grim towns of 'thirties Britain. (Readers, they're still grim towns.) Before we look at the sketch, here's a rare article from the June 1943 Theatre World, in which we meet Sid at the time of his first West End breakthrough:

In order for this to work at all, you'll have to take yourself back to the Prince of Wales Theatre in 1943 and imagine Sid in full flight, playing the audience like a Stradivarius. The art direction here is by Ernst Fegte, who also worked on The Golf Specialist; so this was Ernst's second stagey golf routine. What a difference, though, between Bill Fields and Sid Field:

Let's make one thing quite clear: arguably the most insulting invention in the world is Canned Laughter ("Look, something funny's happening! Let's all laugh!") but in this instance it might actually help. Sid goes through his full range - and what a range! - but the effect is spooky and a bit chilly, like Chaplin's routines in Limelight. Presumably they thought that the audiences in the cinemas would provide the laughter; but this rarely happened. London Town was such a flop that it was taken off after a couple of days in many cinemas. The smell of turkey spreads quickly.

Fortunately, your introduction to the elusive Sidney Arthur Field needn't cause you chronic indigestion. If you watch those sketches again - and please, do so very soon - you'll see how he influenced so many notable postwar British comedians (and Jimmy Jewel). Aaron's even pointed out Sid's physical and stylistic resemblance to Terry Jones - something I hadn't even considered, but it's quite valid - thus providing an unlikely but legitimate link between a lovable old-time Variety comic and the Pythons. But for me it's not so much what Sid says or does, it's just how he is. He had beautiful precision and repose yet was able to take off and roam freely around the stage like an English Bert Lahr. This is no exaggeration; Sid could have easily played the Cowardly Lion's English cousin. The American servicemen who saw his London shows in '43-'45 never forgot. Neither did Bob Hope, or Danny Kaye; and neither should we. Unfortunately Sid was like Bert in other ways: he was an insecure worrier. John Fisher's affectionate biography What a Performance charitably doesn't mention the booze, but it was a major problem; Sid looks a lot older than forty-one in those sketches. The result was that it all caught up with him, on February 3 1950. He didn't grow old, and he didn't do any television, so he's a rare one, but undeniably a great one. Thankfully he got some of his gentle art on film. Let's enjoy what we have.

One more clip? Okay, then: "something appealing, something appalling". We'll leave you - for the time being - with this item, which mysteriously falls into both categories. It's so obviously an attempt by two Hollywood songwriters to duplicate "The Lambeth Walk" yet it only succeeded in offending Londoners all over the world. Kay Kendall is radiantly lovely, even with her original nose; Two-Ton Tessie O'Shea bludgeons everybody else off the screen; singing drummer Jack Parnell does his laconic Ray McKinley impression; and Sid gives us his version of the Loose-Limbed Drunk on a Staircase, borrowed from Leon Errol and subsequently borrowed yet again by Freddie Frinton. This is "The 'Ampstead Way". Gor blimey! It's Jaw-Dropping Time!

Did I mention Sid's third film, Cardboard Cavalier? To be continued....

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

No wonder my tape from Nostalgia Family Video is incomplete.They probably had it taped off British TV.

2:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Given Mr. Ruggles track record, It was probably wise of Laurel and Hardy to back out of the proposed Ruggles/Field/Laurel-Hardy movie "Babes in the Woods".

8:37 AM  

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