AN UNEXPECTED ACTING SUCCESS AND THE WORLD’S BEST EBENEZER SCROOGE.
With Christmas fast approaching, we turn the spotlight to one of Britain’s most distinctive, yet highly reluctant film stars Alastair Sim, who is today fondly remembered for his masterful portrayal of Scrooge in the 1951 adaptation of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
An Actor that Divided Popular Opinion, and that the Film Industry did not know what to do with…
On the London stage, Sim was cast as grand and iconic characters from Shakespearian plays, such as Prospero and Shylock. But, on screen, he was always typecast as stringent pillars of the community, from strict headmasters to police officers.
Bald from his mid-20s, Sim was never going to star as a romantic lead. Yet his heavy-lidded eyes, jutting lower lip and ungainly manner made him memorable and comedic, as well as a natural target for cartoonists.
But in contrast to his outwards visage, Sim also possessed a rich, clear speaking voice and the expressive pliancy which enabled him to change mood at the drop of a hat (perfect for the elaborate Shakespearean roles he played on stage.)
It's surprising, therefore, that he wasn't in greater demand for other villainous roles in his 55-film career. When Sim was given the opportunity to play it straight in Guy Hamilton's 1954 adaptation of JB Priestley's An Inspector Calls, the producers even felt the need to warn moviegoes that Poole was not a comic part, and urged them not to spoil the picture for others by laughing.
Was Sim Always Destined to be an Actor?
Far from it. As a child Sim wanted to be a hypnotist. But Sim’s father was not the most supportive, frequently saying about him “Mark my words, that boy will end on the gallows.” When he became a governor of Alastair's school, he reassured the staff that they could beat him if he misbehaved, and he even promptly fired him from the family firm for playing cricket when he should have been working. Leaving school at 14, Sim was employed at Gieve's, a men's outfitters, but he was so bad at wrapping purchases that he was only allowed to sell ties.
A late bloomer as an Actor
Sim’s first acting role was that of a priest in a 1925 amdram production of The Land of Heart's Desire, and he became so attached to 12-year-old co-star Naomi Plaskitt (his future wife-to-be) that he founded his own drama school for young hopefuls.
In 1929, he approached the playwright John Drinkwater about pursuing his ambition to direct. But he wound up making his professional acting debut the following year alongside Paul Robeson, Peggy Ashcroft and Ralph Richardson as the Messenger in Othello.
Sim made his sole appearance on Broadway as a Renaissance cardinal in The Venetian in 1931, and spent the next two years with the Old Vic, where he began to attract critical attention.
However, not long after he married Naomi, Sim injured his back while playing with some kids on Hampstead Heath, and spent a year out of work. It was osteopath Edward Hall that saved his career, which took off after his performance as the sycophantic banker in Hubert Griffith's comedy, Youth at the Helm (1934), which led to him being offered his first film role as a Cockney copper in The Riverside Murder.
Not Quite an Overnight Success
Sim quickly became typecast as a manic eccentric after signing a three-year deal at Twickenham Studios. Nevertheless, he gradually developed his screen skills opposite such big names as Edward Everett Horton, a debuting James Mason in Late Extra (1935), Bud Flanagan, Chesney Allen, and Margaret Lockwood. He even got to co-star with Naomi in The Wedding Group (1936) before studio chief Julius Hagen went bankrupt and cancelled his contract. Sim responded by becoming a perpetual freelancer.
But when Sim was cast alongside Osborn Henry Mavor (better known by his pen name James Bridie), a co-founder of the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow and the Edinburgh Festival, when both cast in What Say They? at the 1939 Malvern Festival, the two Edinburgers hit it off instantly.
Sim collaborated frequently with Bridie over the next 12 years, as both actor and director. In return, Bridie introduced Sim to Alfred Hitchcock, with whom he had worked on The Paradine Case (1947) and Under Capricorn (1949). Indeed, he was probably instrumental in getting Sim cast alongside Jane Wyman and Marlene Dietrich in Stage Fright (1950), which was inspired by a Bridie story.
Consequently, even though their friendship was not without its storms, Sim paid his respects when Bridie died in 1951 by persuading Launder and Gilliat to rework the 1949 play, It Depends What You Mean, as Folly to Be Wise (1952).
Later, when Robert Morley proved unavailable, Sim was cast as Inspector Cockrill in Green for Danger (1946). The iconic and memorable scene where Sim reads a whodunit in bed and slowly realises he has failed to identify the culprit is priceless, and would only be matched by his pantomimic attempts to get himself arrested for shoplifting and burglary in Mario Zampi's Laughter in Paradise (1951).
Sim’s Growing Success as a Renowned Actor
Around this time Sim seemed incapable of giving a bad performance. Such was his box-office appeal that Ealing Studios tried to lure him back to play the professor in Passport to Pimlico and the Macroon in Whisky Galore! (1949). However, Sim refused to be tied down.
His success continued to grow after being cast as contrasting head teachers Wetherby Pond and Millicent Fritton in Launder and Gilliat's The Happiest Years of Your Lives (1950, The Belles of St Trinian's (1954) and Blue Murder at St Trinian's (1957).
Sim also played Miss Fritton's crooked brother, Clarence, alongside George Cole's career-making spiv, Flash Harry. Yet, Sim famously surpassed these performances with the title roles in Brian Desmond Hurst's Scrooge (1951) and Guy Hamilton's An Inspector Calls (1954), which both caused outrage when announced, especially among Dickens devotees.
However, ironically now Sim has been acknowledged as giving one of the best performances in existence of Ebenezer Scrooge. It is a wonder why more producers didn't exploit the sepulchral side of his screen personality.
Despite Sim’s rise in popularity, he detested being in the limelight and staunchly refused to sign autographs, let alone give interviews. But by the late 1950s, Sim had become a respected figure. In 1948, he had even beaten future Prime Minister Harold MacMillan by 2078 votes to 802 to become Rector of Edinburgh University.
In 1958, Sim became deeply embarrassed when a friend accused him of prostituting his art to promote baked beans when he discovered Ron Moody was hired to produce a voice like his own for Heinz’s latest advert. Furious at being mimicked without his permission, Sim sued the offending companies, and the case dragged on until February 1959 before the ruling went against him.
To add insult to injury, he was mercilessly lampooned by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson in `The Impersonator', the final radio script for Hancock's Half Hour, in which Tony Hancock takes offence when someone uses his voice in a cornflake commercial. Moreover, when Sim stood for the post of rector again in 1968, he was soundly defeated by television personality Kenneth Allsop.
Surely he can't have been derailed by Beans?
It certainly affected him, as he didn't make another film for 12 years! He returned to the stage in Misery Me! in 1956 and enjoyed periodic triumphs before becoming a regular at the Chichester Festival from the mid-1960s.
But the critics were often cruel in highlighting his reliance on the delivery patterns and physical tics that had served him so well over the previous two decades. Kenneth Tynan was particularly harsh about his performance in The Tempest (1962), which he claimed had all the mysterious magic of a pantomime dame channeling Tommy Cooper.
Sim appeared alongside his daughter Merlith in Windfall (1967) and racked up five pantomimes as Captain Hook in Peter Pan. He also made such occasional forays into television, while returning to the big screen for minor supports in The Ruling Class (1972), Royal Flash (1975) and Escape From the Dark (1976).
The discovery that he was suffering from lung cancer occupied his mind during his last prolific year. He died aged 75 in 1976.