Alastair Sim: The Star of Scrooge and the Belles of St Trinian's by Mark Simpson
|Alastair Sim: The Star of Scrooge and the Belles of St Trinian's by Mark Simpson
|Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
|Summary: A biography of the stage, screen and film actor whose greatest success was on the silver screen in the 1950s.
|Date: September 2009
|Publisher: The History Press Ltd
The mere mention of Alastair Sim conjures up visions of pictures made during the 1950s when a more gentle humour was the order of the day. Yet the man hated and did his best to avoid publicity, claiming that the person the public saw on screen revealed all that anybody needed to know about him. How he would have fared twenty years later in the age of a more intrusive press, one cannot but wonder.
Born in Edinburgh in 1900, he became an elocution and drama lecturer before making his debut on the stage at the age of 30. At first he became associated with villainous roles, but after World War II he became typecast as the genial, often absent-minded eccentric of many a comedy film. He was one of the stars of 'Hue and Cry', the first of the Ealing comedies, before playing major roles as a headmaster in 'The Happiest Days of Your Life' and, conversely, as the headmistress, Miss Fritton, in the immortal first two St Trinian's comedies. Perhaps his best-ever performance on celluloid was as the secretive, pompous writer of pulp fiction in 'Laughter in Paradise'.
His film career mirrored that of the Ealing comedies. In the 1950s, audiences wanted films which epitomized the very British underdog sense of humour, subtle and self-effacing. By the end of the decade such qualities were seen as old hat, being swept aside by the more gritty kitchen sink drama in which comedy was rather fiercer, and Sim was regarded as representing a style which had become obsolete.
Luckily a return to the stage and television beckoned around this time. So, less happily, did a court case in which he took Heinz to court for a TV commercial in which the voice-over actor sounded uncannily like him, and lost – though we are not told by how much. He continued to work almost until the end; a lifelong heavy smoker, he succumbed to cancer in 1976.
This book tells us much about the actor, and a certain amount about his family life. There is something rather touching in the fact that he was introduced to Naomi Plaskitt when she was aged twelve and he was twenty-six (even worse, she thought he was about forty). They waited for each other for several years, and it proved a very happy marriage. Yet the ever publicity-shy Mr Sim remained an enigma, avoiding interviews, rarely letting himself be drawn about anything except occasionally on political or religious views. He claimed to be a very left-wing atheist, reluctantly accepting a CBE in the 1953 coronation honours (on the grounds that he had rejected several appalling scripts), though later declining a knighthood. His refusal to sign autographs was legendary, even for a boy who was dying of cancer, as he never believed in the principle of such a thing. Instead he would lecture children who asked for one, their faces glazing over with boredom, when he would have wasted far less time just signing his name and sending them on their way.
I enjoyed this book, but finished feeling I still knew little about Alastair Sim as a person. This is certainly not the author's fault, as he has done admirably in painting a portrait in words of the actor and his times. Nevertheless his subject was adept at covering up his traces, ensuring that any biographer would not find him an easy task. Recollections from Ian Carmichael and George Cole, among others, have helped to put some flesh on the bones, but he remains something of an enigma.
If you enjoyed this, you will probably also like a biography of one of his contemporaries and colleagues, Bounder!: The Biography of Terry-Thomas by Graham McCann.
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