Alastair Sim: A Biography of the Actor and Some Popular Films
A Memorable Actor
Alastair Sim was a popular British actor who died in 1976. His films still appear on television, especially his famous version of A Christmas Carol. He is known and loved today primarily as a character actor. He appeared in both comedies and dramas and performed in films, on the stage, and on television. Sim had a memorable voice and in my experience always gave interesting performances. I've enjoyed watching his films for a long time.
Though Alastair Sim worked in England for most of his career, he was actually Scottish. He was born in Edinburgh on October 9th, 1900. His parents were Alexander, who was a tailor, and Isabella. The family contained two boys, including Sim, and two girls.
After he left school, Sim worked for his father for a while and then for a men's outfitters shop. Neither job seemed to satisfy him. In 1918, he entered the University of Edinburgh to study chemistry. His education didn't last long because he had to join the army to fight in the First World War.
When the fighting was finished, Sim decided to work towards an acting career instead of continuing his chemistry studies. Reaching his goal took some time, however. He didn't begin acting professionally until he was thirty. Before he achieved success on the stage and in films, he worked in several jobs. He eventually become a specialist in elocution, a topic that interested him.
The blue English Heritage plaque labelling the building above as Alastair Sim's home can be seen on a wall. The actor lived in the home from 1953 to 1975.
Elocution Teacher and Marriage
In 1925, Sim became the Fulton Lecturer in Elocution at the University of Edinburgh and stayed in this job for five years. During this period he started a drama school for children. One of the students in the school was Naomi Plaskitt, who was twelve when she started her studies. Naomi left school at fourteen and became Sim's secretary (with her mother's permission). Four years later the couple married. The marriage appears to have been very happy. The couple had one child, a daughter named Meredith.
I don't think it occurred to either of us that our relationship might appear unusual. We were together because we were always going to be together.— Naomi Sim, via the Independent
Acting Career and Mentoring
Naomi was an actress for a short time but soon concentrated on helping her husband with his career instead. She discussed his roles with him, heard his lines, and acted as a substitute for a director.
Sim appeared in many stage productions as well as over sixty films during his career. Many of the films were comedies, but there were some dramas in the mix. He also appeared in a few television productions.
Naomi and Alastair opened their home to boys with problems, allowing them to live there and helping them in some way. One of these boys was George Cole, who became a well-known actor in the UK. He became part of the family at the age of 14 or 15 and left to live nearby at the age of 27. He remained in contact with the Sims after he left their home. Alastair helped him to lose his Cockney accent so that he could find more roles and also aided him in getting acting jobs.
Awards and Death
Alastair Sim led a very private life. He was known for never giving autographs and he very rarely gave interviews. He was awarded a CBE (Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) in 1953. He was later offered a knighthood, but refused to accept it. He felt that everyone should be equal. In 1976, Sim died of lung cancer. He had been a smoker for some time. It's a shame that he didn't live for longer.
I've included descriptions and video clips of some of Sim's performances below. His most famous film performances occurred in the 1940s and 1950s, though his career extended before and beyond this time period.
My presence lay over the hospital like a pall. As I approached, the voices were hushed, all eyes turned upon me...I found it all tremendously enjoyable.— Inspector Cockrill (played by Alastair Sim) in Green for Danger
Green for Danger (1946)
Green for Danger is the earliest Alastair Sim film that I've seen. It's a drama set in London during the Second World War. Sim plays a police inspector investigating some mysterious deaths at a small hospital. The film is interesting for the red herrings in the plot, the surprise ending, the character and behaviour of Inspector Cockrill, and his droll voiceovers as he reads the letter that he is writing to his superintendent. The story is told as a flashback while Cockrill is typing the letter.
The inspector discovers that a patient has died unexpectedly during surgery, that a nurse has been killed by someone wearing a hospital gown and mask, and that four deadly pills are missing from a medicine cabinet. He eventually attends an operation to look for clues and notices a fleck of black paint on someone's gown. He realizes that a green tank of poisonous gas has been painted black to make people think that it contains oxygen. The previous patient was killed during surgery by inhaling the gas and the current one would have too if the inspector hadn't intervened.
The inspector accuses one of the nurses of the two murders and reveals her motivation. The nurse runs out of the room. The inspector doesn't realize that she has swallowed the four pills taken from the medicine cabinet. The surgeon runs after her carrying a hypodermic syringe.
The inspector follows the pair. Believing that the surgeon is about to kill the nurse (and perhaps like the film's viewers that the surgeon is actually the murderer), the inspector wrestles the hypodermic syringe from his hands. He then discovers that the syringe contained the antidote for the poison swallowed by the nurse. The nurse dies and the inspector realizes that he has indirectly caused her death. The film ends with the quote below.
In view of my failure—correction, comparative failure—I feel that I have no alternative but to offer you, sir, my resignation, in the sincere hope that you will not accept it.— Inspector Cockrill (played by Alastair Sim) in Green for Danger
In Laughter in Paradise (1951), Alastair Sim plays a man who has been told that he must go to prison for twenty-eight days in order to receive his share of an inheritance. In the clip below, he is interrupted by his secretary and then by his fiancé as he tries to build up enough courage to throw a brick through a shop window.
A Christmas Carol or Scrooge (1951)
A Christmas Carol is a lovely depiction of Charles Dickens' story. It follows the tale quite closely, though a few of the details are different. The film contains larger-than-life characters and both gloom and joy. I thinks it publicizes the hardship of poverty and depicts the spirit of Christmas very well. The film was called Scrooge when it was originally released in the UK. A Christmas Carol was the name used in North America.
Though I enjoy watching the film and love Alastair Sim’s performance as Scrooge, the lack of realism in the depiction of the young Ebenezer Scrooge at school has always bothered me. He's played by an adult George Cole talking in the higher part of his voice register. I don't think there's anything wrong with Cole's acting, but he's definitely not a teenager in the school scene. Nevertheless, I think the film as a whole is interesting and worth watching. It's a traditional part of my Christmas.
A colourized version of the film was released at one point and shown on my local TV for a couple of years. Thankfully, it has disappeared. It didn't look natural to me and spoiled the message of the film. The clip below shows Scrooge waking up after the visit by the last ghost—the Ghost of Christmas Future. The transformation of Scrooge's character is a wonderful part of the movie.
Popular Supporting Actors
Alastair Sim is most definitely the leading actor in A Christmas Carol. He‘s supported by some popular actors of the time, however. Their names may be familiar to some readers of this article.
- Bob Cratchit: Mervyn Johns (Glynis Johns is his daughter. She played Winifred Banks in the first Mary Poppins film.)
- Mrs. Cratchit: Hermione Baddeley (who played Ellen the maid in the first Mary Poppins film)
- Mrs. Dilber: Kathleen Harrison (a popular character actress)
- Jacob Marley as a mature adult and as a ghost: Michael Hordern (a notable Shakespearean actor)
- Young Jabob Marley: Patrick Macnee (Macnee went on to star as John Steed in the Avengers TV series, which also starred Diana Rigg as Emma Peel. Rigg played Oleanna Tyrell in Game of Thrones.)
- Mr. Jorkin: Jack Warner (who I always associate with the role of PC George Dixon in the long-running TV series Dixon of Dock Green)
- Mrs. Fezziwig: Hattie Jacques (who appeared in many of the Carry On films)
In other schools, girls are sent out quite unprepared into a merciless world, but when our girls leave here, it is the merciless world that has to be prepared.— Alastair Sim as Miss Fritten in The Belles of St. Trinians
The Belles of St. Trinians (1954)
In The Belles of St. Trinians, Sim plays the role of the Miss Fritten, the headmistress of an unusual school for girls. The role was designed for Margaret Rutherford, but she was unavailable at the time. Sim also plays the role of Clarence Fritten, Miss Fritten's brother. Most of the schoolgirls are represented by students of a suitable age, but the roles of the sixth form (graduation year) students are played by adults. I'm glad that the use of adults to represent children and teenagers is less common today.
The goal of the girls at St. Trinians seems to be making money instead of getting an education. Betting is a common activity and the girls make gin in the science lab, which they sell. The school as a whole delights in mischief and mayhem, aided and abetted by their headmistress. The plot of the film is complicated, improbable, and great fun.
Joyce Grenfell plays the games mistress and can be seen in the clip below as well as in the Laughter in Paradise clip. She was a popular actress and comedienne at the time. In The Belles of St. Trinians, she is actually an undercover policewoman sent to investigate a crime wave that seems to be originating in the school.
Additional St. Trinians movies were made, which I haven't seen. Alastair Sim made a brief appearance in the second one (Blue Murder at St. Trinians, 1957) but not in the others. All of the movies were based on a cartoon series created by Ronald Searle from 1946 to 1952. Based on what I've read, the cartoon series was considerably darker than the films.
Misleading Cases was a BBC comedy that ran from 1967 to 1971 (though not continuously). It was based on a series of stories of the same name that were first published in Punch and later as a book called Uncommon Law. The stories were created by A. P. Herbert. Their theme was the exploration of absurd aspects of English common law.
In the series, a man called Albert Haddock repeatedly commits petty crimes as an objection to what he sees as nonsensical laws that he has encountered. He enjoys being taken to court and presenting his case. Haddock's extensive knowledge of the law often enables him to avoid any unpleasant consequences from his actions. The role of Haddock is played by Roy Dotrice. Alastair Sim plays the role of Mr Justice Swallow. The magistrate often has to deal with Haddock in the courtroom, often with what appears to be admiration.
The series had many guest actors. John Cleese appeared in one episode because he wanted to act with Alastair Sim. (Part of this episode can be seen in the first video in this article.) Unlike Sim's films, it's hard to find complete episodes of the Misleading Cases series to view.
Alastair Sim's Legacy
A Christmas Carol seems to have a life of its own. If it's close to Christmas, I know the film will be on TV soon. The movie is probably doing a lot to keep Sim's name in the public's mind. He gave other performances that are worth remembering, however.
I see some other Alastair Sim movies on television occasionally. The films can also be bought online and delivered as packaged movies or by downloading. I think they are interesting historically and in their own right. I hope Sim's name and work are remembered for a long time to come.
- Biographical information about Alastair Sim from Undiscovered Scotland
- Perhaps our greatest comic actor from The Telegraph
- Alastair Sim obituary from the NY Times
- Naomi Sim obituary and life from The Independent newspaper (The obituary includes information about Alastair Sim.)
- George Cole obituary and life from The Guardian (This article also includes information about Sim.)
© 2018 Linda Crampton