Alastair Sim: The Actor, His Life, and Some Popular Films

Updated on August 7, 2018
AliciaC profile image

Linda Crampton grew up in the UK and loves to visit the country. She is very interested in its natural history, culture, and history.

Alastair Sim as the Laird in the film Geordie
Alastair Sim as the Laird in the film Geordie | Source

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.

Early Life

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.

Alastair Sim's home in London
Alastair Sim's home in London | Source

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 in 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, 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.

Several popular actors of the time appear in the film. Their names may be familiar to some people who read this article.

  • Bob Cratchit: Mervyn Johns
  • Mrs. Cratchit: Hermione Baddeley
  • Mrs. Dilber: Kathleen Harrison
  • Jacob Marley as a mature adult and as a ghost: Michael Hordern
  • 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)
  • Mr. Jorkin: Jack Warner (who I always associated with the role of PC George Dixon in the long-running TV series entitled Dixon of Dock Green)
  • Mrs. Fezziwig: Hattie Jacques

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.

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

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 which 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. Alistair 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. It it's close to Christmas, I know the film will be on TV soon. The film 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 films 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.

References

Alastair Sim biography from biography.com

Perhaps our greatest comic actor from The Telegraph

Naomi Sim obituary and life from the Independent newspaper

George Cole obituary and life from the Guardian

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Linda Crampton

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      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        4 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Ethel. He's one of my favourite actors, too. I enjoy watching his films. Thanks for the comment.

      • ethel smith profile image

        Ethel Smith 

        4 months ago from Kingston-Upon-Hull

        One of my favourite old time British actors. A few of the films you refer to have been on TV recently here. And of course each Christmas Sims classic Scrooge is on air

        Thanks Linda

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Yes, biology is very interesting, but it's nice to explore other topics, too. Thanks for the visit, Heidi.

      • heidithorne profile image

        Heidi Thorne 

        5 months ago from Chicago Area

        Taking a break from the biology lab I see. :) I know I've head of him, but didn't know much. Thanks for the history lesson. Cheers!

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        It's always good to hear of a successful relationship that's based on love. I'm happy for the Sims and for your grandparents, Jackie. Thanks for the comment.

      • Jackie Lynnley profile image

        Jackie Lynnley 

        5 months ago from The Beautiful South

        Thanks for a better look at an old actor we many had no knowledge of. I love biographies, even of unknowns so really enjoyed this mini biography.

        Strange how a 14 year old and a much older man did not seem back then as it does today! Even my grandmother at 15 married my grandfather in his twenties. That is two now I know of that turned out splendidly.

        Interesting, very.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Bede. I like both of the aspects of Alastair Sim's life that you mention. He did some good things. I like the Scottish brogue as well.

      • Bede le Venerable profile image

        Bede 

        5 months ago from Minnesota

        I found your article interesting, Linda. I like the fact that Alistair persevered in realizing his dream of being an actor. It’s also commendable that he gave back to society by opening a school for problem children. I love the Scottish brogue.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you very much for the comment, Bill. I appreciate the visit, especially when you've been busy.

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 

        5 months ago from Olympia, WA

        This one almost got lost in my file, Linda. I'm glad I noticed it this morning, and sorry I'm so late. Great look at a great actor. I was expecting an article on another creature of nature, so this was a surprise.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        I appreciate your comment, John. I've heard of the Bill Murray film but haven't watched it. I should watch other versions of A Christmas Carol or Scrooge in December as well as the Alastair Sim one.

      • Jodah profile image

        John Hansen 

        5 months ago from Queensland Australia

        This was a very interesting tribute to a fine actor, Linda. I do recall his version of A Christmas Carol (although the slightly more recent version 'Scrooged' starring Bill Murray seems to be shown more here.)

        I also watched all the St Trinians movies, though I would not have known or recognise Alastair Sim at the time. Thank you for sharing.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you, Manatita. Yes, I think Alastair Sim did die too soon. The age of his wife when they met and later married has been noted by writers. The quote from his wife seems to show that she was aware of the situation. I don't want to dwell on the topic, though. They were by all reports very happy together. Neither of them are alive to discuss the topic today, even if they chose to do so, so I prefer to just describe the known facts.

      • manatita44 profile image

        manatita44 

        5 months ago from london

        You have done credit to a great actor who died too soon. Perhaps he and his wife were soul mates. Fancy starting to work at 14 and marrying at 18, especially all those years ago. A great but perhaps troubled Spirit.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Liz. I think it's always interesting to learn about actors and other public figures. Thanks for the visit.

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        5 months ago from UK

        I was familiar with this actor from watching his films, but it's interesting to have a little more background information on him.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Mary. It's nice to hear that someone else watches the film every Christmas! It's interesting that even though the plot and lines are familiar, the film is always enjoyable.

      • aesta1 profile image

        Mary Norton 

        5 months ago from Ontario, Canada

        We just love Alastair Sim in Christmas Carol. We watch this every Christmas and have come to memorize many of the lines. I'm happy to learn more about the person so thank you for doing this hub.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Dora. Yes, he does seem to have been a good person. Like most of us, he reportedly had a few less desirable qualities, too, but overall I think he was a man that I would have liked to have known in person.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Genna. Sim's rendition of Ebenezer Scrooge is my favourite, too. I love the line that you've included. There are a lot of memorable lines in the film.

      • MsDora profile image

        Dora Weithers 

        5 months ago from The Caribbean

        Alastair Sim, by your report, is a great person to know, not only because of his work, but also because of his example as a good human being. Thanks for introducing him and adding to my to-do list of movies to see.

      • Genna East profile image

        Genna East 

        5 months ago from Massachusetts, USA

        Hi Linda. Sim's A Christmas Carol is perhaps the best rendition of this classic in film. Others have portrayed Ebenezer, but none could match the inimitable Alastair Sim. I first saw this picture as a little girl and will never forget it. "Can you forgive a pig-headed old fool, with no eyes to see with, no ears to hear with, all these years?"

        I've seen Sim in other films, and was surprised to learn that this fine actor declined a knighthood. Thank you for this interesting article.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Flourish. Yes, that's the impression I get from reading comments from people who knew him. He did seem to care for others. Thanks for the visit.

      • FlourishAnyway profile image

        FlourishAnyway 

        5 months ago from USA

        Although I have not heard of him, you certainly paint a picture of not only a skilled actor but also a charitable and humble human being.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you, Pamela. I suspect that many people may know him from that film.

      • Pamela99 profile image

        Pamela Oglesby 

        5 months ago from Sunny Florida

        This is an interesting article about Alastair Sim. I haven't seen some of his movies, but certainly remember A Christmas Carol. Thanks for a fact filled article about this good actor.

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