Carry on and on and on: Remember Sid James? The Dead Comics Society certainly does: his old house has a plaque to prove it
Friday 23 October 1992
'Ooh, I tell you,' he said as he tripped gingerly past in his black patent brogues, fur coat and fedora, balancing a glass of white wine in one hand and a cigarette in the other. 'I wish I could take me feet off and pop them in me pocket.'
Inman had made his way last Sunday to a suburban street in west London, where two plaques were to be unveiled by the Dead Comics Society in honour of Sid James and Arthur Haynes. Here he had joined a throng of people, in which there were dozens of familiar faces. Faces remembered from Carry Ons and telly sitcoms of the Fifties and Sixties, faces that belonged to the first brat pack of post-war British comedy, now in its late middle age. Pat Coombs, Alfred Marks and Peggy Mount were there. Jack Douglas was talking to Cardew 'The Cad' Robinson. Johnny Speight, who wrote Till Death Us Do Part, arrived in a macintosh that had apparently spent the last decade in the bottom of a wardrobe. The air was thick with cigar smoke and banter.
'You're not a member yet are you?' someone inquired of a new arrival.
'Of course, I'm a founder member, actually.'
'No, I mean you're not dead yet. You're not a dead comic.'
'Oh. Ha ha. A joke. I see.'
The list of apologies for absence was noticeably short.
'Max Bygraves regrets he can't be with us today as he's in an old people's home,' revealed Sir Harry Secombe, reading from a Telemessage. 'Oh, sorry, no, no, that should be: he's on tour.'
From the way everyone talked about it, it seemed as if the Dead Comics Society had been around for ever, a sort of masonic lodge for gagsters, an opportunity to get together and gossip and discover where your mates were going to be in panto.
In fact, it was only born last year. The notion had come to David Graham, a marketing consultant and comedy fan, when he was on holiday, and took as his reading Alexander Walker's biography of Peter Sellers.
'I suddenly thought, somebody's got to put up a blue plaque for Peter,' said Mr Graham. 'He had a tortuous life, but he gave us so much. It was a way of saying thank you.'
As Sellers did not fall into the categories stipulated by English Heritage's official London blue plaque scheme (you have to be dead for more than 20 years, or to have been born more than a century ago), Mr Graham decided to do it himself. Within a couple of months he had placed a plaque outside the cottage in north London where Sellers grew up. And since simply putting the thing up was not sufficient for him, he decided to combine the occasion with a grand party in the comedian's honour.
'Nothing like it had been attempted before,' he explained. 'I invited his secretary, his chauffeur. It was almost a family thing. A reunion. It was great for everyone concerned, Cardew Robinson could turn up and say 'hello mate'.'
Graham Stark, who popped up in most of the Pink Panther films and is another of Sellers' biographers, was one of the first people Mr Graham approached.
'He basically wanted to know if the idea was a runner,' said Mr Stark. 'I told him that actors are funny buggers, they'll go to Poland for a charity event, but if personal aggrandisement of the organiser comes into it, that's it. I get six letters a week asking me to do this and that and you know perfectly well which will be stand- next-to-the-stars time. But David isn't like that.'
Mr Graham raised more than pounds 3,000 for a number of charities by charging guests and auctioning off a series of autographed books at the Sellers event.
'They'll be worth a lot of money one day, those books,' he said. 'They've got some great names in them. I went down to the set of the new Carry On with a pile of books and got them signed there. I got Jim Dale, before he went back to America.
'From the moment we started nothing went wrong,' Mr Graham remembered. 'It was almost as if Peter was up there pulling the strings. And after we'd done it, I thought, well, we've got the wherewithal, why stop at Peter?'
So, last May, he unveiled a plaque outside a house where Tony Hancock had lodged in 1947. It was not in East Sheen, Hancock's mythical stamping ground, however, but in Hampstead Garden Suburb.
'It was over the road from where I used to live,' Mr Graham said. 'I have the distinction of having been clipped round the earhole by Hancock as a child.'
It soon became clear to Mr Graham that there were several comedians who might qualify for his scheme: 'Terry-Thomas; Dick Emery; lovable Bernie, Bernie Winters; sadly it's a lengthening list'. So he recruited a celebrity committee to help him sift through the candidates.
'I liked the idea,' said Alfred Marks, a committee member. 'It was a jolly nice gesture. It takes a lot of deliberation to decide who we should honour. My wife jokes that I should worry when David starts asking me how to spell my name.'
The committee now meets twice a year.
'The first time was a great lunch,' revealed Mr Graham. 'To sit at that table - Max was there, they all know each other, Norman was there as well and Barry Cryer - it was the great British comedy foundation meeting together.'
The committee agreed that the next plaque should be for Sid James, he of the grubby chuckle and the face that looked as if military campaigns had been fought across its contours, who died in 1976. David Graham approached Val James, Sid's widow, who suggested the best place for the plaque would be outside the house they lived in on Gunnersbury Avenue, Ealing.
While seeking permission from the present owners, Graham discovered that Arthur Haynes, the comedian who once used Nicholas Parsons as a straight man, lived just a few doors down the road.
'Just think,' he said. 'In the Sixties, two greats lived within 100 yards of each other.'
So, he decided to kill two birds with one stone.
When it was built in the Thirties, Gunnersbury Avenue was a most glamorous address. Now it is a traffic bottleneck, where the North Circular road narrows into single lanes. Above the drone of Sunday lunchtime traffic, Nicholas Parsons struggled to make himself heard as he delivered the address for Arthur Haynes.
'Not many people remember him,' strained the host of Just A Minute. 'But we remember him today.'
A few minutes later, on the doorstep of Sid James's old house, now owned by a Dr Hawaizi ('the estate agent told me the house had belonged to Sid James, but to be honest that is not the reason I bought it') Sir Harry Secombe gave a charming speech.
'Perhaps I might get to play with Sid again in the great music hall in the sky. But if I did, no matter how many raspberries I blew, all the eyes of the audience would be on scene-stealing Sid James.'
Everyone applauded, and John Inman wiped a tear from his eye.
'We put up plaques to artists and scientists,' said Alfred Marks. 'But people like Sid are very close to the public's heart in a way many others who are officially honoured are not.'
And indeed, to the dozens of people applauding Sir Harry, Sid James formed an important part of their lives. One such person was Carl St John, editor of Stop Messing About, the journal of the Kenneth Williams and Sid James appreciation society.
'Originally we were members of Railway Cuttings, the Hancock fan club,' Mr St John explained. 'But we felt they didn't pay enough attention to Ken and Sid, who, in our opinion, were an integral part of Hancock. Matters came to a head in April 1988, when Kenneth Williams died and they virtually ignored it. Some 300 of us decided we had to split. It was quite acrimonious, I can tell you.'
Mr St John produces his magazine, a professional-looking desktop publication, six times a year. Each of the 300 members receives a copy, as do a number of celebrities. 'I always send a copy to Barbara Windsor,' he said. 'And Frankie Howerd used to get it.'
All over the marquee put up for the occasion in the Hawaizis' garden there were beaming comedy fans, who had paid pounds 35 a head to mingle with their heroes. A man from the Hancock Appreciation Society asked Jonathan Ross to sign several copies of the society handbook that were to be auctioned off at its annual convention on 31 October.
'They're all here today,' the man said. 'I'll get a lot of good autographs for the auction.' He was not the only person seeking Ross's attention. Steven James, Sid's son, and a ringer for his father in every detail (except for Steven's ponytail), went over and introduced himself.
'I've wanted to meet him ever since I heard he keeps a picture of my dad on his desk,' Mr James explained afterwards.
The biggest smile, though, belonged to David Graham, whose boyish enthusiasm for old-style British gaggery is possibly unmatchable.
'I'm nearly 50, unfortunately,' he said. 'No, no, fortunately, otherwise I wouldn't have experienced all those marvellous radio times. I'm very lucky I remember Variety Band Box, Ray's A Laugh, Educating Archie. I even remember listening to ITMA at my grandad's house. Don't get me wrong, I think some of our modern comics are great, too. Harry Enfield, to me he's the new Dick Emery.'
As the party began to break up, and John Inman sank, relieved, into a sofa, Mr Graham was already talking about his next two plaques, for Frankie Howerd and Benny Hill.
'They're not really dead to their millions of fans, these comics,' he said. 'They're probably more alive than you and me. That's thanks to Bob Monkhouse, that quote. Such a lovely way of putting it.'
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