Carrying On Regardless
The object of Sid James's gurning on-screen lust for so many years now lives alone – and rather lonely – in a west London flat. She hasn't worked for a while, and any job offers would be 'gratefully received'. So what keeps her going? Diet Coke, and something unusual that she keeps in a box
Joan Sims lives in a rented flat in a Kensington mansion block, where, luckily, she is a sitting tenant; "Otherwise I probably couldn't afford it, dear." She answers the door in something nice and floaty and powdery blue. It's quite new. She's due to do This Morning and Gloria Hunniford's Open House shortly, and she thinks she might wear it for them, too. "Do you think I can wear it for two tellies, dear? Now, don't say no or I shall get quite silly and flustered. I once wouldn't do Wogan because I looked in the mirror and just thought: 'No'." But Joan, I protest. You look absolutely fine. "Oh," she says, "the face is all right, I suppose, but it's what happens after that..." There is always something just a little sad hanging off the edge of her remarks.
Certainly, she still has that brilliantly cheering, seaside-postcard, iconic face. That doughy, bouncy face, which looks like something that's risen but is not yet cooked, and could do with, say, an extra 10 minutes in the oven. Still, she is 70 now, the last surviving member of the magical Carry On lot (aside from Babs, of course). Does she miss them? "Oh, terribly." She takes me down the hall. She recently did her spine in and walks awkwardly, with a limp. Yes, it's been a long time since Rada, where she won the £10 Mabel Temperley prize for grace and charm of movement. Kenneth Williams, she says, always found that very funny. "He'd say: 'Hmm, that's a bit ironic, Joan, considering you've spent most of your career falling on your arse.' " We laugh. She's very good company, albeit sometimes inadvertently – she can be a wonderful Mrs Malaprop. She thinks she watches too much telly. "I'm a workaholic, really, so it's hard when I'm not working. I'm not a great reader, so I do watch a lot of telly. I've actually become the most frightful cabbage potato."
She offers me a cup of tea. No, she won't have one. She's got her Diet Coke. She drinks gallons of Diet Coke, she says, now she has given up the booze. Yes, she used to drink a lot. Gin, whisky, vodka, champagne and, when she couldn't afford that, "then that poor man's champagne, Cuvée Napa". She was once even admitted to a drying-out ward in a hospital in Banstead, "which is where you end up if you can't afford the Priory". It was jolly frightening, actually. The ward was full of winos and vagrants and a mad German woman who, in the middle of the night, would appear as if from under Joan's bed and whisper: "Zigarette? Zigarette?" Still, she thinks it helped. "I was absolutely petrified, dear, but as awful as it was, I was allowed to get sober, you know. And I made some nice raffia mats. I sort of went along in a dream, really." Are you an alcoholic, do you think, Joan? "Well, that's what they say I am, dear. Actually, I don't think I am, but I've stopped for a year now, and I'm not going to try a drink again because, before you know where you are, you are going down this terrible path..."
Into the living room, where we have the most fabulous, blissful, satisfying Carry On moment. Years ago, when she was working with Ronnie Barker on a TV revue show, Before the Fringe, she happened to mention she had heard a wildlife programme on the radio the night before. "It was hosted by this elderly, military type, who said his favourite birds were tits, and he then went on to describe how he had built 'tit' boxes and put them around his garden. There were different-sized boxes for different-sized tits: big tits, medium tits, small tits..."
Everyone laughed, she says, and then a couple of weeks later she got a couple of boxes through the post from Ronnie, and inside each box was a ping-pong ball, with a tiny pink clay nipple attached. The accompanying letter read: "Dear Miss Sims... we have great pleasure in awarding you this year's 'tit box' prize. This prize is awarded annually to persons who have done most to further the position of tits in everyday lives..." Would I like to see her tits? Rather, I say. She gets them down from the mantelpiece. She opens the boxes.
"My tits!" she announces.
"Joan," I say. "Your nipples seem to be disintegrating."
"Are they? I haven't looked for ages. Let me see. Yes, my nipples are disintegrating."
"This one is quite crumbled..."
See? See? I would have been a great Carry On star, I think.
She looks horribly settled, though. She's just lowered herself into her special, high-backed, Dralon chair, on loan from a mobility unit. She has a little, white-clothed table which she pulls over her knees. She knows she looks silly. "I feel like the dentist's receptionist. Yes, madam, we can fit you in at 10am next Monday." But the table is useful for keeping certain things handy: Diet Coke; telephone; fags. "Terrible habit. I smell like a road digger. But it's enough to give up the drink, dear." There's a photograph of Joan meeting the Queen over the bookcase, and another of Hattie Jacques, whom she always used to spend her Christmases with and whom she loved like a sister. "She had her demons, too, particularly about the weight. I used to get her to come to health farms with me, but she'd only stick it for a day..."
I ask Joan if she is lonely. "In a word, yes," she replies. No fella or anything then? "Oh, no. Not for a long time." Is it because, at the end of a date, you invite them in to see your badly disintegrating tits? "No. NO!" She would like someone, yes. "Do you know anyone? Someone who can cook and would be a good escort?" I say that I don't, sadly. Don't you cook, Joan? "I can't be bothered any more," she says. What do you eat, then? "It's all M&S, pop in the oven stuff. I can recommend M&S Moussaka, and their smoked salmon, of course." She could have married in her time, yes. She could have married Kenneth Williams, even. He proposed to her during Carry On Loving. "He said we would make the most wonderful couple. We'd give fabulous parties. We'd be the talk of the town. And he'd give me a child if I wanted one, but wouldn't sleep with me after that." Gosh, marriage to Kenneth Williams. That would have been horrendous. "I know! I know! Totally exhausting!" Plus he wouldn't have let you use his toilet, would he? "We'd have had to have had separate, private quarters, I think. And Coronation Chicken." Sorry? "M&S. They do very good Coronation Chicken."
Still, she has her fans. She just got a letter today, as it happens, from a Jean Louis in Spain. She shows me the letter. Jean Louis writes: "I most admire you, Joan. You have made me very happy. Joan, my big illusion would be able of seeing a photo of you, so you send to me..." She says there is always a Carry On showing somewhere in the world and she gets a lot of letters like this. I say Joan, write back and ask this Jean Louis if he can cook. "What a good idea," she cries. "I hadn't thought of that."
I am her fan, too, I must say. I think she's a blinding actress. I think, even, that most of the Carry On lot were blinding in their way. Joan Sims, Sid James, Kenneth Williams, Charles Hawtrey, Barbara Windsor. And together? They just kind of had something. Joan saw "bits" of Carry On Columbus, which was made in 1992. And? "I don't think it worked without us, dear. We were a unique formula." She has done other work since, yes. She was even, a couple of years back, a spectacular, scene-stealing Betsy Prig in the BBC's adaptation of Martin Chuzzlewit, but the work does not come as thick or as fast as she would like. It's not the drink, she says. It has never been the drink. "That has never affected my work. I only ever drank when I wasn't working." Still, she has, at least, just written High Spirits, her autobiography. It is meant, I think, to be a cheerful little memoir but, like I said, with Joan nothing is ever properly cheerful. There are always those sad bits hanging off the edge.
She was an only child bought up in the station house at Laindon, Essex, where her father, John, was station master. She thinks her mother, Gladys, might have been something of a depressive. "Certainly, she had her little breakdowns, and would pack her bags and leave. I don't know where she went. My aunt's house, probably. She'd always come back in a couple of days."
In the book she recounts how, when she was nine, her mother told her that, actually, she was madly in love with another man, a man she'd known before John Sims, but had not married because of some ghastly mix-up. She kept a photograph of him at the back of a drawer, which she showed Joan. "He was an absolutely beautiful boy. He contacted her a couple of weeks after her marriage to my father, and she went up to London to meet him, There, he declared undying love, and said he wanted to marry her. She had to tell him it was too late. She'd already married on the rebound. It was absolutely tragic. And there was mummy, in tears, in front of me."
Her parents never showed affection for each other. They never even holidayed as a family. "Daddy never came away with us. He'd say: 'You and mummy go'." She thinks that put her off marriage for good. "I always grew up with the feeling that, if I married, it would have to be absolutely perfect. Otherwise, I'd prefer to be on my own."
She was a lonely child, and her escape was, predictably, creating imaginary worlds. She'd perform little plays on the station's loading bays, or musical shows in the ladies waiting room, then it was local amateur dramatics and, finally, Rada. She tasted her first drink at Rada. At a party, she was given something "orange in a cone" that made her sick. It was rum and orange, apparently. She's not sure when the drinking got out of control. Or why. But she gives a clue, I think, when she says she was quite pleased to be put into that hospital in Banstead because: "When you have punished yourself, you just need to fall into someone's lap and say, look after me." Punishing yourself? For what? Do you like yourself, Joan? "No, if I'm honest, I don't." Why? I suppose I've never felt I was good enough. I've never had much confidence. I'm amazed I became an actress." But, surely, I say, that makes absolute sense. With acting, you get to be someone else. "Yes. Yes. That might be true. I am happiest when I'm working." She thinks the not liking herself business might be something to do with her mother, who was always hyper-critical. "If I showed her a new dress, she'd say you look lovely dear, but, hang on, turn round, there is a mark on it. She always wanted me to do something better than the Carry Ons. She'd say: 'Can't you do something of quality, dear'?" Like Shakespeare? Would you have liked to have done Shakespeare, Joan? "Actually, I've never liked Shakespeare," she says. That's the thing about most of the Carry On stars, I think. They never looked like they'd prefer to be doing Shakespeare.
She's recently completed filming an Alan Plater TV film, which is due to be shown soon, and has also just recorded a pilot for a radio show. "But now it's a bit of a blank page. All offers gratefully received." She needs to work, yes. Not just because she loves it, but for the money, too. She only ever got £2,500 for each Carry On, and no repeat fees. And she has never saved wisely. "I used to be very extravagant. Once, because I was appearing on The Kenneth Williams Show, I went to Harvey Nicks and bought two outfits for £600 – which was a fortune in those days – and then took myself to the Hyde Park Hotel for tea." She is more restrained now, she says, but has her moments. The other day, coming back from High Street Kensington, she hailed a cab to take her home but then thought, sod it, I'm going out. "If my shopping bags had been Harrods, I'd have gone to The Ivy. But as they were Bhs I decided on The Carlton Tower, where I swanned in and treated myself to a little bit of artichoke followed by duck with spinach and puréed potato." You don't mind going out to eat on your own? "I didn't that night, darling. I had a wonderful time."
Anyway, time to go. What will you do with the rest of the day, I ask her. "Well, after you have gone I will take my make up off, slip into something more comfortable and order a Chinese take away. Special fried rice and mixed veg and scallops with ginger and spring onion. Or I might have chicken with cashew nuts. And then, if no beaux come beating at my door, I shall probably watch telly. " It's ER tonight and she loves ER. Yes, as it happens, she rather misses George Clooney, too. "Isn't he divine? I could eat him on toast." She has always been a woman of some appetite, I think. Shame about the tits. But they were great once. At least she will always have that.