Saturday, 28 November 2015

The Incredible Versatility of Joan Sims

The Carry On films are sometimes thought of as being sexist or made by men for men. Many of the women who appeared in the series were playing decorative roles and as we know, the female actors involved were never paid as much as the men. Not that the men were paid that much either...

But that's another story. The one actress who never failed to shine in the Carry Ons was Joan Sims. Everyone knows she's my all time favourite actress and although the Carry Ons never made her rich and they possibly limited opportunities elsewhere, the sheer range of roles offered to Sims across her twenty four films in the franchise is just astounding. I'm not aware of any other instance of an actress maturing over such a long period and so many films in one series. 

While to a certain extent it can be a depressing experience to watch, as Joan is sometimes rather quickly relegated to middled-aged, nagging wife or girlfriend, just when you think the game is up, a role comes along that takes you by surprise. While Hattie Jacques was normally always the bombastic Matron and Barbara Windsor the bubbly blonde, Joan could change appearance, accent and status with alarming regularity. She was the female Kenneth Williams, vocally at least. She could shift from appalling poshness to shrieking vulgarity in a heartbeat. She could do any accent and do it extremely well. She was equally adept in costume "drama" as a nurses uniform. Just stunning.

So let's look at the evidence. Over the course of her twenty four films, Joan went from green, young inexperienced student nurse Stella Dawson in 1959's Carry On Nurse, to the repressed, middle-aged housekeeper Mrs Dangle in the last gasp of the original run, Carry On Emmannuelle in 1978. Put the two roles side by side and the performances are almost unrecognisable. 

In between those roles came some absolute crackers. Of my own favourites there's almost too many to choose between. I love the majestic western glamour of Belle in Carry On Cowboy. Joan never looked better than dressed in that gorgeous figure hugging black gown, her blonde hair piled high. Her entrance down that staircase must be her best ever. Then there was Lady Joan Ruff Diamond in Up The Khyber. Here she combines Kenneth Williams' vocal mannerisms to produce a Cockney harridan of exquisite proportions. In Carry On Screaming she takes the role of nagging wife to a whole new level, but later the following year she was almost unrecognisable as Zig ZIg, the exotic, sensual cafe owner who promises Kenneth's Commandant Burger a good time! 

As the years wore on Joan was more and more tied to the middle-aged suburban housewife role. My least favourite of her performances comes in Carry On Girls, released in 1973. I loathe this film anyway, but it feels like Joan's role as downtrodden hotel owner Connie is simply grafted onto the script to make up the numbers. I'm not saying she is bad in the film - Joan never ever gave a less than fantastic performance on screen - it's just that we've seen it all before and it just doesn't do her justice. He next role, as Madame Desiree in Dick was far better - the bogus French accent, leering towards the Cockney once again is a delight! She's at her fruity, saucy best here and the scenes in The Old Cock Inn with Joan in charge are memorable. 

One of my favourite later roles was that of Cora Flange in Abroad. Yes, to a certain extent she's the nagging wife once again but Cora is probably the most normal, well adjusted character in the entire film. A little like Hattie's Peggy Hawkins in the classic Carry On Cabby, Cora is quite a painful role for Sims as the character's marriage is on the rocks. There is a fairly sensitive (for a Carry On anyway) look at middle-aged marriage problems with both Cora and her husband Vic tempted by other people. Of course they are reunited at the end of the film and this provides one of the main highlights. Sid and Joan were just so good together and their shared laughter is so tangible, so real it's completely infectious and an utter joy.

Joan Sims was also in the rare category of being given a semi-serious, tear jerking scene to perform, not once but twice in a Carry On. In At Your Convenience at the end of the day trip to Brighton and accompanied by Eric Rogers' beautiful score, Joan and Sid stroll up their garden paths, clearly tempted to begin an affair. There is a real touching quality to this scene as neither character can give in and go for what they want. Sid and Joan put in superb acting performances here, tinged with comedy of course, but mainly playing it for real and it's fantastic. 

Four years later in Carry On Behind, Joan is paired with the sublime Peter Butterworth for a further touching scene as estranged husband and wife. The dialogue may be corny, but the performances of Butterworth and Sims are so good and strong they not only raise the entire quality of the film, they could quite easily be lifted out and put into something quite different.

At the heart of Joan's incredible versatility is the basic fact that she was just a bloody fine actress. She was RADA trained, slogged her guts out all over the country in weekly rep for years and was equally adept at revue, straight theatre, character voices on radio, television and of course film. Joan could take anything that was given to her, no matter how outlandish, and make it real. 

It just doesn't get any better than that. 

You can follow me on Twitter @CarryOnJoan 

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