Monday 7 December 2015

Guest Blog: Sid James and The Sunderland Empire

Here's another wonderful guest blog from my Coronation Street Blog editor, the talented Glenda Young. In this post Glenda writes about her local theatre, the Sunderland Empire and its rather sad links with the King of Carry On, the late great Sidney James...

I’m a huge panto fan. Oh yes I am! (etc).  And as a huge Coronation Street fan, I’m particularly excited about going to see this year’s Christmas pantomime at my local theatre – the Sunderland Empire.  The panto at the Empire this year is Aladdin and stars Terence Maynard from Corrie who played baddie Tony Stewart in the soap.  In the panto, Terence takes on the role of  baddie Abanazar and I’ll be sitting there booing and clapping and shouting and screaming with the rest of them. Oh yes, I love panto, it appeals to my inner five-year-old like nothing else on earth!  

And I also love my local theatre.  The Sunderland Empire is a very special place to me. As well as going there regularly since I was a child to see great shows, comedians, bands and pantomimes, it's also where I graduated as a mature student on stage. And it's where my dad proposed to my mam many years ago.

But Sunderland Empire might ring a different bell for Carry On fans as it was where Sid James passed away, on stage on the first night of a play he was starring in.
It was on Monday April 26 1976 when Sid James died. He was starring in a smutty comedy called The Mating Game at Sunderland Empire.  When Empire manager Roy Todds phoned the show’s producer, Bill Robertson, to tell him the shocking news that Sid had died, Robertson thought it was a joke. "Sid James has just died in Sunderland," said Todds. "Don’t worry, everybody dies in Sunderland," replied the producer.

The Empire audience had even greater trouble realising that what it was witnessing was not a scripted piece of comedy. Sitting next to Sid on the stage was actress Olga Lowe, an old friend from his early days in his native South Africa. She returned to the Empire to film a documentary about Sid and she told the Sunderland Echo: "I came on, said my first lines and he answered as normal. Then I sat on the sofa with him. I said my next line and he didn’t answer. His head had slumped and his eyes had gone back into his head. I thought it was a gag. Well, you would with Sid. He was such a rascal." 

 Olga began to ad lib. Sid did not respond. Her ad libbing became more frantic. Realising something was seriously wrong, she edged out to the wings and told the crew to bring down the curtain. Stage hands ran to fetch technical manager Mel James. Mel told the Sunderland Echo: "It was the only time I have had to ask if there was a doctor in the house." 

Still the spirit of humour lingered. Mel’s request brought a laugh from an audience. He asked again: "In all honesty, is there a doctor in the house?" There was indeed a doctor present - sitting in the front stalls. Usherette Irene Young met him and escorted him to the stricken actor. But still it seemed ludicrous. "The doctor came out and he thought it was a gag," says Olga. "But Sid was in a coma. The doctor called the ambulance and I believe he died on the way to hospital." She adds: "It was awful. Ten minutes earlier, before the show, he had been the same old Sid, larking about and laughing. After the curtain came down we sat in the dressing room, with a drink supplied by the theatre, not knowing what to say. We were all so shocked." 

It was later reported that he had died on stage of a heart attack. He was 62. Sid’s wife, Valerie Ashton, was with him in Sunderland that night and was present throughout, standing in the wings. It was an open secret, however, that Sid had been having an affair with his Carry On films co-star Barbara Windsor.

In a separate interview with the Sunderland Echo, Barbara Windsor spoke about Sid when she visited the North East to publicise her autobiography and she reckoned that Sid would be turning in his grave if he knew the circumstances of his death. She said: "It (touring to provincial theatres like The Sunderland Empire) was everything Sid hated. He liked his films and his television. The only time he did theatre was if he could have some lovely location. Like he would go to Australia and sail around the Far East to get there and stop off at Bangkok ... then come back via America. Many years after he died I was playing Birmingham and the old guy on the stage door said: ‘I look at you, Barbara, and I remember Sid so well. The last time you was (sic) with him was in this theatre and he came back a few years later and he looked desperately ill.’ Everyone said to him: ‘Don’t go up to Sunderland. He looked so ill, so unhappy. He went up to Sunderland and the rest is history."

According to showbiz legend Sid has never left Sunderland Empire. Soon after his death, actors began to report strange happenings in the late star’s dressing room, rumours that have always been denied by the theatre management. One who hinted at a disturbing encounter with Sid’s spirit was Les Dawson, who was in panto there. After his encounter with the ghost of Sid James, Les vowed never to return to the Sunderland Empire. 
The Empire is now listed as one of the most haunted places (if you believe in such things) in the UK due to the ghost of Sid James haunting the backstage area.

Last year my husband and I went on a backstage tour of the Sunderland Empire. You can see my pictures from the visit here >  I didn’t notice or feel anything particularly odd about the backstage areas, no ghosts, no spirits, nothing.  But it did become apparent that our tour guide and Empire employee did indeed believe that there was something supernatural going on. Whether she said this just for publicity purposes, or if it’s really the belief of those in the theatrical professions, as – let’s face it – they are prone to a bit of drama and superstition, who knows?  My husband, however, couldn’t resist winding the guide up and did his best Sid James chuckle, which he does very, very well. Buy him a pint and he’ll do it for you too, he considers it his party trick.  The poor guide almost jumped out of her skin, my husband chuckled, I apologised and we left quick-sharp.


Editor, Coronation Street Blog – written by Corrie fans for Corrie fans, and - the internet's first, original Coronation Street fan site
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