Thursday 5 October 2017

Joan Plays it Straight


Joan Sims is rightly regarded as one of Britain's finest comedy actresses. Joan was in some of the very best in film, television, radio and in her early years, theatre, during a career which spanned five decades. I've always believed there is real skill in acting comedy and being comedic on screen and that's not to say straight dramatic actors aren't talented professionals. However comedy actors are often better at being dramatic than straight actors attempting to be funny.

Joan's career was dominated by comedy but we must remember she trained as a dramatic actress at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and spent several years playing all sorts of roles in rep across the country. The fact she looked so jolly and had a natural gift for being funny and having sublime comic timing meant that directors and producers in the industry just couldn't imagine her playing straight roles, tragic roles or even villains. This is a shame I think and must have frustrated Joan during her career despite her incredible success at a time when men mainly dominated the world of comedy. She did, however, make one or two fairly dramatic appearances on film and mainly in television and here are my top five.


Carry On At Your Convenience / Carry On Behind (1971 / 1975)

Of course we must start with the film series which gave Joan lasting stardom and mass appeal. The most prolific actress in the series, she appeared in 24 of the films across a twenty year period. Quite astonishing when you think about it and the reason why, apart from Joan's loyalty and love of the atmosphere at Pinewood with the gang, was her wondrous versatility.Joan could play any character Peter Rogers, Norman Hudis, Dave Freeman or Talbot Rothwell threw at her, more so than any other actor in the team. She played young and old, dowdy and glam, queens and commoners and tackled a range of accents that most would struggle with. 

There were only very rarely dramatic moments in the Carry Ons - they were primarily there to entertain, make us laugh and make us groan at the corny gags and laboured situations. However there were a couple of stand out moments which showed that these comedy actors could really bloody act and both involved Joan. Funny that. The first was that beautifully sad/funny scene at the end of the works' outing in At Your Convenience. Sid and Joan are fighting their shared desire to take their friendship further and there is a real touch of sadness about this scene as the two middle-aged, married people know realistically it will never happen. In Carry On Behind four years later, Joan is at it again when reunited with her long-lost husband played by Peter Butterworth. Always tinged with comedy, their scenes are also pretty real and tear-jerking and in the hands of these true professionals, the script is raised up to a different level.


The Ladykillers: Suffer Little Children (1980)

Probably the most challenging, difficult role of Joan's career, in 1980 she travelled to Manchester for an episode of Granada's Ladykillers series. This series was formed of seven hour long dramas each looking at the murder trials of infamous women in history. Joan tackles the most harrowing, that of child killer Amelia Dyer. She wrote of the part in her autobiography High Spirits and claimed it was very difficult for her to play but she relished the chance to do something of this kind. Sims is superb in the part, very convincing and really makes the most of this brilliant role any actress would give their eye teeth for. Well done to the production team on this series for seeing Joan in a different light and giving her the opportunity to prove what a superlative actress she was.  


A Murder is Announced (1985)

Joan was one of the most prolific actors in the Carry On team once the series ground to a halt in the late 1970s. She was never really typecast and went on to appear in a wide range of television series throughout the 1980s and 90s. In the mid 1980s she joined a star-studded cast, including Joan Hickson, Samantha Bond, Sylvia Syms and Ursula Howells for the classic Miss Marple BBC adaptation, A Murder is Announced. This is my favourite of all the glorious Hickson Marple films and Joan is magnificent in her supporting role as the nice, kindly but rather slow Miss Amy Murgatroyd. 

Joan tugs at the heart strings with her delicate performance as Amy who, without giving too much away, meets a rather unfortunate end. Her acting is sensitive, subtle and delicate and she works wonderfully well with the actress Paola Dionisotti, who plays a much sharper character. There is subtle reference to the fact that these two ladies may be more than friends and the scenes following Amy's demise are a masterclass from Dionisotti. This role should have led to more dramatic parts for Joan and I'll never be sure why that didn't happen. It was a million miles away from the likes of Lady Ruff Diamond or Zig Zig and all the better for it.


On The Up (1990)

This early 90s BBC sitcom was never up there with the likes of Dad's Army or Only Fools and Horses, but I grew up watching it and remember it fondly. Written by Bob Larbey, it starred Dennis Waterman as a Cockney reprobate made good and featured Joan in the scene stealing role as housekeeper Mrs Fiona Wembley. Gaining herself her first catchphrase in "Just the one" as she helped herself to yet another sherry, On the Up was amusing, well acted but not subtle. And I'm totally fine with that. There was one scene in particular that I remember all these years later and it cut across all the humour and Cockney charm of Waterman and Sam Kelly. 

The scene was pretty much a monologue from Joan Sims and told the sad story of her character's past and of love lost. It came as a bolt from the blue in the episode in question and it genuinely moved me and moves me still. It was beautifully played by Joan and Dennis Waterman's reaction on screen looks genuinely in awe of this wonderful actress. I wish it hadn't been a one of and Larbey had written more along these lines for the talented Joan.


Screen One: Tender Loving Care (1993)

In the early 1990s there was an anthology drama series called Screen One. Broadcast on the BBC, it featured a range of television plays on different, sometimes hard-hitting subjects. The well-regarded television writer Lucy Gannon penned Tender Loving Care and the production team took two risks when it was time to cast the play. The first was giving the leading role to the comedienne Dawn French, then at the height of her fame for her work with Jennifer Saunders. Another risk was casting Joan Sims in a major supporting role as Daisy Potter. 

The play tells the story of Elaine, a put upon nurse in the health service who on the surface is all things to all people. A good, kind woman who is dedicated to her career and her family. However she is secretly, quietly murdering her patients. It's a very dark, moving drama and despite being a really difficult watch, I'd recommend it to anyone who hasn't seen it if only to see a truly different side to Joan's talent. This television play shows the superb range and depth to Joan's acting abilities and was surely another wasted opportunity to take Sims' career to a different level.

You can follow me on Twitter @CarryOnJoan on Facebook and on Instagram