Review for Citizen James
We really do live in special times. It seems that, as long as tapes still lurk in the archives somewhere, DVD distributors are increasingly willing to market back catalogue TV despite the potential buying pool probably being quite small. Network are obvious forerunners, though of late, Revelation and Acorn are coming close seconds. This welcome release from Acorn will delight fans of classic British comedy. With some serious comedy credentials behind this (Series 1 saw Galton and Simpson move straight from Hancock to this spin-off vehicle for side-kick Sid) and Hancock producer Duncan Wood at the helm, this was a series that followed a tough act.
Of course, the reality is that this is much lighter and less impressive stuff than Hancock's best moments. After all, Sid james is …well, in the final analysis, just 'Sid'. Generally better in an ensemble cast (Hancock, Carry On, Bless this House), this Sid-focussed outing is enjoyable enough if a little predictable.
The plain truth is that poor Sid was a casualty of a Hancock enforced format change (when Hancock's Half-Hour became plain 'Hancock') which also saw Carry On side-kick Sid James removed from the ensemble. Feeling bad about this turn of events probably led Wood and writers Galton and Simpson to offer up this series which was well-enough received by audiences to last for three short seasons (of six episodes a piece).
Here, in an interview segment snaffled from the Saga website, Liz Fraser recalls what happened:
"They were great mates," explains Liz. "Tony and Sid would go out with their wives together, and it was a huge shock for Sid when Tony told the BBC that he wasn't going to work with Sid anymore because he felt they were a double act. That's when Tony went solo. But the BBC was very loyal to Sid and said he could have his own series.
"And, of course, Sid was terribly upset. It was more than just not working with Tony, the whole friendship disappeared. I remember watching a preview of something with Sid and him telling me what happened. He was in tears.
"It was always going to be Tony with Sid but Tony felt it had become Sid and Tony. That was Tony's reason, that's what he told me, he didn't want to be a double act." The situation only affected Sid as Liz and Galton and Simpson continued to work with both.
"Sid wanted me to be with him, so it was fait accompli," explains Liz. "It was the same with the script writers, they were upset as well. But it didn't have any effect on me. I even got a small part in The Rebel, as Tony considered me a good luck mascot and Tony (plus Galton and Simpson) made some excellent ones on his own, like The Blood Donor and The Radio Ham."
Although clearly a traumatic time for all involved, Liz thinks that Tony's decision probably benefitted Sid in the long run. "Yes, I think it worked both ways," she agrees. It's certainly a joy to see Sid doing what Sid did best: exploring his roguish charm. As Bruce Forsyth once said, Sid James "was a natural at being natural."
"He was as he was," says Liz . "I don't think he ever stepped outside of his own skin really. I don't think Sid ever played unsympathetic - although Sid would never suffer fools gladly, he wasn't so nice to that extent. But," she adds, with obvious fondness, "the person who annoyed him wouldn't have known they annoyed him..."
So at the end of November 1960, Citizen James first aired to UK audiences. To their delight, Hancock stalwarts Bill Kerr and Liz Fraser were also aboard so it felt almost like a bit of business as usual.
James played Sidney Balmoral James, completely in character with the work-shy schemer he had played in Hancock. Liz Fraser and Bill Kerr kept their real names for the series too - unusual in the extreme and helping typecast them for evermore, though these were innocent days where such long term considerations were rare. Not a one of the cast would ever have dreamed that the series would be getting a release some fifty years on and be subject to reviews like this one. These were merely moments of fleeting entertainment that no one was taking particularly seriously at the time.
Though the series was not anywhere near the knock-out that Hancock had been, it was enough to earn Sid a part with the 1960 'Christmas Night with the Stars' line up.
The show returned in 1961, though Galton and Simpson were by then too pre-occupied with other work ('Hancock' for one) and writers Sid Green and Dick Hill were now providing the scripts. The two had serious track record with shows like 'Morecambe and Wise' and the tone of the show changed dramatically as a result.
Sid was now cast as a bungling do-gooder with Bill Kerr and Lis Fraser having to alter their approach accordingly.
By Series 3, Kerr and Fraser were phased out altogether.
This set from Acorn gathers together all the surviving episodes (in various states of dis-repair) which comprise all of Series 1 (thankfully) plus two episodes from Series 2 and another couple from Series 3.
For my part, Series 1 was by far the most enjoyable. Seeing Sid in seedy soho, doing his business from an Italian café and constantly scrounging money to put on the gee-gee's from his long suffering fiancé, the much younger Lis Fraser - as well as continuing some of that classic rapport with Australian dim-wit Bill Kerr provided a couple of very pleasurable nights viewing.
Picture quality, culled from a variety of source tapes, is variable but perfectly acceptable. It looks as though it heralds from video tape in the main though I can't confirm that, which suggests great chunks of it will have been filmed live without re-takes, in common with many other series of the day.
Special features include a nice interview with Lis Fraser, still a handsome lady in her early eighties, who brings a refreshingly un-pretentious commentary to things.
The feature, Galton and Simpson on Citizen James, is a text based piece with pictures that helps throw a little historic context on to the show. As the two writers are still alive and kicking, an interview would have been nice. (I know from personal experience how willing Alan Simpson is to share his recollections of the era - I once spent a memorable evening with him in a pub in Hampton. Magic!!)
The series never quite sparkles the way Hancock often did and there are few laugh aloud moments. But for many the release represents a fantastic opportunity to add a bit more TV history to their collections. I would certainly recommend it to any fans of archive comedy, Hancock enthusiasts or just those who enjoyed James natural and unpretentious approach to life, with all the pleasure that his throaty 'yak yak yak' cackle brings. Great stuff!