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The Star of Scrooge and The Belles of St Trinian's
By Mark Simpson
The History PressCopyright © 2011 Mark Simpson
All rights reserved.
From Birth to the Fulton Lectureship
As I passed imperceptibly from a beautiful child to a strong and handsome lad, I wanted more than anything else in the world to be, of all things, a hypnotist. I practised on gentle dogs – with the result that even to this day I am nervous in their presence.
– Alastair Sim
When James II declared Edinburgh the capital of Scotland he had a wall built around the city which sent a clear message to the English and their culture. A wall which to this day still features psychologically in the minds of some of those living north of the border and whose influence will appear, at times, in this biography. As the Scots and English learned to live as neighbours, the insular nature of this defensive structure turned against the people it was supposed to protect. A city wall is no ally in a time of prosperity and expansion. Edinburgh's commercial traders looked to the heavens for an innovative solution to their problem. If they could not expand outwards, then they would grow upwards. Consequently, during the eighteenth century, Edinburgh developed the world's first skyscrapers.
All was not well however. The architectural skill necessary to produce such high-rise buildings was still in its infancy, and so as a result of inexperience combined with poor craftsmanship, the skyline of Edinburgh began to take on an altogether different, if not slightly wobbly, shape. The extra levels not only made the buildings structurally unsafe but also exacerbated the spread of disease. Residents from the upper storeys would throw out their waste in a laissez-faire manner regardless of who might be walking beneath. Noblemen taking a gentle evening stroll through the city did not take too kindly to this heavenly downpour of culinary by-products and excrement and so moved away, taking with them their business and wealth.
In time, the City Fathers of Edinburgh commissioned a young architect by the name of James Craig to redevelop the city. Craig foresaw the need for a road, or high street, to act as the main focal point, and so with this in mind, he designed the new city – around George Street. Contrary to the plans, the focus of trade quickly became established on Princes Street and from then on, this became known as the main thoroughfare in Edinburgh.
Several roads run off Princes Street including the busy Lothian Road, which records state was completed around 1791. It was at number 96–98 of this street, in the late 1800s, that Alexander Sim owned a lively and well-frequented tailor's shop. The appearance of a man during the Victorian era was as important as his vocation, and no man could succeed without being well-dressed – as the apt saying went, 'Clothes Maketh the Man'. As a consequence, the tailor's shop was one of the most important shops in the city. Alexander Sim was not alone in this business and other outfitters thrived in Edinburgh such as the more prestigious Gieve's.
Alexander Sim took his social responsibilities very seriously and during his lifetime he became a Justice of the Peace and served on the board of several committees in Edinburgh. His outlook on life was traditional and formal, as befitted a successful Victorian. Unfortunately this sometimes gave him a rather serious demeanour which some interpreted as cold and distant. As we shall see, this was quite misleading since Alexander frequently demonstrated the characteristics of an altruist. His preference was to operate quietly from behind the scenes, avoiding the limelight, so as not to draw attention to himself. When business had finished for the day, Alexander would close his shop and retire to the family rooms above his premises where he lived with his wife, Isabella, and their son and two daughters.
Isabella McIntyre had been born on the small Scottish island of Eigg. Although Eigg is blessed with a rich history and has unique geographical features, it is also a lonely place. To find companionship she made frequent trips to the neighbouring small islands – Rum, Canna and Muck – until finally, in her teens and able to speak only Gaelic, she packed her belongings and moved to the mainland.
Isabella's move was a brave one since she was naturally very shy but she did have a kind heart and a generous nature which meant that she made friends easily. One of her sayings was, 'I'm not clever – but I'm cute', taken here to mean that Isabella considered herself astute with a mature and sensible attitude regarding her expectations from life. When she met and married Alexander Sim she understood immediately that her responsibilities would include the business as well as her family. Her life was always going to be busy and hard. She accepted, as the natural order of things, that when Alexander had finished for the day, her task would be to go downstairs and scrub the floors in order to make the shop presentable for the following day's customers.
On 9 October 1900 Isabella gave birth to her fourth child whom they named Alastair George Bell Sim. As a young boy Alastair developed a very close bond with his mother as he helped her of an evening to clean the shop while his father rested in the family rooms upstairs. Alexander undoubtedly worked hard during the day, managing his business and selling to customers, and Isabella was content to perform her family duties. However, a young impressionable Alastair saw it differently. He thought his father '... pompous, hypocritical and unable to appreciate his mother.' This feeling of resentment took hold of Alastair during these formative years and his relationship with his father would always be marred by communication problems. Alexander would say 'Mark my words, that boy will end on the gallows', but actions that Alexander undertook during his lifetime to help Alastair suggest that this statement was made more in jest than seriousness.
Alexander may well have been disappointed with his son's behaviour at times and possibly with good reason. For example, Alastair would at one point eschew civilisation altogether and roam the highlands of Scotland with a band of men devoted to nothing more than casual work and drinking; a period that his Victorian father would certainly have found difficult to comprehend. Nevertheless, at a critical point in Alastair's life, Alexander would play an important role in helping him to establish his drama school – something that would prove to be the catalyst for Alastair's career as an actor. Indeed, Alexander appears to have been devoted to his son, even if he was not entirely optimistic about his future, and Naomi Sim, Alastair's future wife, described Alexander as 'a very kind man'.
One can see attributes in the personalities of both parents that would shape the views and behaviour of Alastair as he developed. His mother: genial, good-natured, with an appreciation of one's role in life; his father: traditional, principled and altruistic. All of these qualities would find their way into Alastair's own personality as he matured. Alastair's attitude towards his father – his inability to forgive – may have been an early example of how Alastair would sometimes become trapped by his own self-imposed principles. This characteristic in later life would lead to ridicule and criticism from his friends.
The Sims eventually gave up their cramped conditions above the family shop and moved to 73 Viewforth, in the district of Bruntsfield. This was still close enough to the commercial area of Edinburgh for Alexander to continue his tailor's business but also convenient for Alastair to attend Bruntsfield Primary School, a five-minute walk from their house. When Alastair was old enough he became a student at James Gillespie's High School which was located in Gillespie Crescent but transferred to a new site off Warrender Park Road in 1914. Alexander had close ties to Gillespie's; he was a school governor and his shop was responsible for supplying the school uniform.
Alastair remembered his father visiting the school one day and telling the teachers that they should not hold back from 'beating his son' just because he, the father, was a JP. It is an interesting choice of anecdote by Alastair since the intention is clearly to present his father in an unfavourable light. It may have been that Alexander was simply making sure that his privileged position in society did not unfairly benefit his son. In using these quotations, the 'gallows' and the 'beating', Alastair may have been trying to convey the image of a tough childhood but he certainly did not come from an impoverished, uncaring family.
In school, from an early age, Alastair enjoyed the attention he received from performing in front of his classmates. His teacher, Margaret Bell, used to recall that he loved to recite poetry 'and especially liked to intone "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse".' A classmate of Alastair's was Ronnie Corbett's mother who remembered Alastair as 'a slightly untidy boy at that age ... slightly extroverted ... and even at that stage in his life, he was quite good on his feet, and quite good with words.' These are two very interesting observations which could be misinterpreted as evidence of Alastair's youthful desire to become an actor. In fact they are much more insightful in that they demonstrate that even at an early age Alastair had a keen interest in the spoken word. For it is verse drama that would be his initial calling, long before he even thought about appearing on stage as a professional actor. Other school friends described his love of mimicry and his fondness for the gruesome or grotesque.
According to Naomi in her autobiography, Dance and Skylark, Alastair left school at fourteen and began an apprenticeship as a shop messenger boy in his father's business. Although it is not disputed that he worked for a period for his father, his Intermediate School Certificate is dated 1916, which suggests that he stayed on at school until he was almost sixteen. Furthermore, given that when Alastair was eighteen he began studying chemistry at university, it seems more than likely that any so-called 'apprenticeship' must have been on a part-time or seasonal basis to allow him time for further academic studying.
The dysfunctional relationship between father and son meant that whatever form this 'apprenticeship' took, it was bound to be short-lived. Alastair looked for a job elsewhere and eventually found a post with Gieve's, the men's outfitters, who were based in the more important and fashionable Princes Street. He was no doubt flush with the belief that he could succeed in obtaining employment without his father's help but the reality of the situation was that Alexander had quietly negotiated the move behind the scenes.
Alastair's fresh start at Gieve's, again one presumes on a part-time or seasonal basis, was doomed to failure. Alastair, it seemed, was unable to parcel up purchases to the exacting standards of the fastidious senior staff. He was redeployed to the ties department where the final sale simply consisted of slipping the chosen tie into an envelope and handing over the package to the customer – accompanied, naturally enough, with a reassuring smile. Even this proved problematic. Alastair, as a young man, was unable to comprehend the traditional Victorian values associated with retailing. These unwritten laws acknowledged that an important part of the retail service was the neat and careful presentation of the purchased item to the customer accompanied by a deferential disposition. Another mutual parting of ways occurred.
Alastair commented of this time: 'I passed my youth uninspired by any sense of awe. Which was a very great pity. Because without that sense there can be no inspiration.' However, inspiration must have struck at some point because by 1918 he had successfully applied to Edinburgh University to study to become an analytical chemist. Alastair was a man of contradictions. He undoubtedly had natural intellect but could also be lazy; he could be stubborn and defensive and yet also an egocentric dreamer. When Alastair made his Rectorial Address at Edinburgh University in 1949, he referred to his youth thus:
I don't know whether I was a typical young man or not. I certainly thought I was exceptional in some indefinable way, apparently beyond the perception of those who knew me, and I was mostly concerned with planning and replanning my own particular success story. This took only the most nebulous of forms, but I know that my aim was to combine the minimum of work with the maximum of authority. I was just as bold as I dared to be in the company of my fellows, and just as bright as their fierce competition allowed. I was naturally much bolder and much brighter in the select company of my own imagining.
Alastair's university days were short-lived. Soon after turning eighteen, he received his call-up papers to the Officers' Training Corps (OTC). Although the news in the papers often referred to 'Great Advances' there could be no doubting in anyone's mind the human carnage that was taking place on the battlefields of Europe. For most men, the OTC was a time for quiet reflection on their own sense of mortality, but Alastair's experience of army life brought out a real anger from within him. He loathed the OTC with its oppressive and rigid discipline.
This is a complex emotion which some could interpret as either the reactions of a pacifist or the naïve musings of someone who had no real grasp of the need for discipline within an army. Or perhaps, understandably, Alastair was simply terrified of the thought of dying a meaningless death on a foreign battlefield. For whatever reason, his strong reaction against the dehumanising stricture of army life helped him to develop his own beliefs in the rights of the individual to freedom and self-expression. These were high principles that he would continually evolve throughout his life leading to his association with the movement for a World Government. The playwright Ronald Mavor said of Alastair:
The characters he played and the plays he directed celebrated the individual's right to be himself; not to be larger than life, but to be life lived up to its potential. And this didn't mean pushing people around; it meant cherishing them. He was a wise man.
Alastair's posting was imminent when the armistice was signed on 11 November 1918 – he was spared first-hand experience of the war. On his release, he returned home and surprised his family by announcing that he did not intend to continue with his university education but instead wanted to become an actor. This provocation was not received well in the Sim household. Indeed, such was the opposition that Alastair immediately packed his bags and headed for the highlands. There, he joined a group of travellers, mostly men, who would roam from one place to another, undertaking whatever manual jobs they could find. This usually consisted of farm work or forestry work; the hard-earned cash was then spent in the evening at a local pub. The work didn't always have to be legal. An article published in a magazine in 1936 summed up this period of Alastair's life:
Alastair Sim started to study chemistry, but wanted to go on stage, against his parents' wishes. So he ran away from home and until 1921 he led the life of a gipsy [sic]. Sometimes he was a ghilly, sometimes a gamekeeper, sometimes, alas! A poacher! But all the time he was studying poetry.
It is difficult to envisage Alastair sitting on some tree stump, surrounded by his malcontent friends, gutting an animal whilst merrily reciting verse from some Shakespearean play. That said, this image is reminiscent of one of those typically eccentric characters he played so successfully on film. Indeed, it is quite possible that he benefited enormously from this experience in that it provided him with an opportunity to observe people at close quarters, and in so doing, to develop a repertoire of mannerisms that he could bestow on his film and stage characters later in life.
Nevertheless it is questionable, given what is now known about Alastair's character, just how well he fitted in with this lifestyle. For example, his drinking exploits with 'the men' must have been somewhat curtailed by the fact that he developed a deep aversion to whisky. For a period afterwards, Alastair became teetotal although later in life he developed a special liking for Hock. James Bridie, the playwright, who was to become a great friend, said of this unconventional period in Alastair's life: 'It is of no harm to an artist, especially to an artist in a popular art, to have rubbed shoulders with all kinds of men ... If he ever starved in a garret, it was not for very long.'
After what appears to be about a year of roaming wild, experiencing the vagaries of life, Alastair gave up his bohemian carefree existence and returned to his family home in Edinburgh – one suspects, without too many regrets. He even managed for the first time to hold down a full-time job at the Borough's Assessor's office. Candidly, he was to say later, 'However highly painted we imagine them to have been, most early lives are pretty dull, except to those who are actually living them.'
Excerpted from Alastair Sim by Mark Simpson. Copyright © 2011 Mark Simpson. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 From Birth to the Fulton Lectureship (1900–1925),
2 Naomi (1926–1929),
3 The Professional Stage Actor (1930–1934),
4 'Quota Quickies' and the Early Film Years (1935–1939),
5 Cottage To Let (1940–1941),
6 Alastair Sim and James Bridie (1942–1945),
7 Green For Danger (1946–1949),
8 The Happiest Days of your Life (1950–1953),
9 Miss Fritton and The Belles of St Trinian's (1954–1957),
10 Sim v Heinz: the Faltering Years (1958–1965),
11 The Chichester Festival Years (1966–1974),
12 Escape to the Dark: the Last Years (1975–1976),
Filmography (including cast and credits),
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
It is easy to see that this book is a labour of love: Alastair Sim was not your average celebrity actor. Sim would not give autographs, let alone interviews! Such circumstances could have lead to a brisk repeat of any tittle-tattle that had appeared in the newspapers whilst Mr Sim was at his peak, and little else. Not so: Mark Simpson scrupulously tracks every possible lead for information about Sim's life and even then, he is careful how he uses the gathered material. Sim met his wife when she was 12 and he was 26: surely, here we were to descend into a "Sun says" type chapter: not at all, Mr Simpson treats the issue carefully and, whilst it still strikes as odd, we are left in little doubt that, what we would now call grooming, was not what passed between Alastair and Naomi. Similarly, after Naomi had reached adulthood and they were married, they opened their house to young performers struggling to start their careers. Once more, this appears to be altruism in a more innocent time.This book is a gentle review of the life of a talented comedy actor of a bygone era.