On this day in history….15th May 1909

On this day in history : 15th May 1909 – The birth of British actor James Mason – who was to appear in more than 80 films, including 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Julius Caesar….

James Mason – Public domain

James was born in Huddersfield in the West Riding of Yorkshire…. He was the youngest of the three sons of Mabel Hattersley and John Mason, a wealthy textile merchant…. After attending Marlborough College James was to go on to graduate from Cambridge with a degree in architecture…. It was whilst at university that he got involved with the theatre, purely for enjoyment, he never trained as an actor….

He was to make his stage debut in 1931, in a production of The Rascal in Aldershot…. He went on to join the Old Vic theatre in London, appearing in stage productions such as Henry VIII, The Importance of Being Earnest, Measure for Measure, The Tempest and Twelfth Night among others…. He became a prominent stage actor….

James Mason – Image credit : John Irving via Flickr

James made his film debut in 1935 in Late Extra…. He was to make a lot of minor ‘quota quickie’ films – as at the time in an attempt to counter American dominance a certain percentage of films shown in cinemas in the UK had to be British made…. As a result James was to become one of Britain’s major film stars of the 1940s….It was also in the late 1930s that he appeared in early television productions of plays….

Being a strong pacifist meant James was to become a conscientious objector during WW2 – which caused a long-lasting rift between him and his family…. He married his first wife, Pamela, in February 1941 and they were to have two children, a daughter, Portland, in 1948 and a son, Morgan in 1955…. Morgan is incidentally married to singer Belinda Carlisle….

James Mason and his family from the 1957 TV program Panic!

James was very much an animal lover and in 1949 he and Pamela published a book ‘The Cats in our Lives’…. Mostly written and illustrated by James he tells the mostly humorous but sometimes sad tales of the cats he had known – and the occasional dog….

His first Hollywood film, Caught, came in 1949…. However, it wasn’t until 1951, when he was cast as General Rommel in The Desert Fox, that his Hollywood career was to really take off…. His contract with 20th Century Fox was for 7 years with the stipulation of making one film per year….

In 1952 he bought the Hollywood mansion that had once belonged to Buster Keaton….. Whilst carrying out renovation work he was to discover reels of Keaton’s films that had previously been thought lost…. Realising their historical importance James had them transferred on to cellulose acetate film, thus saving them….

James Mason in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, 1959 – Public domain

Not everything was rosy in life for James…. In 1959 he suffered a major heart attack and continuing troubles in his personal life were a persistent blight on his happiness…. His wife was particularly fond of the Hollywood social scene and was reputedly frequently unfaithful…. However, it was eventually she who sued for divorce in 1962 accusing him of unfaithfulness…. It led to her receiving a $1 million divorce settlement….

In 1963 James made his home in Switzerland, commuting transatlantic to continue his career…. He married Australian actress Clarissa Kaye in 1971 and they were on occasion to work together…. James was to suffer a further heart attack, which proved to be fatal on the 27th of July 1984, whilst in Lausanne, Switzerland….

James Mason in The Fall of the Roman Empire, 1964 – Public domain

On this day in history….8th May 1913

On this day in history : 8th May 1913 – The birth, in South Africa, of British character and comic actor Sid James – best known for his roles in the Carry On films and Hancock’s Half Hour….

Sid James – Fair use

Sid was born Solomon Joel Cohen in Johannesburg…. As a young man he had a variety of jobs, including as a diamond polisher, a coal heaver, dance instructor and hairdresser…. It was whilst working in a hairdressing salon in the Orange Free State that he met his first wife, Berthe Sadie Delmont – known as ‘Toots’ – and they were married on the 12th of August 1936…. Her father bought them a hair salon of their own – but a year later Sid decided he wanted to be an actor…. The couple had one daughter, Elizabeth, in 1937 – but they divorced in 1940….

During World War 2 Sid was a Lieutenant in the entertainment division of the South African Army…. In 1943 he married dancer Meg Sergei – and they had a daughter, Reina, in 1948….

In the December of 1946 Sid and Meg emigrated to the UK and Sid made his first credited film appearances in 1947, in the crime dramas ‘Night Beat’ and ‘Black Memory’…. His first comedy role was in ‘The Lavender Mob’ in 1951…. He and Meg divorced on the 17th of August 1952 and four days later he married Valerie Elizabeth Patsy Assan, an actress using the stage name of Ashton…. They were to have a son, Steve, in 1954, followed later by a daughter, Sue….

Sid began working with Tony Hancock in 1954, first on the radio and later TV…. He played the part of his own namesake ‘Sid’ in Hancock’s Half Hour, which ran for six series, ending in 1960….

Sid James and Tony Hancock in Hancock’s Half Hour – Fair use

He was to take a lead role in ‘Carry On Constable’ in 1960 and a further 18 Carry On films were to follow…. In the 1970s he was to become a familiar face on the small screen with his sitcoms ‘Two In Clover’ (1969-70) and ‘Bless This House’ (1971-76)….

Sid was highly regarded by almost everyone who worked with him, despite his uncouth demeanour he was a gentleman…. However, it was reputed that he did not get on with his Carry On co-star Kenneth Williams…. But he did get on very well with another co-star, Barbara Windsor – the pair had a well-publicised ten year affair….

He was a hard drinking workaholic – perhaps in necessity to service his gambling addiction….and this lifestyle was to take its toll, when in 1967 he suffered a heart attack…. He was soon back at work, on the set of ‘Carry on Doctor’, in which he played a patient and spent most of the film in bed – which was appropriate for his health situation…. He gave up the heavy smoking, lost weight and cut down on the alcohol…. However, on the 26th April 1976, whilst appearing on stage at the Sunderland Empire Theatre, in the farce ‘The Mating Season’ by Northern Irish playwright Sam Cree, he suffered a further heart attack…. Sid died on his way to hospital….

On this day in history….30th April 1947

On this day in history : 30th April 1947 – The birth of English actor Leslie Grantham; who amongst his varied acting roles was to play ‘Dirty Den’ in the BBC1 soap opera ‘EastEnders’….

Grantham as ‘Den Watts’ – Fair use

Leslie Michael Grantham was born in Camberwell, South London and in 1965, at the age of 18, he joined the Army – enlisting with the Royal Fusiliers…. He was soon to be sent to Germany but the young Grantham found himself in the situation of being unable to cope financially and he quickly fell into debt…. In desperation he resorted to crime….

It was on the 3rd of December 1966 that things were to go so catastrophically wrong – resulting in a man losing his lie…. Felix Reese was a taxi driver and Grantham attempted to rob him at gunpoint…. A struggle occurred and the gun went off; Reese sustained a gunshot to the head…. Grantham was arrested and charged with murder – he claimed he did not know the gun was loaded….

Grantham came to trial in April 1967 and was convicted of murder, receiving a sentence of life imprisonment…. However, because the sentence was greater than two years it could not be served in Germany and he was transferred to a British prison – Leyhill Prison in Gloucestershire…. He was also dishonourably discharged from the Army….

After serving ten years Grantham was released in 1977…. Whilst in prison he had become involved in amateur dramatics, performing in plays for other inmates…. One of his fellow prisoners was disgraced Labour politician T. Dan Smith, who was serving time for corruption charges…. He spotted that Grantham had a natural flair for acting and encouraged him to pursue it…. Encouragement also came from the actress Louise Jameson, known for roles such as ‘Leela’ in Dr Who, ‘Susan Young’ in Bergerac, ‘Rosa de Marco’ in EastEnders, ‘Blanche Simmons’ in Tenko and for Emmerdale fans she plays the part of ‘Mary’…. Louise Jameson and Grantham were to become good friends….

Upon his release from prison the encouragement Grantham had received from his friends led him to enrol in the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art…. It was at stage school in 1977 that Grantham was to meet his wife, Jane Laurie…. The couple were married for 31 years before divorcing in 2013…. They had three sons, Spike, Jake and Daniel…. Daniel plays the part of ‘Reggie Jackson’ in the BBC’s Call the Midwife….

Grantham’s TV debut came in 1982 when he played the character ‘Boollie’ in Jake’s End, a production for BBC2’s Playhouse…. A number of minor roles followed; he played ‘Frank’ in the short-lived sitcom Goodnight and God Bless, ‘Davros’ in Dr Who and the part of a signals sergeant in the series The Jewel in the Crown….

Then in 1984 Grantham’s big break came, when he auditioned for the BBC’s new soap opera EastEnders…. The original audition was for the role of market trader ‘Pete Beale’ (former husband of ‘Kathy Beale’ and father of ‘Ian Beale’)…. Grantham was not offered the part of Pete – but he was offered the part of ‘Den Watts’, landlord of the Queen Victoria public house…. His long suffering, alcoholic, onscreen wife ‘Angie’ was played by Anita Dobson…. Grantham’s character soon got the name ‘Dirty Den’, which was well-deserved with his long string of extramarital affairs…. One of the most memorable storylines being when he fathered the child of 16-year-old ‘Michelle Fowler’ (played by Susan Tully) who was the best friend of his own adopted daughter ‘Sharon’ (played by Letitia Dean)….

On Christmas Day 1986 some 30 million viewers (then more than half of the British population) watched ‘Den’ serve ‘Angie’ with divorce papers – delivering them with the words…. “Happy Christmas, Ange”….

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During 1988 his character began to be seen less of…. ‘Den’ had sold the pub and fewer main storylines were to come his way…. Grantham announced his intention to leave EastEnders, giving the producers of the soap a major headache – as Anita Dobson was also about to leave and they could not afford to lose two main characters in one go…. Therefore, intense advanced filming took place, enabling Grantham to move on in the autumn of 1988 – but leaving behind enough footage for his presence onscreen to continue into 1989….

The continuing plot of the soap saw ‘Den’ become involved with a criminal gang – imaginatively called ‘The Firm’…. The story unfolded over the summer of 1988…. ‘Den’ had to disappear from Albert Square after falling out with ‘The Firm’ – but was to ‘feel the heavy hand of the law’, landing him on remand in prison…. ‘The Firm’ ambushed the vehicle taking ‘Den’ to Court but somehow he managed to escape both the gang and the police…. But then, on the towpath beside the canal, he met his ‘demise’…. All we saw was a bunch of daffodils concealing a gun – and then with a splash ‘Dirty Den’ was gone…. No body was to be found – until a year later when a decomposed corpse turned up in the canal and it was presumed to be ‘Den’….

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We all thought ‘Dirty Den’ was finally pushing up daisies – but behind the scenes the BBC were trying to persuade Grantham to return to EastEnders…. In the meantime he had undertaken various other roles, such as Danny Kane in the TV crime series The Paradise Club (1989-90)…. He had a part in The Detectives in 1993 and produced and starred in the sci-fi mini series The Uninvited…. He co-hosted the game show Fort Boyard with Melinda Messenger from 1998-2001 and in 2000 co-starred with Anita Dobson in the two-part The Stretch on Sky One….

Then on the 29th of September 2003 – “Hello Princess”…. ‘Dirty Den’ had returned to Albert Square, walking into the E20 nightclub – now owned by his daughter ‘Sharon’…. It turned out he hadn’t died in the shooting but had survived and fled to Spain, aided by his mistress ‘Jan’…. The twists and turns of life on Albert Square continued, including ‘Den’ trying to get the Queen Vic pub back in December 2004 – which was now run by ‘Sam Mitchell’ – sister of ‘Phil’ and ‘Grant’…. Don’t mess with the ‘Mitchells’!

Photo credit : Matt Pearson – Flickr CC BY 2.0

It was in May 2004 that in real life Grantham became embroiled in a sex scandal, resulting in his three attempts at suicide…. It was confirmed that this time ‘Den’ would be leaving EastEnders for good…. On the 18th of February 2005 16.2 million viewers watched his second wife ‘Chrissie’ hit him over the head with a doorstop during a fight…. Grantham was bitter about EastEnders and spoke out against it – claiming it to be untrue to real life….

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After EastEnders Grantham appeared on stage in the Jeffrey Archer play Beyond Reasonable Doubt – and he also appeared in pantomime…. He appeared in a couple of episodes of ITV’s The Bill and did some film work…. In 2010 he played ‘Ebenezer Scrooge’ in A Christmas Carol at the Lincoln Theatre Royal….

Grantham was to play the part of ‘John’ in The English Neighbour – a series on Bulgarian TV – and Bulgaria was now where he had made his home…. In June 2018 he returned to England for treatment for lung cancer…. He died on the 15th of June 2018 at the age of 71….

On this day in history….26th April 1880

On this day in history : 26th April 1880 – The birth of Eric Campbell – the actor who invariably played the part of the bully in Charlie Chaplin’s films – and who’s life came to a tragic end….

Eric Campbell – Fair use

Campbell was born in Sale, Cheshire – although it had previously been thought that he was born in Dunoon, Scotland…. His parents were William, a cotton dealer and Jane Campbell – and he was one of four sons…. He began acting as a boy and was later discovered by theatre impresario of the music hall Fred Karno…. Campbell was a gentle giant; at 6ft 5in tall and weighing nearly 20 stone it was his sheer size and baritone voice that impressed Karno….

He married Fanny Gertrude Robotham, a fellow music hall performer, on the 30th of March 1901…. They travelled to New York in 1914 and Campbell was hired by Broadway producer Charles Frohman…. In March 1916 he was acting in George M. Cohen’s play ‘Pom Pom’ when brothers Charlie and Syd Chaplin came across him…. They took him back to Hollywood with them….

Campbell may have been built like a wrestler but he had a comparatively small head – which he kept shaven…. Charlie, by darkening his eyes, exaggerating his eyebrows and getting him to grow a scraggy beard, created Campbell into the prefect villain to play opposite his own ‘Little Tramp’ character…. Campbell’s first film with Chaplin was ‘The Floor Walker’ in 1916 and was followed by a quick succession of other films…. By the summer of 1917 Campbell had become Chaplin’s favourite co-star – he appeared in a total of 11 of his films…. Possibly his best role was in ‘Easy Street’ in 1917….

Chaplin was, at the time, the most famous movie star in the world….and he had many imitators…. However, Campbell also had his fair share, including Oliver Hardy, of Laurel and Hardy fame….

Campbell’s career had really taken off – it looked as if his future was rosy…. Chaplin’s contract with Mutual had ended and he was signed with First National Pictures – a real scoop for him – and he intended on taking Campbell with him…. In the meantime Campbell was working with Mary Pickford, co-founder of Pickford-Fairbanks Studios, with Douglas Fairbanks, on the 1918 film ‘Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley’…. But tragedy was about to strike Campbell’s life….

On the 9th of July 1917 his wife, Fanny, died suddenly of a heart attack, after they had been out for dinner at a restaurant near to their Santa Monica home…. Then as his 16-year-old daughter, Una, walked to a nearby shop to buy an outfit in which to mourn her mother, she was struck by a car, leaving her with serious injuries….

In September 1917, still grieving, Campbell met comedienne Pearl Gilman at a publicity gathering…. Twice divorced, each time from an extremely wealthy man, Gilman was nothing short of a gold-digger….and she set out to take full advantage of Campbell’s situation…. Five days after they had met the pair were married….two months later Gilman sued for divorce, claiming he was a heavy drinker and had abused her…. Campbell moved out of their home and took a room at the Los Angeles Athletic Club, next door to his best buddy, Charlie Chaplin….

With Charlie Chaplin in ‘The Immigrant’ 1917 – Public domain

On the 20th of December 1917 Campbell attended a Christmas party – and drowned his sorrows…. At 4am he drunkenly drove towards home – but was involved in a head-on collision – he was killed instantly….

After his cremation his ashes were to remain unclaimed…. His daughter had returned to the UK by now, to live with relatives in Nottingham…. It was to be 30 years before Campbell’s ashes were eventually laid to rest in an unknown site within the Rosedale Cemetery, Los Angeles….

On this day in history….16th April 1965

On this day in history : 16th April 1965 – The death of actor and comedian Sydney Chaplin – who died on the birthday of his younger half-brother, Charlie Chaplin….

Promotional picture of Sydney Chaplin – Public domain

Sydney was born on the 16th of March 1885 in London…. His mother was 19-year-old Hannah Hill, a music hall entertainer…. She claimed his father to be Sydney Hawkes – but this was never to be confirmed…. A year later Hannah married Charles Chaplin Sr – and he became Sydney’s legal guardian and his name was changed to Chaplin…. When Sydney was 4-years-old a little brother arrived, Charlie…. The pair were always to be close as brothers….

Syd and Charlie were taken into care following their mother’s mental breakdown…. At the age of 12 Syd was trained for a life at sea, serving on the ‘Exmouth’, a training ship based at Grays, Middlesex…. He spent the next few years at sea as a steward….

However, entertainment was in Syd’s blood…. In 1905 he and Charlie appeared on stage together for the first time, in a production of ‘Sherlock Holmes’…. Then in 1906 Syd managed to get a contract with Fred Karno as a music hall comedian – performing with ‘The Speechless Comedians’, one of the most successful entertainment troupes of the time…. Syd enjoyed relative fame and secured his brother a place within the company – but Charlie’s time of fame was to come later….

Syd married his first wife, Minnie, at some time around 1914…. They had no children – and she was to die in the September of 1936, in France, following surgery for breast cancer….

By 1915 Charlie had become famous worldwide…. It was around this time that Syd and Charlie were contacted by their younger half-brother Wheeler Dryden, who was living in America…. Born to Hannah, in 1892, Wheeler had been brought up by his father, music hall entertainer Leo Dryden, as she was continuing to have mental health issues…. Syd and Charlie, along with their mother, emigrated to the US and the family was reunited….

Syd and Minnie settle in California…. He was to make a dozen or so films, including ‘A Submarine Pirate’ for Keystone in 1915 – one of the most successful Keystone comedies ever made….

Syd Chaplin at the periscope in a scene from ‘A Submarine Pirate’ – Public domain

Charlie’s fame continued to grow and soon Syd began to handle the majority of his business affairs and negotiate his contracts for him…. At the same time he was still making a few films himself, amongst them the highly successful ‘Shoulder Arms’ in 1918….

His later work included ‘Charley’s Aunt’ in 1925 and ‘The Better ‘Ole’ in 1927…. His last film ‘A Little Bit Of Fluff’ was made in England in 1928…. He was due to make a further film in 1929 but was accused of sexual assault by actress Molly Wright…. After settling out of court, seen as an admission of guilt by many, Syd retired from the screen and moved to the South of France, to escape the scandal…. He left behind a catalogue of unpaid debts and tax demands….and in 1930 he was declared bankrupt….

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After Minnie’s death Syd married Henriette, know as ‘Gypsy’…. He died after a long illness and was buried in the Clarens-Montreux Cemetery, close to Vevey…. Gypsy was later buried next to him….

Image credit : Gerbil – own work – CC BY-SA 3.0