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Sim, Alastair (1900-1976)


Main image of Sim, Alastair (1900-1976)

Alastair Sim was a memorable character player of faded Anglo-Scottish gentility, whimsically put-upon countenance, and sepulchral, sometimes minatory, laugh.

He was on stage first in 1930 (a bit part in Robeson's Othello), and in films from 1935. By the mid 1940s he was a (slightly decaying) national institution. The American sociologists Wolfenstein and Leites (circa 1950) noted the prominent place of father figures in British as opposed to American cinema. Sim proved their point.

A never-youthful character, he attained star status through portraying eccentric authority: doctors (Waterloo Road (d. Sidney Gilliat, 1944); The Doctor's Dilemma (d. Anthony Asquith, 1959)); schoolteachers (The Happiest Days of Your Life (d. Frank Launder, 1950); The Belles of St Trinian's (d. Launder, 1954), in drag); gentlemen of the cloth (Folly To Be Wise (d. Launder, 1952)); policemen (Green For Danger (d. Gilliat, 1946)); lairds and lords (Geordie (d. Launder, 1955); Left, Right and Centre (d. Gilliat, 1959)).

Where the sociologists went astray was in missing the ambivalence of which Sim was the paradigm - authority figure, yes, but often shadily duplicitous, often a manipulator of official rhetoric, his sexless bachelor persona containing strains of sexual ambiguity, his jolliness a latent vampirism.

In the first half of Cottage to Let (d. Anthony Asquith, 1941) he seemed, convincingly, to be a Nazi agent, and in The Green Man (d. Robert Day, 1956) he was a chortling assassin. And he was certainly unsettling as the spectral Poole in An Inspector Calls (d. Guy Hamilton, 1954).

Sim was above all associated with Launder and Gilliat for whom he made many films from 1939 to 1959, most unforgettably The Happiest Days of Your Life, as the Headmaster of Nutbourne pitted against Margaret Rutherford's obdurate Headmistress, a role that is a microcosm of his talents, of a mode of British comedy, and of the postwar decline of the upper-middle-class hegemony which he embodied so antically. He was awarded a CBE in 1953.

Biography: Dance and Skylark: Fifty Years with Alastair Sim by Naomi Sim (1987).

Bruce Babington, Encyclopedia of British Cinema

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Belles of St Trinian's, The (1954)Belles of St Trinian's, The (1954)

Anarchic comedy based on Ronald Searle's popular cartoons

Thumbnail image of Captain Boycott (1947)Captain Boycott (1947)

Lively drama about 19th-century Irish civil disobedience

Thumbnail image of Cottage To Let (1941)Cottage To Let (1941)

WWII espionage thriller that introduced Alastair Sim to George Cole

Thumbnail image of Gangway (1937)Gangway (1937)

Jessie Matthews musical about a reporter involved with a gang of crooks

Thumbnail image of Green Man, The (1956)Green Man, The (1956)

Comedy thriller with Alastair Sim as an eccentric assassin

Thumbnail image of Green for Danger (1946)Green for Danger (1946)

Whodunit with Alastair Sim as a less than Poirot-like detective

Thumbnail image of Happiest Days of Your Life, The (1950)Happiest Days of Your Life, The (1950)

Comedy with two very different schools forced to share a building

Thumbnail image of Hue and Cry (1947)Hue and Cry (1947)

First of the postwar Ealing comedies: a joyous boy's own romp

Thumbnail image of Laughter in Paradise (1951)Laughter in Paradise (1951)

Alastair Sim stars in a comedy about a practical joker's legacy

Thumbnail image of London Belongs To Me (1948)London Belongs To Me (1948)

Eccentric comedy-thriller about a fake psychic and an accidental murder

Thumbnail image of Sailing Along (1938)Sailing Along (1938)

Jessie Matthews musical about a barge girl who becomes a star

Thumbnail image of School for Scoundrels (1959)School for Scoundrels (1959)

Alastair Sim teaches Ian Carmichael how to be a cad like Terry-Thomas.

Thumbnail image of Scrooge (1951)Scrooge (1951)

Alastair Sim's definitive portrayal of Charles Dickens' curmudgeon

Thumbnail image of Waterloo Road (1944)Waterloo Road (1944)

Soldier John Mills goes AWOL to investigate rumours about his wife

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Thumbnail image of Grenfell, Joyce (1910-1979)Grenfell, Joyce (1910-1979)


Thumbnail image of Launder, Frank (1906-1997)Launder, Frank (1906-1997)

Director, Script, Producer