THESE pictures come from the centre spread of the February 1949 edition of The Deerstalker, the works magazine of the brewing giants Mitchells and Butlers. The company’s main operations were at the Cape Hill brewery in Smethwick but M&B also owned the Highgate brewery in Walsall, maltings in Bedford, and had hundreds of pubs across the Midlands. The magazine has been loaned to the Bugle by Peter Howen of Halesowen, whose father-in-law, Joe Webb, was a cooper at Cape Hill from 1949 to 1982 (see Bugle 1013).
The pictures show arguably the most celebrated comedian of his day, Sid Field, enjoying a tankard of M&B’s finest. While Field may have been lauded in the late 1940s as one of the world’s finest comedians, a reputation built on his performances on the London stage during the war, where he earned the respect of his British and American peers, he is largely forgotten today, a victim, perhaps, to having so few of his performances recorded on film, his early death robbing him of the opportunity to become a television star.
The text accompanying the pictures reads, “A tremendous welcome awaited England’s famous, and Birmingham’s own, comedian when he visited his native city recently.
“Sid Field, our supreme comedian, was acting in his first straight play, ‘Harvey,’ having its British Premiere at the ‘Theatre Royal,’ Birmingham, following a successful run of well over four years in New York.
“Sid Field was making stage history in his home town in the presence, not only of Theatre experts from London and other parts of the country, but also in the presence of Mary Chase, the author of ‘Harvey’ and Brock Pemberton, the famed Broadway producer.
“Our pictures show Sid Field, in humorous vein, with some of his friends at the ‘Exchange Restaurant,’ Stephenson Place, Birmingham, during his visit to the city.”
Sid Field was born in Ladywood, Birmingham, on April Fools Day, 1904. His parents were Albert, a cane-maker, and Bertha, a dressmaker, and he spent most of his childhood at 152 Osborn Road, Sparkbrook, where there is now a blue plaque to commemorate him.
Field attended Conway Road, Stratford Road and Golden Hillock Road schools, and went to Sunday school at Emmanuel Church in Walford Road. He began entertaining at an early age, charging his friends a cigarette card admission fee to see his backyard impressions show and busking for the queues outside the Waldorf Cinema in Walford Road, dressed as Charlie Chaplin.
His cousins, the “Workmans”, performed in concerts at Moseley Road Swimming Baths, where Field made his stage debut, aged nine, singing What a Life.
His first professional engagement came in July 1916 with the “Kino Royal Juveniles”, after his mother had answered an advert in the Birmingham Mail, earning him 7/6d a week. He went on to work as an understudy to the ventriloquist Wee Georgie Wood in a Birmingham pantomime, then appeared in review at the Bordesley Palace and at the Mission Hall in Church Road, Yardley. Young Field suffered from stage fright and to help him get over it his mother would give him a glass of port. Sadly, by the age of 13, Field was dependent on alcohol.
Characters Field stood out from his contemporary comedians by being a fine actor and performing a wide array of characters, when most comedians only had one stock character, and often only one routine.
Field, it could be said, pioneered the multi-character sketch comedy that is prevalent today. However, it took Field many years of touring provincial music halls before he broke into the big time with success on the London stage with his character Slasher Green, the archetypal spiv.
In 1943 his revue show Strike a New Note was the must see show in wartime London. This was followed by Strike it Again in 1944 and Piccadilly Hayride in 1949.
These shows featured Jerry Desmonde, later famous for his films with Norman Wisdom, as Field’s foil. In November 1945 Field appeared in the Royal Variety Performance and was asked to return the next year.
In 1948 he topped the bill at the London Palladium, and fans up and down the country would join in with his best-loved catchphrase, “What a performance!” Field appeared in his first film That’s the Ticket in 1940. In 1946 he was the star of London Town, Britain’s first major Technicolor musical, along with Petula Clark, Kay Kendall and Tessie O’Shea. Sadly, the film is remembered today as one of the biggest flops in British cinema history, having been cripplingly expensive to make in post-war conditions and never recouping its costs.
Field performed a number of his routines in the film and these are the only recordings of them. He made one more film, The Cardboard Cavalier in 1947, with Margaret Lockwood.
Field’s first straight stage role came as Elwood P. Dowd in the play Harvey, later filmed with James Stewart playing the part. After opening in Birmingham the play transferred to the Prince of Wales Theatre, London, but on 3rd February, 1950, Sid Field died of a heart attack at his home in Richmond, Surrey; he was aged 45.
Being largely forgotten today it is difficult to appreciate the esteem in which Sid Field was held during his lifetime. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Cary Grant, Laurence Olivier, Tony Hancock, Eric Morecambe, Eric Sykes, Frankie Howerd and Tommy Cooper have all stated that Field was their favourite comedian.
At his memorial service the lessons were read by Lawrence Olivier and comedian Ted Ray, while another indication of Field’s standing comes from the cast list for the benefit concert held for his widow and children on 25th June, 1951, in the presence of the Duchess of Kent.
On stage were Danny Kaye, Laurence Olivier, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Orson Welles, Richard Attenborough, Jack Hylton, Bud Flanagan, Chesney Allen, Jimmy Nervo, Teddy Knox, Charlie Naughton, Jimmy Gold, Arthur Askey, Ted Ray, Tommy Trinder, Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor, Vivien Leigh, Peter Ustinov and George Robey.
Recently, there has been a revival of interest in Sid Field.
In September 2011 the full length version of his film “London Town” was made commercially available for the first time on DVD.
The following month, BBC4 screened a documentary on the comedian, entitled Sid Field: Last of the Music Hall Heroes, presented by renowned actor David Suchet, who had played Field in the stage version of his life story in 1994.