Sid Field 1904-1950
Bob Hope once remarked in a television interview that Sid Field was "probably the best comedian of them all". His many other fans included General Eisenhower, Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye and Laurence Olivier. Birmingham has the distinction of being the birthplace of this great British comic, whose catchphrase was "What a performance!"
Sidney Arthur Field was born in Ladywood on 1st April, 1904, the son of Albert (partner in a whip and cane making business in Conybere Street) and Bertha (who worked for a dress-maker on Moseley Road), but most of his boyhood was spent at 152 Osborn Road, Sparkbrook. He began his career in the back garden there, amusing his friends with imitations of his hero, Charlie Chaplin, charging them an "admission fee" of cigarette cards. He had first seen Chaplin at the Waldorf Cinema in Walford Road, for whose queues he later busked, dressed as Chaplin. In that guise, he once directed traffic until a policeman dropped a curtain on his 'act'. He was then just eight years old. He would probably never have believed, then, that one day he would be a guest at Chaplin's home.
Field was educated at Conway Road, Stratford Road and Golden Hillock Road Schools, and attended Sunday School at Emmanuel Church, Walford Road. His cousins, The Workmans, performed in concerts at Moseley Road Swimming Baths, where Sid made his stage debut, singing What A Life, at the age of nine. His first professional engagement, with 'The Kino Royal Juveniles', at 7/6 (37p) per week, came in July 1916, after his mother responded to an advert in the Birmingham Mail. He later worked as an understudy to ventriloquist 'Wee' Georgie Wood in a Birmingham pantomime, then appeared in review at the Bordesley Palace and the Mission Hall in Church Road, Yardley.
It was not until he had completed almost 30 years touring provincial music halls that Sid appeared in London's West End. He appeared as Slasher Green, the cockney 'wide-boy' or 'spiv', aping the "boys wiv the barrers", and became an 'overnight' star. In Strike a New Note (1943), Strike it Again (1944) and Piccadilly Hayride (1946), he had his audiences roaring with laughter. He was loved for his routines involving a naive approach to the billiards table and the golf course, played with his straight-man, Jerry Desmonde. On 5 November, 1945, Field appeared in the Royal Variety Performance, becoming one of the few artists to make an appearance in two consecutive Royal Performances, the following year. He topped the bill at the London Palladium in January 1948, replacing Micky Rooney.
Field used some of his famous sketches in his first film, London Town (as Walter Ruggles), and he appeared in another film in 1947, The Cardboard Cavalier (as Sidcup Buttermeadow), in which he co-starred with Margaret Lockwood. His first straight role was in Mary Chase's play Harvey, (as Elwood P. Dowd, the role filmed in 1950 by James Stewart) in which he was appearing when he died from a heart attack, on 3 February, 1950, at his home in Richmond, Surrey. He was just 45.
Later that month, a memorial service was held at London's St Martin in the Fields, with lessons read by Laurence Olivier and Ted Ray. A midnight matinee benefit for his wife and children, held on 25 June 1951, was attended by the Duchess of Kent, Aneurin Bevan and Noel Coward. The cast list was stupendous: Danny Kaye, Laurence Olivier, Douglass Fairbanks, Orson Welles, Richard Attenborough, Jack Hylton, Bud Flanagan, Arthur Askey, Ted Ray, Tommy Trinder, all six of the original Crazy Gang, Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor, Vivien Leigh, Peter Ustinov, George Robey, cricketer Dennis Compton and many, many more, totalling over 240.
There is a Birmingham Civic Society blue plaque commemorating Sid Field on the front of the house, 152 Osborn Road, where he grew up, and a memorial in the foyer of the Prince of Wales theatre in London, which says:
"To the memory of the great comedian Sid Field, who made his first appearance in the West End at this theatre on 18 March 1943 and who played his last performance here on 2 February 1950."
John Fisher's 1975 biography of Field, "What A Performance!" (ISBN 0 85422 113 1) is available in the Archives, Heritage and Photography section of the Library of Birmingham.