The British Django Rhinehardt (?- 12 December 1989)
"I only arsked!!"
Quentin Tarantino has acknowledged that many of the shots and scenarios in his movies were influenced by the hundreds of films he watched during his five years as a video store clerk. His debut feature Reservoir Dogs, for example, has distinct parallels with Rashomon, Psycho, Glengarry Glen Ross, Mean Streets, Goodfellas and The Killing.
One apparent homage within Reservoir Dogs has never been mentioned. This concerns the famous naming of the criminals’ colour pseudonyms: “I don’t want to be Mr White”; “I don’t want to be Mr Pink”; “You be Mr White instead”. In the 1964 British classic Carry on Spying!, Charles Hawtrey, Barbara Windsor, Bernard Cribbins and Kenneth Williams (all left) are assigned their codenames - Yellow Peril, Brown Cow, Blue Bottle and Grey Fox - and have a very similar argument in which each character criticises their new moniker.
Whether this was a salute or just pure coincidence, it is unlikely that the original screenwriter would have been amused by Tarantino’s script. The creator in question was Sid Colin (right). Colin was involved in some of the most significant mid-twentieth century comedic writing in Britain, but his experiences of plagiarism led to much frustration.
Like so many comedy geniuses, Sid Colin stumbled into that world by accident. Little is known about him - even his birth date is unclear. Wikipedia and The Movie Data Base claim he was born in 1920; the BFI give the date as 31st August 1915; both Somerset House and the Birth Archives have no record of a ‘Sidney Colin’ in either year, so perhaps ‘Sid Colin’ was a nom de plume or he simply slipped through the system. *
Colin first emerged in the entertainment world, not as a comedy writer but as an accomplished guitarist and singer. He played Gypsy Jazz, was often referred to as The British Django Reinhardt, and became part of the successful British dance band Ambrose And The Squadronaires (left - Sid Colin, far right). Bert Ambrose - ‘King Of Saturday Night’ - could be heard live from The Mayfair Hotel in London every week between 1927 and 1935 on BBC radio, and was famous for having discovered the singer Vera Lynn. During his time with the band, Colin added a few one-liners, off-the-cuff remarks and cross-talk to the show for both he and Ambrose.
In David Nathan’s 1971 book The Laughtermakers Sid Colin said:
The Marx Brothers and more specifically, Groucho, introduced us to the idea of a wisecrack. We had nothing like it. We had Variety, music hall: the American shows were entities. We pinched stuff for the band shows and at the same time tried to discover what the trick was, how it worked technically. Eventually one could invent for oneself. I started to get the hang of it.
While still a band member, Colin was approached by one-time musician and now radio producer John Burnaby, to host a new radio show featuring Sid Millward And His Nitwits (right). Sid Millward And His Nitwits first aired on regional radio 11th October 1938. The show was a great success and went nationwide on 12th April 1939. By then, Sid Colin was writing his own material and referring to himself as a ‘Muddler of Ceremonies’.
With the outbreak of WWII, Ambrose And The Squadronaires (led by Jimmy Miller) toured extensively for ENSA, supporting such people as Vera Lynn, Len Allen and Ann Shelton. In 1939, Colin wrote the lyrics to ‘If Only I had Wings’, an RAF commission scored by pianist Ronnie Aldrich.
It became an enduring hit within the organisation and for some, an Air Force anthem during the war. The Squadronaires also performed on many radio shows at this time, including Brief Interlude, Hi Gang and Dance Music in Swing Style.
In 1944, the band were contracted by Federated Film Corporation to supply musical interludes for their feature, Starlight Serenade, in which Brian Michie (right) hosted Variety turns at the dress rehearsal of a stage review. Some comedy links were also needed for Michie, and when Sid Colin’s previous radio writing was mentioned to producer Harold Baim, he was instantly hired.
By the end of the war, Colin had developed a taste for radio show writing. He went straight into The Show Must Go On! featuring Carl Carlisle and Maisie Wekion; and a weekly revue called Make It A Date. In 1947, he became head writer on the acclaimed radio show Navy Mixture, which had been broadcasting since February 1943.
Colin introduced regular characters into the production voiced by John Slater (top right) and Ronald Shiner (top left) called ‘Stripey’ and ‘Bunts’; Jon Pertwee (bottom left), an expert in naval procedure with a perfect radio intonation; and ‘Professor’ Jimmy Edwards (bottom right), then a mere jobbing comic from the Windmill Theatre. Edwards worked perfectly with Australian newcomer Joy Nichols, and the pair went on to star in the successful BBC series Take It from Here!
In 1946 Colin was brought back together with his colleagues Sid Millward And The Nitwits when he wrote the radio panel show Ignorance Is Bliss and they supplied the music. The addition of a quiz show to his writing credits heightened Colin’s standing at the BBC, and he was soon contracted to ‘gag up’ a Frank Muir and Denis Norden (right) show, Starlight Hour. Its producer, Roy Speer, was so happy with Colin’s work that he hired him for a new radio production called Educating Archie.
The scriptwriting for Archie was shared between Colin and a newcomer, Eric Sykes. Colin would write the first five minutes of each programme, consisting of cross-talk between ventriloquist Peter Brough and his doll Archie Andrews (left), while Sykes wrote the rest of the show. Responsibility for such a small proportion may have been beneficial for Colin: within a month of Educating Archie’s launch, he was also writing one of the first-ever BBC TV sketch shows, Don’t Look Now, starring Alfred Marks and Ian Carmichael.
This story starts in the middle...which is quite an advantage as it takes half the time...
By 1950 Colin was additionally head writer on the successful BBC sketch show, How Do You View? starring Terry-Thomas. By its third series, Colin was spread across so many projects that the producer Bill Ward decided to bring in Talbot Rothwell as a supplementary writer. Rothwell had become involved in comedy when interned as a prisoner of war in Poland. He contributed to the entertainment shows at Stalag Luft III camp, writing comedy sketches with fellow prisoner and future Carry On star, Peter Butterworth (right).
One of the support performers in How Do You View? was Avril Angers (left), dubbed Britain's answer to the USA’s Lucille Ball. The BBC was seeking a television comedy vehicle for Angers, so in 1953 gave Sid Colin carte blanche to tailor a show for her. This became Friends And Neighbours, transmitted on BBCTV in January 1954, followed swiftly by the sitcom Dear Dotty in July. Neither did well. Colin and Angers were given a wide berth by television for the next eighteen months.
After these TV flops, Colin returned to writing radio comedy. In late 1953 he scripted Top Of The Town for Terry Thomas, and in 1954-55 Shout For Joy! for Joy Nichols. He was also brought in to add gags to the 1955 Norman Wisdom film, One Good Turn. TV contracts began to reappear when, teamed once more with Talbot Rothwell (right), Colin worked on Arthur Askey’s Before Your Very Eyes, and Ted Ray’s Ray’s A Laugh! The latter was such a success that Colin and Rothwell were subsequently engaged to write on yet another new TV venture, The Jimmy Wheeler Show.
This was a weekly 60-minute Variety showcase hosted by Wheeler (left) from 1956. Colin and Rothwell wrote the links plus all the presenter’s opening monologues. The series was a hit, and was responsible for introducing British viewers to many new performers, comics, musicians and speciality acts. One such act was Marty Feldman in the doomed Morris, Marty & Mitch (see Marty Feldman). Whenever the programme bill was particularly full, day writers including John Antrobus and Harry Tate Jnr were brought in as back up.
In favour again with the broadcasters and their producers, Colin presented an idea to the ITV affiliate, Granada Television. The Army Game was a simple concept, presenting the antics of some National Service conscripts to the British Army. It started transmitted in 1957 and was a huge success. During its 155-episode run the cast included Charles Hawtrey, William Hartnell, Bernard Bresslaw, Alfie Bass and Dick Emery. In 1958 its theme tune reached number five in the UK singles chart (right).
That same year, Colin wrote the movie spin-off to the TV series I Only Arsked! which became a box-office hit. Consequently, in 1959 he worked on three more films: The Ugly Duckling (a Jekyll and Hyde parody starring Bernard Bresslaw), Tommy the Toreador (the Tommy Steele musical) and The Navy Lark (based on the BBC comedy radio series of the same name). And all while keeping his artistic eye on The Army Game.
In 1960, at the height of his career, Colin took a four-year sabbatical. Several theories for this stunning decision exist: exhaustion, writer’s block, disenchantment…perhaps even outrage at industry plagiarism. The Bull Boys began as a play about conscripted ballet dancers but after adaptation by John Antrobus and Norman Hudis, became a very different project, Carry on Sergeant. Many comedy writers noticed how close its concept, characters and cast were to The Army Game, but Colin received no recognition as the originator.
If this were the reason for Colin’s departure, it would seem strange that his first job back in 1964 would be writing Carry On Spying for producers Peter Rogers and Gerald Thomas. Considered to be one of the best scripts in the franchise, Spying was the only one to be written by Colin (other than a 1977 Carry On compilation movie for Pinewood). In the same year, Colin also turned his skills to producing. He created two TV shows: How To Be An Alien starring Frank Muir and Dennis Norden, and HMS Paradise (left) with Frank Thornton.
The success of HMS Paradise opened new doors for Colin, and he was given the opportunity to become the Head of Light Entertainment for Yorkshire TV when it joined the ITV family in 1968. He worked for the company for nearly five years and though he never really enjoyed it nor made a mark, he did green-light a comic he had seen on The Val Doonican Show, granting him his own series. Sez Les ran for seven years on Yorkshire TV from 1969 and made Les Dawson (right) a household name.
Oh, she's very embittered, you know. Very embittered. You've seen the ring she had on? Well, allegedly, that was given to her by her fiancé when she was eighteen, and he jilted her, and she hasn't had it off since! Poor dear!
Colin was soon back doing what he did best. His old writing partner Talbot Rothwell had created Up Pompeii! (left), a new TV vehicle for Frankie Howerd, and Colin’s style was perfect for the show. Off-beat asides, monologues to camera, and Howerd’s impeccable innuendos were Colin’s contribution to the show’s enduring comedy significance. This led to commissions for screenplays starring Howerd: Up Pompeii (1971), Up The Chastity Belt (1972) and Up The Front (1972).
In 1973, Howerd and Colin would collaborate once again, this time on a new sitcom called Whoops Baghdad! (right) The script employed the same concept and gimmicks as Up Pompeii!, transported to the middle-east. The show only lasted six episodes.
Colin had intended to flag the series as being sequential to its predecessor by calling it Up Baghdad! However, this title was rejected by the BBC who felt it might be judged as supportive of the then-current Iraqi regime. The result was a disinterested audience who thought Whoops Baghdad! was simply a copycat version of an old favourite.
Disillusioned with the politics around programme origination, Colin became a regular staff writer for both the BBC and ITV. His credits included Sunday Night At The London Palladium, Crown Court, Love Thy Neighbour and Back To The Land. Colin retired in the early 1980s and passed away in 1989. In 1991, a pilot script he had written for Frankie Howerd - Further Up Pompeii - made it to TV. Despite being a hit with viewers, the full series was never made due to Frankie Howerd’s death in 1992.
It was another example of bad luck for Sid Colin. The Army Game turned out to be a huge hit for ITV, the vehicle which at last enticed comedy lovers across from the BBC. Of the 154 episodes made, only 52 still exist. Like the show's true inventor, it is beginning to disappear from memory as a pioneering contributor to comedy history.
*Since creating this page Sid Colin's daughter, Amanda Webb, has been in contact and clarified some issues. Colin was indeed born on the 31st August 1915 and his given name was Coblentz. He passed away on 12th December 1989. Sid Colin's grandson, Tom Webb, is one of the finest comedians on the UK comedy circuit.
Sources and Suggested Reading
Nathan D. The Laughtermakers (1971)
Hannan T. On Behalf of the Committee - A History of Nothern Comedy (2009)
Taylor R. The Guinness Book of Sitcoms (1994)
McCann G. Frankie Howerd Stand-up Comic (2004)
Hibben S.& A. Whay a Carry On (1988)
McCann G. Bounder (1988)