Joan Sims (Born Irene Joan Marion Sims on 9 May 1930–28 June 2001) was an English actress best remembered for her roles in the Carry On films, and latterly for playing Madge Hardcastle in As Time Goes By.
Irene Joan Marion Sims was born in 1930, the daughter of the station master of Laindon railway station in Laindon, Essex. Sims' early interest in being an actress came from living at the railway station. She would often put on performances for waiting passengers. She decided that she was certainly interested in pursuing show business, and soon became a familiar face in a growing number of amateur productions locally, during her teens.
In 1946, Sims first applied to RADA, but her audition was unsuccessful. Her first audition included a rendition of Winnie the Pooh. She did succeed in being admitted to PARADA, the academy's preparatory school, and finally, on her fourth attempt, she graduated and trained at RADA. She graduated from RADA in 1950 at the age of 19.
Sims appeared in a number of Brian Rix's Aldwych Theatre farces, but revue was Sims' greatest medium, especially in the works of Peter Myers. In 1958 she got a part in Peter Coke's play Breath of Spring, which opened at the Cambridge Theatre in March, transferring to the Duke of York's Theatre in August 1958, and running until April 1959.
Sims preferred film to stage work. "It was, of course, lovely to be in a successful play, to have the excitement of performing a hit to packed houses (and, not least, the assurance of a regular income for the foreseeable future). But, on the other hand, I found it extremely difficult to keep a performance fresh, and I'd soon get bored."
Sims made her first film appearance in Will Any Gentleman? with George Cole in 1953, closely followed by Trouble in Store with Norman Wisdom. In 1954 she made a cameo appearance in Doctor in the House, opposite Dirk Bogarde as the sexually repressed Nurse Rigor Mortis. Sims became a regular in the Doctors series, which was produced by Betty E. Box, and was hence spotted by Box's husband Peter Rogers.
In 1958, Sims received a script from Peter Rogers: it was for Carry On Nurse. The film Carry On Sergeant had been a huge success at the box office and in the autumn of that year and Rogers and director Gerald Thomas began planning a follow-up.
She first starred in Carry On Nurse, then Carry On Teacher, followed by Carry On Constable and Carry On Regardless, and this sealed her future as a regular Carry On performer. Following a bout of ill health, Dilys Laye had to be brought in to take her place in Carry On Cruising at very short notice; however, Sims rejoined the team with Carry On Cleo. Her role in this was to set the tone for the rest of the Carry On films. "...[F]or once the costumes were made for me, rather than my having to resort to some old dress that had been used before and had to have a new panel sewn in the back to accommodate my girth - which by now was unvaryingly plump."
Sims' characters evolved from objects of desire in the early films to frumpy, nagging wives in the later ones, epitomised by the Emily Bung role in Carry on Screaming. Following the success of Carry On Cleo she stayed with the films all the way though to the final one in the original series, Carry On Emmannuelle, appearing in twenty-four Carry On films in all; she did not return for the one-off revival film, Carry On Columbus. She also appeared alongside Kenneth Williams in the radio show Stop Messing About in 1969-70.
After the Carry On series ended in 1978, Sims continued to work on television. She appeared opposite Katharine Hepburn and Laurence Olivier in the award-winning 1975 television film Love Among the Ruins and had a recurring role as Gran in the BBC comedy series Till Death Us Do Part. From 1979 until 1981 she played the recurring character Mrs Bloomsbury-Barton in Worzel Gummidge for Southern Television. During 1986 and 1987, Sims starred as Annie Begley alongside Angela Thorne in the Yorkshire Television sitcom Farrington of the F.O.. Also in 1986, Sims appeared in the long-running BBC science fiction series Doctor Who in the four episodes of The Trial of a Time Lord: The Mysterious Planet as Katryca. She also played Miss Murgatroyd in the Miss Marple adaptation, A Murder is Announced, Betsy Prig in a star-studded adaptation of Dickens' Martin Chuzzlewit and Lady Fox-Custard in Simon and the Witch.
She played Mrs Wembley in the BBC comedy series On the Up, which starred Dennis Waterman and ran from 1990 to 1992. From 1994, she played Madge Hardcastle, stepmother of Geoffrey Palmer's character Lionel in As Time Goes By. Sims also appeared in episodes of the hit television comedy series Only Fools and Horses and The Goodies, in One Foot in the Grave special One Foot in the Algarve, and made a guest appearance in a sketch show with Victoria Wood.
In her later years, Sims fought a long battle against depression. This was worsened by the deaths of her agent Peter Eade, her best friend Hattie Jacques, and her mother, all within a two year period, which resulted in her falling into alcoholism. Sims suffered from Bell's palsy in 1999 and fractured her hip in 2000 but recovered well. However, her alcoholism was beginning to dominate life in her rented Kensington flat, and she described herself as "the queen of puddings." After assessment by a doctor, she was offered a place in a rehabilitation centre, but she decided to take control of her life. Offered the opportunity to write her autobiography, she took a role in the BBC television film The Last of the Blonde Bombshells, alongside Dame Judi Dench and Olympia Dukakis.
During 1963 Sims made several recordings. Hurry Up Gran was issued as a single with the B-side, "Oh Not Again Ken", and another single, "Spring Song", was also issued with the B-side titled "Men". None of the singles made an impact on the charts and are quite rare today, although some copies can still be found. As of 2009 both Spring Song & Men are available for the first time through itunes and other download services, bringing the almost forgotten recordings to a new audience. Sims also features on an original cast recording of The Lord Chamberlain Regrets in 1961.
Sims, like her fellow Carry On star Kenneth Williams, never married. Williams, who was homosexual, did however propose a marriage of convenience to her, which she abruptly declined. From 1958, she lived for three years with fellow actor Tony Baird but, every time her parents visited, she asked Baird to remove all of his belongings from their London flat. After she told her mother on a visit that she was living with Baird, her father wrote her a stern letter to which Sims replied saying they had to come to terms with Tony being an extremely important part of her life. A devoted daughter, Sims found the subsequent six months, in which she had no contact with her parents, a difficult time. The relationship had never been perfect anyway, Sims was in her late twenties and Baird in his early forties. Sims writes "Had househusbands been in vogue in those days we'd have made an excellent couple, since Tony was not very successful as an actor and I soon became the main breadwinner. If we had been able to accept that I would go out and earn the money and he would concentrate on running the home, things might have turned out better.... For three years I was besotted with this loveable reprobate, but then the icing on the cake began to chip off and the love started to wear thin. I was virtually keeping him and the friction of the situation was getting harder to bear." Of the break-up, which was finally triggered by Sims returning from a tour to find Baird had not done any washing or housework, she wrote "I could tell that he was genuinely heartbroken, and so was I, but I had to do it for my own survival."
After Baird followed a relationship with John Walters, whom Sims had known for a long time, as he had been assistant stage manager for the play High Spirits in which she appeared. They had had an 'innocent' romance at the time and embarked on a more serious relationship after Baird. However, Sims never felt it would be a long-term relationship: John had been brought up in a children's home and was a much moodier character than Tony. During what she described as the 'one broody phase of my life', they discussed marriage and children, but it came to nothing and the relationship, the last serious one of Sims's life, ended after around two year of living together.
"I never married because the right person never came along... I leave others to seek for darker explanations. For me it's extremely simple!"
The tone of Sims's autobiography "High Spirits" is revealing (though not sensationalist), frank and sometimes mordant:
"In Doctor at Sea I was cast again as the Plain Jane character ... my rival in love was played by ... Brigitte Bardot. Joan Sims versus Brigitte Bardot. I'll leave you to guess which of us got her man."
"Then the effects of the tablets rapidly started wearing off - as is the way with Benzedrine - and suddenly I was feeling worse than I had ever felt in my life."
"I learned the hard way how deflating it can be to get too excited by a prospect before you know for sure that it will come off. The worst aspect of this fiasco was that I was now not only jobless but homeless."
"I was always useless at flirting, and simply did not know what needed to be done in order to snare my target... I always ended up resorting to jokes, and most men don't like funny women. They like to do the jokes."
"I've never been able to understand women who have this burning desire to have children. I've never had those feelings in any depth."
"High Spirits" concludes with Sims in reflective and rueful mood. Having been very disappointed to miss out on the part in a BBC adaptation of Vanity Fair, she is somewhat crestfallen to discover that there are only two entries on her 'Trivia' page on imdb.com. It ends:
"The last couple of years have seen more lows than highs .... my long-held view that whether you're up or you're down, there's only one way to react to whatever life throws at you. Carry on."
Sims entered hospital again in November 2000, and complications of a routine operation caused her to slip into a coma. Her lifelong friend and stand-in Norah Holland spoke of the doctors' amazement at her strength and courage throughout her final illness.
On 28 June 2001, ten minutes before she died, Norah Holland spoke to her gently about Kenneth Williams, Hattie Jacques, and their time on the Carry On films. She died with Holland holding her hand. The cause of death was recorded on her death certificate as follows: "1(a) Liver failure (b) Diverticular disease II. Chronic obstructive airways disease and diabetes mellitus." She was cremated at Putney Vale Crematorium, and her ashes scattered in the grounds there.