Alastair Sim and the Heuretics of Humbug

Alastair Sim (1900-1976) rarely stirred from his “right little, tight little island”, spent more time on stage than screen, and jealously guarded his private life. As a consquence, he is almost entirely known here in the U.S. for but a single role, that of the title character in the film Scrooge (1951), which he later reprised with a voice-over in a 1971 TV special. That said, he remains the favorite Scrooge of many. But it’s always a worthwhile endeavor to learn a little more about somebody than can be revealed in a Trivial Pursuit card.

Sim was born and bred in Edinburgh, the son of a tailor and Justice of the Peace. Following service in World War One, he defied his family’s wishes and sought a life in the theatre. For over a decade he worked as a professor of elocution (at the University of Edinburgh for the last five) and also taught dramatics to children. His professional stage debut came at the age of 30 in a West End production of Othello, in which he played a messenger, and also understudied for Paul Robeson in the title role and John Gielgud as Iago. He rapidly rose through the ranks. In 1932 and most of 1933 he was the Old Vic, playing key supporting parts in a dozen works by Shakespeare, as well as other classic plays like Mary Stuart and The School for Scandal. In the newer play Lincoln, he was cast as John Wilkes Booth, which indicates to me that his seemingly nasty edge was appreciated even then. Later he would be Captain Hook in numerous stage revivals of Peter Pan, and The Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland. He was seldom off of London’s stages over the next forty years.

Of screen credits Sim has fewer than 70, not a lot for such a long career, and most of them are British movies little known to American audiences. His screen debut was in The Riverside Murder (1935) with Basil Sydney, Reginald Tate, and Australian actor with the unfortunate name of Ian Fleming. Sim’s most notable movies outside the Scrooge-iverse include Hitchcock’s Stage Fright (1950), the 1954 screen adaptation of J.B. Priestly’s An Inspector Calls, the 1958 adaptation of Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma with Robert Morley, Dirk Bogarde and Leslie Caron, and Peter Medak’s cult favorite The Ruling Class (1972) with Peter O’Toole. He was originally sought to play the lead in the Ealing comedy classic The Ladykillers (1955), but when he demurred, the part went to Alec Guinness, who played it as though he were Sims.

On TV, he may be best known as a regularm on three seasons of Misleading Cases (1967-71), and for starring in a version of the Burke and Hare story called The Anatomist (1956) that was later released theatrically in 1961. His last credit was the 1976 BBC TV movie Rogue Male, starring Peter O’Toole.