In the shadowy passages of the Sunderland Empire Theatre, an enigmatic aura envelops the historic Edwardian structure. Tales of spectral figures and unexplained phenomena have woven themselves into the fabric of the venue. Intriguingly, these mysteries are intertwined with the legacies of two of Britain’s iconic comedians, Sid James and Les Dawson.
We start with Sid James, the South African-born actor renowned for his role as the lovable Cockney rogue in the Carry On comedies. Sid, born Solomon Joel Cohen, carved his path from a hairdresser in South Africa to a film star in Britain, leaving a massive mark on British comedy history.
Tragedy struck on that fateful night in 1976 when Sid was touring in a revival of “The Mating Season” at the Sunderland Empire. Despite surviving a severe heart attack nine years prior, Sid’s health was a ticking time bomb. Co-star Olga Lowe vividly recalls when laughter turned to shock as Sid slipped into a coma during the opening night.
Actors Thought Sid James Was Pranking Them
“I came on, said my first lines and he answered as normal. Then I sat on the sofa with him. I said my next line and he didn’t answer.“
“His head had slumped and his eyes had gone back into his head. I thought it was a gag. Well, you would with Sid.” An ambulance was called, but Sid James, the mischievous rascal, left the stage for the final time.
The Empire’s reputation as a comic’s graveyard reached its zenith with Sid’s demise. Barbara Windsor, a fellow Carry On actress, claimed Sid despised provincial theatres. She recollected, “Everyone said to him: Don’t go up to Sunderland. He looked so ill, so unhappy. He went up to Sunderland and the rest is history.”
The news of Sid’s death was so sudden that producer Bill Roberton dismissed it as a morbid joke. In disbelief at the reality, he stated: “Don’t worry, everybody dies in Sunderland.” The Empire audience, notorious for its unforgiving nature, added a chilling layer to the legend of this haunted theatre.
Fast forward to 1989, and the Empire’s haunted reputation took another seasoned performer – Les Dawson. In his book “Liverpool 24,” author Tom Slemen paints a vivid picture of Dawson’s encounter.
“Dawson was sitting before the dressing room mirror, when he heard a rather familiar staccato laugh to his left. He saw the ghost reflected in the mirror, and felt a stabbing pain in his chest. It was Sid James – and he looked ‘ghastly’.”
Les Dawson Would Never Play Sunderland Again
Dawson, a gifted pianist known for his unique humour, vowed never to return to the Empire. The man who could flawlessly play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata with intentionally wrong notes found himself unable to face the ghostly spectre of Sid James. His fear, immortalized in the pages of “A Clown Too Many,” proved stronger than the applause of the Empire’s audience.
Les Dawson’s refusal to set foot in the Sunderland Empire again stuck until his death four years later. The man who could contort his face after breaking his jaw in a boxing match found himself unable to face the phantom of Sid James.
The ghostly presence of Sid, along with two other women, allegedly lingers at the Sunderland Empire. Back in 2017, a theatregoer was sure he captured the presence of Sid James on his camera phone. 48 Year-Old Graham told the Daily Mirror,
“It was really bizarre. I sat there and decided to take a picture as I’d never had seats right at the front before so hadn’t been able to see into the orchestra pit.“
“As I was taking the picture I noticed these two balls of light flashing and moving really, really fast.”
As the years pass, the legends of Sid James and Les Dawson become intertwined with the mystery of the Sunderland Empire.