The epitome of English geniality

<em>New Statesman Christmas</em> - He made 54 films, including the most famous portrayal of Scrooge.

Of the many significant events of the year 2000, there is one we should mark with special joy. It is the centenary of the birth of one of the greatest comic actors our country has yet produced: Alastair Sim. He is with us once more, almost a quarter of a century after his death, as his celebrated 1951 film portrayal of Scrooge has again been playing in cinemas in London's West End, to rave reviews from critics unborn when it was first released. Yet however much of a genius Sim was at bringing Dickens to life in this, his most famous film, there was much more to him than that.

Instantly recognisable to several generations of film and theatregoers, Sim had physical characteristics that made him so distinctive a comedian: an almost sinister, springing gait, the naughty, darting eyes, the great bald dome above predominant eyebrows, the lugubrious voice with its permanent tone of mischief. Yet it was his intellectual grasp of comedy and the theatre, his profound understanding of the human condition that spotted the ridiculous lurking at the end of every avenue, that marked him out for greatness. All this was easy to see in his broad comic roles: but even when he played apparently irredeemable characters in darker dramas - such as the sinister and depraved phoney medium Squales in the 1948 film London Belongs to Me - their absurdities were effortlessly depicted as close cousins of their wickedness.

Those of us too young to recall Sim on the stage -he died in 1976, but performed in the West End until shortly before his death - can share in his rich heritage on celluloid. During the golden age of British cinema, from the mid-1930s until the early 1960s, he made 54 films. His rise from character actor to star was slow: in many of his films (more than 20 were made before the war) he had minor roles as a caricature Scotsman with a high-pitched voice and faintly ridiculous accent, part of the supporting cast to supposed stars whose names were forgotten long ago.

His maturity coincided with the war, though it would be the peace that brought him his greatest starring roles. He first took centre stage in a series of whodunnits, the three Inspector Hornleigh films made between 1938 and 1940, a type of role he reprised in one of his most enduring dramatic films, Green for Danger in 1946. It was after this that Sim's potential as a character - as opposed to a caricature - became apparent, beginning with his eccentric role as the writer of boys' fiction in Hue and Cry (1947), regarded as the first "Ealing comedy" and famed for its richly atmospheric photography of London's bomb-sites.

It was a natural progression from parts such as these to his eponymous role in Scrooge. It brought him an international reputation, yet it was not for such roles, with their deeply serious undercurrent, that Sim became a landmark of our culture.

Think, instead, of the other manifestations of his genius: as the absurdly named headmaster Wetherby Pond in The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950), who returns to his boys' school after the summer holidays to find that a girls' establishment, under the control of Margaret Rutherford, has been billeted on it; or, perhaps best of all, as the hysterically funny Millicent Fritton, headmistress in The Belles of St Trinians, in which Sim put on one of the most preposterous and yet brilliant drag acts imaginable and delivered the film's best lines with brilliant comic timing and superb understatement: such as "I cannot have continual arson about in my school". It is for these that we remember him, and in which he still awaits someone to surpass him.

In some respects, Sim was the natural successor to the equally magnificent Will Hay, whose last film was in 1944. Hay specialised in disreputable schoolmasters, seedy professional gents down on their luck and failed conmen. This would become Sim's repertoire, though he started on that road before Hay's demise and developed a far broader range.

Like Hay, he brought to his comedy a capacious mind: Hay was a leading amateur astronomer, a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society who in 1933 found a white spot on Saturn. Sim had spent his twenties as a Fulton Lecturer in Elocution at New College, Edinburgh, the city of his birth, and had come into thespianism by directing plays at the college. He was spotted by John Drinkwater, the playwright, poet and actor, who introduced him to the professional theatre. Sim's debut was in a bit part in Paul Robeson's Othello at the Savoy in 1930. For the next four or five years he worked his way up the profession, first in the West End and then in minor roles in films.

Thanks to a partnership with the Scottish dramatist James Bridie, who wrote many parts for him, Sim had by the mid-1940s established himself as a pillar of the London stage. Although most of the roles Bridie wrote for him were as Scotsmen, this coincided with his reinvention in films as a middle-aged, slightly unsavoury Englishman. Sim's refined Morningside tones are always there below the surface: it is hard to tell whether his character in the Inspector Hornleigh films is a Scotsman or not. Yet his voice, whatever it was, was unique: somebody once described it as sounding like a convocation of wood pigeons.

For all his dramatic work, Sim would now come to be marked out principally as a funny man. The Times, in his obituary, described him as "one of the most relishingly idiosyncratic comedians in the theatre and cinema . . . he was an uncommon comedian because what he did, however extravagant, appeared to him to be perfectly natural". Although, after Scrooge, the 1950s would see another rash of starring roles for him - the St Trinian's films, Laughter in Paradise, An Inspector Calls and The Green Man, an underrated masterpiece in which he couples a respectable suburban existence with the job of hired assassin - he reverted more and more to the stage. With the decline of the British film industry - his last decent role was as principal of the School of Lifemanship in School for Scoundrels, in which his comic refinements began to look dated next to the caricature of Terry-Thomas - he also began to appear more frequently on television, notably as Mr Justice Swallow in A P Herbert's Misleading Cases.

The critics felt that he was never so good on the stage once Bridie's death robbed him of his muse; yet he was a fine Prospero at the Old Vic in a 1962 revival of The Tempest and was perfect for acclaimed revivals of Arthur Pinero's The Magistrate and Dandy Dick in 1969 and 1973. By this time Sim was more, even, than a national institution. Ted Heath offered him a knighthood - he had received a CBE 20 years earlier, in the coronation honours - but Sim refused, according to his entry in the Dictionary of National Biography, "on the grounds that it would be ridiculous to be addressed as Sir Alastair".

Sim's success in the postwar period was down to his being the man for the hour. In a world of austerity he affirmed that comedy was not on the ration. In a society beset with bureaucracy and in which the restrictions of wartime had often not been cast off (and in some cases augmented), he highlighted the lunacies of the regimented mind and the impossibility of the attempt to impose order and conformity on a society comprised of individuals. At a time when life was dislocated, when so many people's roots had been torn up, when chancers and conmen flourished and the courts did a steady turnover of men arrested for impersonating an officer, nobody could depict the characters thrown up by such forces better than Sim. And yet, at a time of violent change and uncertainty, he presented a very individual version of the British character, with whom everyone was instantly familiar and towards whom an audience could be immediately affectionate.

He was a Scotsman who perfectly harnessed and exploited the English sense of humour, a phenomenon whose golden age was promoted by the climate of frustration and bloody-mindedness that was a by- product of the war. He was, too, a philosopher: it was not just for decorative reasons that he was elected rector of Edinburgh University in 1948, a post in which his predecessors included various prime ministers, field marshals and Thomas Carlyle. On his accession to the post he delivered an address on the subject of folly, in which he said: "I admit that even to this day I enjoy being called an artiste, and if anyone likes to qualify it with some such adjective as 'great', 'incomparable', 'superb', then you can rely on me to finish the ritual by reacting with becoming modesty. But I shall know it is all nonsense."

What Sim had, above all, was charm. His was a geniality less common now not just among actors, but among everyone, than was the case half a century ago. His films ooze this quality, reflecting the warmth and sincerity of the private man. He had a long and happy marriage to his wife Naomi, who died earlier this year, and for good measure they took under their wing the 14-year-old George Cole and turned him into an actor in what must have been one of the longest and best masterclasses in history.

Thanks to the humanity and intelligence with which he went about his acting, Sim could lift a film, however dotty the script, by sheer presence and by the force of his personality. It would take a rash critic to assert that, in another hundred years, our great-grandchildren will not still be watching him and will not understand from him something very special and peculiar about our own culture and character.