Jimmy James

Remembered by All - Jimmy James' Box Sketch

Depending on which page of the internet you believe, Jimmy James, comedian, was born in either Stockton-on-Tees or South Bank in Middlesbrough. What is agreed upon is that he was born in 1892 and died in 1965. Since then, he can be found in Section I19A of Oxbridge Lane Cemetery, Oxbridge, Stockton-on-Tees.

Go through the gates at the Grangefield Road entrance, turn left and you’ll see him by the back wall. He is easy enough to find but if you get lost, like I did, the helpful groundsman will direct you to the correct plot.

By the wall, out of the way, it’s not a bad place to sleep the big sleep. Like all good comedians Jimmy James remains on the periphery, quietly observing his fellow residents. They are a little stony faced but they’re probably no worse than a quiet Monday night in Glasgow. 

Jimmy James comedian

His headstone reads ‘Remembered by All’ but the fifty-odd years since his death have shown these words to be incorrect. Jimmy James will be mis-remembered by some as the lead singer with the Vagabonds, a musical group from the 1960s which, for all I know, could still be going strong.

If he is remembered at all, it will be for playing a comic drunk. There’s a very funny clip online, dating all the way back to 1936, in which he and a policeman share a bottle of whisky to commemorate their departed army comrades.

He also performed the box sketch which should be as well-known as the dead parrot, the four candles or Eric Morecambe playing all the right notes but not necessarily in the right order. It should be as well-known but it isn’t.

There are two or three versions of it on YouTube. The earliest one appears to have been taken from a broadcast by Tyne Tees (it may even be from the station’s opening night of January 15, 1959). The picture is a little hazy but, as it dates from a time when most people smoked, the haziness is as much a result of cigarette smog as primitive filming techniques. 

Jimmy James

If you fancy a wander to Nyasaland and India, stopping off at youth clubs to pick up lodgers and sets of spoons along the way, this is the sketch for you. It only lasts for five minutes or so but, in that time, you can lose yourself in a world where nothing makes sense and the only things that matter are three men, some great comic timing, throwaway lines and total absurdity. 

‘Is it you that’s putting it around that I’m barmy?’ asks a strange man in a long coat. It is an unconventional opening gambit. A box is tucked neatly under his arm. If you were to open the box, what would you find? Take your pick. It could contain two man-eating lions, the odd giraffe or, possibly, nothing at all. As the piece progresses the viewer can see that the man with the box doesn’t need anyone to put the word around that he’s barmy because he can do a very good job of it on his own.

He’s got tough competition in the barmy stakes from Eli Woods (in reality, Jack Casey, nephew of Jimmy James). A study in beige, wearing an ill-fitting jacket topped off by what looks like a deerstalker hat, Eli is one of those fey comic creations who’s destined to lag a few bars behind the great drum roll of life. His stammer and, to most ears, unfamiliar Teesside accent mark his card as an outsider.

Jimmy James
During the 1959 Summer Season in Blackpool, Jimmy James and fellow variety artistes pose for a photograph. They are Babette, Eric Morecambe, Ernie Wise, Jimmy James, The Trio Vedette, David Galbraith, Bretton Woods and Shelley Marshall.

But that’s OK. As the opening theme of a once-popular sitcom proclaimed, the world don’t move to the beat of just one drum. What might be right for you may not be right for some. It takes diff’rent strokes to move the world, yes it does.

Sometimes the personnel changes – in one version the man with the box is played by Yorkshireman Mike Craig, in another by fellow Tyke Roy Castle. Mr Craig is an unsung, unremembered name but I’m singing his praises now because he deserves to be remembered as much as Roy Castle.

As a useful way of filling in the hours and hours of air time that rolling TV demands, satellite channels run regular, portentous countdowns of the funniest televisual events to have taken place over the last thousand years. You know the ones, they’re always won by Del Trotter managing to stay a few laughs ahead of the field as he falls through the bar after telling Trigger to play it nice and cool son, nice and cool, you know what I mean? 

Well, come out with your hands up, Del-Boy, because there’s a new sheriff in town. It’s Eli Woods and he’s armed with the words ‘The coffee, I mean’. Humour is subjective and Eli’s utterance means nothing on the page but if your shoulders aren’t shaking with mirth when watching him say this then you’re probably better off sticking with Del-Boy.

Roy Castle and Eli Woods

Eli died in 2014 at the grand old age of 91. He was a life-long resident of Stockton-on-Tees and, sometime in the late 1990s, I was given his address by a work colleague who lived near him. I wrote to Eli to ask if he would be willing to attend an evening in which he could tell us tales of his days in the music halls (‘transport and refreshments will, of course, be provided’). He may have had a reputation because my colleague warned me that he would be unlikely to reply. She was right, he didn’t.

In a way, I’m glad he didn’t answer because I like to think of him as a reclusive old man, haughtily consigning to the bin unsolicited letters from well-meaning strangers. 

Eli is a memorable presence but it is Jimmy James who holds the skit together, orchestrating the rhythm with puffs on his cigarette in such a way as to make Andre Previn shake his head in astonishment.  He reminds me of fellow-Teessider Will Hay in his mastery of his two sidekicks. Seedier than old Harbottle, dimmer than young Albert, Hay exerts authority only by being more cunning than either. So it appears with Jimmy James but, as the vignette progresses, the viewer comes to realise that he is no saner than the rest of us. We’re all in the same boat, aren’t we?

I first saw this turn in the early 1980s on an edition of Michael Parkinson’s Saturday night chat show. Due to circumstances beyond his control, Jimmy James had been replaced by his son, James Casey. It was a time when many of the old music hall comedians like Sandy Powell, Tommy Trinder and Richard Murdoch were still alive and someone at the BBC wisely thought to capture them for posterity before they went to the great music hall in the sky. The result was the Old Boy Network, a show that was broadcast by the BBC at a time when most sensible viewers would have been in bed.

Good old Parky deserves credit for doing his own bit of old boy networking and providing a stage for a reboot of the old routine. The man with the box is played by Roy Castle but there’s still, always, Eli Woods. They even throw in a memorable version of the song Kisses Sweeter than Wine. I would love to hear Who’s Got My Ding Dong, a song championed eagerly by the man with the box in an earlier version but, after making extensive enquiries, I have had to conclude that the ditty is as fantastical as the lions in the box.

The Box Sketch

Sharing the bill on Parky that night were Celeste Holm and Billy Eckstine and I wonder what these seasoned entertainers made of Eli Woods and his mates. 

I would imagine Jimmy James to have been a shrewd entertainer, wary of the dubious blessings of television. Eager for new content, the box in the corner would have swallowed up his two famous routines and asked him if this was all he had.  But television has given him immortality, fixed him within its four walls so that a five-minute distraction plays without end. 

Whimsical comedy and Teesside seem a strange pairing. If they were girlfriend and boyfriend, tongues would be wagging to the tune of ‘What’s she doing going around with the likes of him?’ It is a pragmatic part of the world, where a joke is as likely to be settled with a punch as a punchline.

Life’s hard, but you’d better get on with it because life’s even harder if you spend it crying. And besides, who wants to be a moaning Minnie?

Humour has as much right to be conjured up from a chemical reaction on Teesside as it does from the salty air of Liverpool or the smoke of London. And the box is in safe hands. Bob Mortimer, Vic Reeves and Vaun Earl Norman having a go with their own interpretation of the sketch would be a big night out worth attending.  

There is no rhyme or reason to Jimmy James and company so I think they should be slipped into the schedules in similar fashion. Every now and then, the box sketch should boldly stride onto our screens unannounced as a sort of updated version of the interlude. If a rotating potter’s wheel or a revolving windmill could hold the viewing public enthralled, then three crazed northerners going around and around in circles is worth five minutes of anyone’s time.

Until some brave TV scheduler has the imagination to do this you can always go online, type ‘jimmy james eli woods’ into your favourite search engine and escape from the serious stuff for five minutes or so. There’s no excuse not to. The box sketch should be viewed by all, laughed at by all and remembered by all. It is funny indeed.

Published on December 9th, 2019. Written by Andrew Cobby for Television Heaven.

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