Spies and gangsters behind the scenes

2008-01-29 00:00

On June 10, 1964, the British film, television and radio star Sid James stepped from an aeroplane on to the tarmac of Johannesburg’s Jan Smuts Airport.

James had come to South Africa to make a film called Tokoloshe. He was also coming home. Despite having become the stereotypical London cockney rough-diamond from the East End, a character honed in the Carry On series and his radio and television appearances with Tony Hancock in Hancock’s Half Hour, James was Johannesburg-born, prophetically, in Sam Hancock Street, Hillbrow, in 1913, and named Sidney Joel Cohen.

“In 1946 Sid had left the Union an unknown actor with an empty wallet and bags of ambition,” writes James’s biographer, Cliff Goodwin. “He returned, 18 years later, a comedy star. Ironically it had taken another South African to realise Sid’s potential as a serious actor”.

That South African was Peter Prowse, the writer-director of Tokoloshe, and, unlike James, his connections to London’s East End were for real.

Prowse, second cousin of performer Juliet Prowse, was born in Durban in 1924. He went to Britain as a child and later became an officer in the Royal Navy, rising to the rank of Lieutenant-Commander during World War 2. After the war he became an actor and won the London Evening Standard Actor of the Year award for his role in King Hal. According to one press report, Prowse won a Berlin Film Festival Silver Bear for a featurette about an old tramp at Christmas which he wrote, directed and starred in. However, the Berlin Festival has no record of this.

He also had small roles in I Am A Camera, Lancelot and Guinevere, The Christine Keeler Story, The Informers and Becket.

Prowse seems to have returned to South Africa shortly before 1964.

The Informers was set amid London’s gangland, a world Prowse was said to be connected to, according to journalist Gordon Winter writing at the time of Prowse’s death in 1976. Winter said he knew Prowse well and described him as “one of the strangest immigrants South Africa has known. He grew up in the poverty of London’s East End and many of Britain’s top gangsters grew up with him. He became an actor when he was 21 and after years of ‘bread and margarine’, as he called it, decided to settle in South Africa for the ‘bread and butter’ good life.”

“In 1966 Prowse was linked with the notorious Richardson gang,” says Winter. “But he knew them in the early 1950s when they were known as ‘milk bottle’ thieves. The Richardson gang were jailed but Prowse ­carried on.”

But is all this deliberate disinformation? Winter was later revealed to be an agent of the South Africa Bureau of State Security (Boss). He had come to South Africa in 1960 not as an ordinary immigrant but as a burglar with three convictions and a 21-month jail sentence behind him in London, according to his autobiography Inside Boss. “My intention had been to start a new life and the country had been good to me.” He was recruited by the South African intelligence agency in 1963.

Charlie Richardson headed up a gang whose reputation was second only to the notorious Krays. During a visit to South Africa in August 1964, he met Winter whose wife, Jean le Grange, also a spy, introduced Richardson to Boss head Hendrik van den Bergh. Thus began a relationship between the South Africa’s security apparatus and the London underworld which saw criminals rob various anti-apartheid organisations based in the UK to obtain information for the South African government.

Winter’s true identity and his friendship with Prowse begs the question: was Prowse also a London criminal and a South African agent? And was Tokoloshe a piece of state-funded South African propaganda with James as its pliant star?

According to Goodwin, neither Prowse nor James’s agent, Michael Sullivan, needed to apply much pressure for James to return to South Africa. James had taken out British citizenship in 1963, but, said the Star, remained South African in spirit.

“I’m still a South African,” James said. “I root for the boys when they come over here with the sports teams. I go and watch them and feel [like] one of them.”

James explained that his change of nationality was a matter of convenience: “It had nothing to do with the republic business or apartheid. But I had such a bother trying to get visas when I wanted to get into other countries that a British passport was more helpful, see.”

James was clearly eager to appear in Tokoloshe, an SA Film Studios production. “This is a different part from my usual run, and I am really looking forward to it. I shall have a little Bantu boy playing opposite me and this alone has made me really keen to act in this film.”

The boy was Saul Pelle from Soweto’s Meadowlands and he, along with a group of Zulu dancers, greeted James on his arrival at Jan Smuts airport. The filming of Tokoloshe completed, James was back at the airport five weeks later, flying out on July 13. Shooting for Carry On Cleo was due to start seven days later.

Shortly after the release of Tokoloshe in 1965, Prowse won an actor of the year award in Johannesburg for his hit one-man show Diary of a Madman. He went on to do two other solo shows: Brief Lives and Scrooge. In 1975 he came to Pietermaritzburg to perform The Best of Peter Prowse at the Imperial Hotel, a compilation of songs, stories, jazz poetry and excerpts from his solo productions.

Prowse was described by David Coleman in The Natal Witness as “that sometimes stormy petrel of South African show business”. According to Coleman, Prowse had “firm ties with Pietermaritzburg going back to his boyhood. Older residents will remember Prowse’s News Agency in Church Street run by his stepfather and then his father.”

“‘I knew these parts well as a boy and am looking forward to seeing the old haunts while working here,’ said Prowse.

Around this time Prowse opened “an off-beat nightclub in Hillbrow” named Singles with artist musician Art Kelly. “It was an instant success,” according to the Star’s Roy Christie who described Prowse as “one of the most colourful and idiosyncratic personalities in South African theatre”.

Prowse died aged 52, on November 12, 1976, in rather strange circumstances. The Citizen reported that he was “thought to have suffocated while working at Lone Hill film studios, near Leeukop Prison”. He was apparently busy editing a comedy series intended for television.

Tokoloshe

According to the August 14, 1964, issue of Stage and Cinema, “Sidney James portrays a half-blind eccentric but loveable character with a flair for invention. The young boy — a waif who has fled his tribal village to avoid being sacrificed during the course of a tribal ritual — attaches himself to James and a close friendship develops.”

An incomplete print of Tokoloshe is held by the South African National Film, Video and Sound Archives in Pretoria. The film is set in a never-never land South Africa where kind whites have the best interests of black people at heart. It is both patronising and unreal.

When Saul Pelle as the young boy leaves his village with a small calf, he heads for Johannesburg. During the journey the calf is attacked by a cheetah which Pelle fights off. His bravery is observed by some Zulu warriors who take him to their chief’s homestead where a celebration is in progress to mark the birth of the chief’s 20th child by his 15th wife. The chief is played by Mangosuthu Buthelezi (credited as Chief Gatsha Buthelezi). He had previously appeared as King Cetshwayo ka Mpande in Zulu.

Pelle continues his journey but after he is bitten by a puff-adder a white couple take him to hospital. Recovered, he runs off and falls into the clutches of a petty criminal (Cy Saks) who inveigles him into committing a crime. James, a blind man fallen on hard times, comes to the rescue and takes him in. The two live together in James’s tumbledown cottage; however, when James goes into hospital for a corneal transplant that will restore his sight Pelle is taken away by the authorities and placed in a children’s home (clearly set in Soweto, although the township is never named). Once out of hospital James tracks down Pelle and, although upset that he has been taken away, agrees that the home is the best place for Pelle to be. The film ends with Pelle and the other boys playing rugby — a highly unlikely game in the Soweto of 1964.

Cliff Goodwin, James’s biographer, wrote: “After five weeks of filming at the Lone Hill Studios outside Johannesburg, Sid’s enthusiasm for the part had not diminished. ‘This is one of the best roles I’ve played,’ he said.”

­The post-production on Tokoloshe was not without problems. At one stage it was taken out of Prowse’s hands and recut without his consent. Tokoloshe was released in South Africa in 1965. It was released overseas in 1971 under the title Tokoloshe — The Evil Spirit.

• Acknowledgments to Trevor Moses, film archivist, National Film, Video and Sound Archives for information and assistance in writing this article.

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