Obituary: Eric Sykes, CBE, comedian and script writer
BORN: 4 May, 1923, in Oldham. Died: 4 July, 2012, in London, aged 89
Eric Sykes became a national favourite in the 1960s when he and Hattie Jacques starred in the long-running sitcom Sykes And A… (later shortened to Sykes). The show attracted huge audiences and ran for nine series and then returned to the BBC from 1972 to 1979. It became acknowledged as a classic not only for the insouciant charm of the stars but the zany and uproarious situations they played out.
Sykes was also a remarkable script writer and provided scripts for, among others, Tony Hancock, Peter Sellers and Frankie Howerd. Of particular note were the 24 episodes he co-wrote with Spike Milligan for The Goon Show.
Sykes overcame many difficulties. Early in his life he was afflicted by deafness, but the disability never interfered with his professional life. He appeared on stage into his eighties and in his late seventies starred with Nicole Kidman in the movie The Others and in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
By then Sykes was also suffering from increasingly poor eyesight. In fact, he wore heavy spectacles that had hearing aids around the ears. Again that did not diminish his workload. In 2003 he produced an anthology of his favourite comedians, with his old friend Tommy Cooper heading the list.
Eric Sykes’ mother died during his birth. His father worked in the Lancashire cotton mills and he and his second wife brought up Sykes. He was educated at Ward Street Central School and on the outbreak of war joined the RAF, qualifying as a wireless operator in 1941. Off duty hours were spent performing revues for his fellow servicemen.
After he was demobbed Sykes met one of his RAF friends, the Perth-born comedian Bill Fraser, who was already enjoying success in the West End. Fraser gave Sykes lodgings and asked him to write some scripts. This led to Sykes writing for Frankie Howerd and by 1948 he was getting commissioned to provide scripts for radio hits such as Educating Archie. There he met Hattie Jacques.
Sykes was also breaking into television and in the early 1950s wrote extensively for Howerd’s early shows and he made his first film appearance in Orders Are Orders with a host of top British comedians.
He co-wrote his first Goon Show in 1954 and from 1956 he appeared in and wrote scripts for The Tony Hancock Show.
The BBC commissioned him to write Sykes And A… in 1960. Initially it was intended that he and Jacques would be living in suburbia as husband and wife; but Sykes saw the potential of changing the relationship to brother and sister and adding some oddball local characters like the policeman (Derek Guyler) and the posh neighbour (Richard Wattis). The formula proved hugely successful and “Eric and Hat” became a popular comedy double act.
By the mid-1960s Sykes was established as both a writer and a comic actor and appeared in many popular sitcoms of the era. These included Steptoe and Son, Till Death Us Do Part, Are You Being Served? and Last of the Summer Wine.
Sykes also appeared in several films and he made an outstanding television film, alongside Tommy Cooper, The Plank.
It is acknowledged as a classic of mime comedy and the almost silent film won 1979 Golden Rose of Montreux. Sykes had been involved in a controversial sitcom in 1969. Curry and Chips, which he co-wrote with Spike Milligan, was widely criticised. As Sykes appeared in the show blacked-up, playing an Irish-Pakistani factory worker, it is not entirely surprising.
Sykes was a much loved man of the theatre. Colleagues remember working and rehearsing with him as being a total joy. There were never any temperaments and he was always able to cover any hearing problems. His humour was never malicious or cutting.
Sykes preferred a gentle, more calming sense of laughter. Significantly, there was not one reference to Jacques’ size in any of their shows. “Hat wasn’t a small lady,” Sykes once explained. “She trained as a ballet dancer and was incredibly agile.”
The public loved his laid-back and genuine talents. They responded to his ability to make an audience laugh without resorting to smut or innuendo. This was wonderfully demonstrated in the theatre.
Once the curtain opened and Sykes was on stage reading to himself. One person in the stalls started laughing, followed by the entire audience. He looked over his spectacles and said: “I haven’t started yet, you’ll have to wait.” His sense of timing was immaculate.
One of his great passions was golf. He often came to play in Scotland but one occasion was particularly memorable. In 1970 he appeared in Sean Connery’s UK team at Gleneagles against Bing Crosby’s US team. It was all for charity and Sykes was partnered by Val Doonican. He freely admitted afterwards the golf was “quite forgettable”.
Sir Bruce Forsyth paid tribute to his friend yesterday. “Eric was one of the greats of comedy in this country. He was universally loved and one of the funniest men ever.”
Eric Sykes was awarded a CBE in 2004. He and his wife Edith celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary on Valentine’s Day this year. She survives him, along with their son and three daughters.
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