News World News

Wednesday 21 March 2018

Comic who got everything wrong - just for a laugh

Eric Sykes, the comedian, who has died aged 89, became a television treasure through his long-running television partnership with Hattie Jacques.

The series, entitled either plain Sykes or Sykes and a . . .(whatever was the theme of that week's episode), ran from 1960 to 1965 -- at which point Sykes announced that he was finished with it forever -- and then from 1972 to 1979. As the scriptwriter, Sykes was able to create his own comic persona, compounded of natural diffidence, an eagerness to please and an infallible tendency to get things wrong.

The show's action frequently turned upon a new "toy" (such as a recently installed telephone) or a bright idea (such as running a bus route that stopped at individual people's homes), which Sykes and his screen sister would explore unto disaster.

Sykes responded to Jacques's tyranny with unfailing stoicism, though he would wince with visible pain as his large, loud-mouthed but not unaffectionate sister examined the fruits of his domestic labours and inevitably found them wanting.

It was innocent, gentle humour that charmed rather than savaged, and wisely never sought to transgress its own bounds. If Sykes was never really at ease in any other character, his performance sufficed to make him one of Britain's most popular comedians.

Offstage, though, he seemed a good deal more complex, with a reputation for coldness and quick temper. "It's looking so miserable as keeps me funny," he once remarked.

The son of a millworker, Eric Sykes was born in Oldham on May 4, 1923. He would develop a belief that all the best comics hailed from the north-west of the country. "My theory is that we are all idiots," he explained. "The people who don't think they're idiots -- they're the ones that are dangerous."

Eric's mother, who had been gaining a reputation in musical comedy, died at his birth, and he was brought up by a stepmother in conditions of extreme poverty, never having a bed to himself before he joined the RAF.

At Ward Street Central School, he discovered a talent for making people laugh as a defence against bullying and went on to do comic turns in the pub. He also played the drums in his own Blue Sparks quartet.

Unable to take up an art scholarship, at 14 Sykes left school and took up odd jobs in a cotton mill and at a greengrocers. In 1941, four days before his 18th birthday, he joined the RAF. Trained as a wireless officer, he served on the beaches of Normandy (where the noise of the guns affected his hearing) and at the siege of Caen, and was present at the German surrender on Luneberg Heath.

The only way, he felt, that the country would get another crop of comedy writers such as himself, Spike Milligan, Dennis Norden and Johnny Speight would be to have another war. He considered that the war afforded valuable experience for a comedian, better perhaps than that acquired by modern comics, straight down from university.

After the war, Frankie Howerd invited him to provide material for the radio show Variety Bandbox. "Stick to writing," was Howerd's advice.

Sykes was soon working for Tony Hancock and Hattie Jacques, both of whom he met on the Educating Archie series. He was also occasionally called upon to emulate Spike Milligan as scriptwriter for The Goon Show. Nevertheless, he always longed to perform on his own account.

From 1960, when he went on the air, there were no more doubts about his potential as an actor. And after his show finished in 1965, he went on stage to play another victim -- this time a timidly obliging factory worker who was the butt of Jimmy Edwards's roaring, red-faced bully in the theatrical romp Big Bad Mouse, which had two separate West End runs.

"When was there a play that grew within a decade to a state of almost pure business?", asked one critic. "And when was there a display of such farcical timing that our applause for it stops the show again and again?"

But in 1979 Sykes's television career began to run into the sands.

His show with Hattie Sykes ended (she died in 1980), and it was 10 years before he was given another television series, and then not by the BBC (towards which he had come to feel some bitterness) but by Television South West.

This was The Nineteenth Hole, written by Johnny Speight, in which Sykes, a keen golfer in real life, played a male chauvinist secretary at a smart golf club. The series was soon dropped as racist, sexist and unfunny, giving the lie to Sykes's claim that he represented good, clean British humour.

From the 1970s, Sykes had increasing trouble with deafness and his balance. He had lost most of the hearing in his right ear after a mastoid operation in 1952 (his future wife, a Canadian, was one of the nurses), and in 1963 he underwent further surgery to save the hearing of his left ear. Later in his career he wore spectacles as a concealed hearing aid.

Sykes had long acted in the cinema, and was especially good as a gypsy in Heavens Above (1963) and as Terry-Thomas's factotum in Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965).

Despite his disability, he continued to work into old age, appearing alongside Nicole Kidman in the film The Others (2001) and in the same year starring in the West End farce Caught In The Net.

He published several books, including Sykes of Sebastopol Terrace (1981), about his famous television series; two novels, The Great Crime of Grapplewick (1997) and Smelling of Roses (1998); and a memoir, If I Don't Write It, Nobody Else Will (2005).

He was appointed OBE in 1986 and CBE in 2005.

Eric Sykes married, on Valentine's Day 1952, Edith Milbrandt; they had a son and three daughters.

Eric Sykes, born May 4, 1923, died July 4, 2012.

Indo Review

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Editors Choice

Also in World News