Comic actor, scriptwriter and director who formed a long-running television partnership with Hattie Jacques
Eric Sykes, the comedian, who died on Wednesday aged 89, became a national figure 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. But somehow the character's innate optimism survived all disasters.
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 Hattie 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. 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 at 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. 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.
At 14 Sykes left school and did odd jobs in a cotton mill and at a greengrocer's. 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.
Sykes also had the opportunity to join an entertainments section run by the actor Bill Fraser, later Snudge in the television series Bootsie and Snudge. Sykes then joined a show put on by Army Welfare Services, which created some confusion over his status: his RAF unit had been disbanded and the Army gave him a 15cwt truck to drive round Germany until he found a unit from which he could be demobbed. Eventually his case was raised in the House of Commons, with the happy upshot that he was discharged six months after he had been due for release but with two years' back pay.
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.
After the war Sykes wrote scripts for Bill Fraser and worked for the Oldham Rep. Sacked for demanding a pay rise from £3 to £4, he toured the variety halls. Then 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.
Eric Sykes's first television appearances were as an incompetent compere, but from 1960, when he went on the air, there were no further 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.
The show had two separate West End runs. Edwards's and Sykes's genius for ad-libbing allowed them to indulge all kinds of spontaneous humour. Those who saw Big Bad Mouse more than once were liable to see two different shows.
But around 1979 Sykes's television career began to run into the sands. His show with Hattie Jacques ended (she died in 1980), and it was 10 years before he was given another series, and then not by the BBC (towards which he had come to feel some bitterness) but by Television South West. But not much seemed to go right. In 1977 The Eric Sykes Show, for ITV, showed only that the meek and mild personality which he had so carefully built up hardly suited the big time. As for the BBC: "Every time I suggest something, it seems to get shelved," he complained in 1985. Increasingly he worked abroad.
He directed a number of films with an emphasis on visual humour, notably The Plank (1979), with Arthur Lowe, and Rhubarb (1969), which featured Harry Secombe, Jimmy Edwards and Hattie Jacques.
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). 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. In 2003 he appeared in productions of The Three Sisters and As You Like It. He continued to take small roles on television in series such as Heartbeat and New Tricks and published several books.
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.