Actor and writer:
Born: May 4, 1923; Died: July 4, 2012.
Eric Sykes, who has died aged 89, was an immensely likable comic actor who found a huge audience for humour that was rooted in slapstick, in a love of silliness and in a more innocent time when comedy was not dominated by smut and cruelty.
To most people, he was probably best-known for the sitcom called Sykes, which ran for 68 episodes between 1972 and 1979. He played an accident-prone character called Eric Sykes who lives with his long-suffering twin sister Harriet (Hat), played by Hattie Jacques. Sykes also wrote it.
A genuine comedy legend, Sykes continued acting into his eighties and attracted new, younger fans as a character actor in the Hollywood blockbusters The Others (2001) and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005), and as a voice on more than 200 episodes of the phenomenally successful Teletubbies (1997-2001).
His love of silent, physical comedy may well have been influenced by the fact that he started going deaf in the 1950s and relied to a large extent on lip-reading his co-stars. Many would regard his comic masterpiece as The Plank (1967), a 45-minute film, with virtually no dialogue, which he wrote, directed and starred in.
He and Tommy Cooper play a couple of builders attempting to transport a plank to the house on which they are working. Sykes always loved taking a gag as far as it could possibly go and The Plank was essentially just a series of variations on the comic potential of moving a plank, some of which went back to music hall.
The film itself was essentially a reworking of Sykes and a Plank, one of the episodes in a BBC series called Sykes and a- Each episode had a slightly different title, such as Sykes and a Library Book and Sykes and an Elephant. It ran from 1960-65, with Sykes and Jacques playing twins. In this series they lived at 24 Sebastopol Terrace in East Acton. In the later series called Sykes they have apparently moved, to No 28.
Despite his hearing difficulties, Sykes also loved verbal silliness. He was never actually one of The Goons, but he worked closely with Spike Milligan on scripts of The Goon Show, which ran throughout the 1950s on radio.
The anarchic, free-wheeling spirit of the show (which starred Milligan, Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe and for a short while Michael Bentine) made it a huge hit with schoolboys, including Prince Charles. It had a monumental impact on the nature of British television comedy in the 1960s and 1970s, through Monty Python and beyond.
Sykes was born in Oldham. His mother died when he was born. His father was a labourer in a cotton mill. During the Second World War Sykes served as a wireless operator in the RAF and during that time he met the Scottish comic actor Bill Fraser, who subsequently helped him break into showbusiness.
Sykes found work as a writer for radio and increasingly for television, as the new medium took off. He worked regularly with Jacques, Frankie Howerd and many other emerging actors who would establish themselves as comic greats over the years. He also wrote scripts for The Tony Hancock Show (1956-57).
During the 1950s he appeared on screen in a series of one-offs and cameos, but it was Sykes and a- that really established him as a significant comic actor, as well as a writer.
In 1964 he was BBC TV Personality of the Year and by the mid-1960s he was getting major film roles as well. He was Terry-Thomas's servant in Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines (1965), a professional assassin in The Liquidator (1965) and the ill-fated butler on an ill-advised hunting trip into Apache country in the Sean Connery western Shalako (1968).
Like Connery, Sykes was a keen golfer and they played pro-am tournaments and exhibitions together.
As an actor Sykes appeared in a wide range of projects, though he could occasionally fall flat. Curry and Chips, a 1969 workplace sitcom, with Spike Milligan "blacked up" as an Asian called O'Grady and Sykes as the foreman, seems rather misguided now.
There was little Sykes could do as the chief constable to rescue the excruciatingly unfunny Cannon and Ball film The Boys in Blue (1982). And the golf sitcom The Nineteenth Hole (1989) turned out to be a bogey.
By then, however, Sykes had already written several chapters in the history of British comedy. And he enjoyed continued success in occasional character parts in straight dramas.
He seemed to relish roles of servants and family retainers. He was servant to Dr Prunesquallor (John Sessions) in the BBC serial Gormenghast in 2000, the gardener in the ghost story The Others, with Nicole Kidman, and the Riddle family caretaker and victim of Voldemort in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
Despite a stroke, heart bypass surgery and failing eyesight, he continued working both on screen and stage until relatively recently. He wrote two novels in the 1990s and his autobiography If I Don't Write It Nobody Else Will followed in 2005. He is survived by Edith, his wife of 60 years, and by their four children.
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