Comedian Eric Sykes dies aged 89

The Stage

Comedian and actor Eric Sykes has died at the age of 89, following a short battle with illness.

He died this morning, July 4, his manager Norma Farnes confirmed. She added: “His family were with him.”

One of the most influential figures in 20th century British comedy, Sykes was a performer, scriptwriter and director of immense talent. Tremendously prolific , despite a handicap of deafness, he rarely stopped working on stage and screen right up until his death.

His career encompassed over 50 years of television, film work and long running stage shows and he wrote for many of the great comedians of the day such as Frankie Howerd, Tony Hancock and Peter Sellers. Eric Sykes was born in Oldham on the May 4, 1923.

His early ambitions to be a comedian were thwarted by war service and he served as a wireless operator in the Mobile Signals Unit of the RAF from 1941-49. He did however entertain the troops and met such future stalwarts of comedy as Bill Fraser, Harry Secombe, Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers. On being demobbed he was befriended by Bill Fraser who asked him to write material for him and he also began to contribute to the BBC firstly for Variety Bandbox and then for the phenomenally successful series Educating Archie in 1954. This was the first writing collaboration between him and Spike Milligan and indirectly produced the Goon Show.

In one episode, Peter Brough and ‘Archie’ enter Goonland via a mousehole and encounter a fantastic adventure. This was entitled Archie in Goonland. Although Sykes was very much in demand as a scriptwriter he had his own radio series in the mid fifties and in 1955 signed a contract both as a writer and presenter of variety shows for the newly formed independent television company ATV.

By 1957, he had begun to develop hearing problems which would eventually make him almost totally deaf although he learned to lip read with great skill. He reached greater fame in 1960 when the BBC teamed him with Hattie Jacques as his sister (‘Hat’) in the series Sykes which was to run for 20 years until Jacques untimely death in 1980. The programme, which involved a series of domestic disasters, formed the basis of one of the most loved comedy partnerships in British comedy.

Sykes’ film career had begun in 1954 with Orders are Orders and although leading roles in productions were sparse he did make scene stealing cameos over four decades. He was a hilarious Second World War conductor in Invasion Quartet (1962) and he was a delight in Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines (1966) and Monte Carlo or Bust (1970) in both of which he was teamed with Terry-Thomas. He appeared and directed The Plank (1968), the joyously inventive silent comedy about the misadventures of two builders delivering wood to a house. His co-star was Tommy Cooper.

Throughout the seventies he devoted much of his time to television where he made a number of one off specials for both ITV and BBC including The Eric Sykes Show, A Policeman’s Lot and Sykes – With the Lid Off. He also toured the UK in the riotous production of Big Bag Mouse, a show that achieved a certain notoriety for the nightly ad-libbing between him and his co star Jimmy Edwards. The many tours ended with the death of Jimmy Edwards in 1988. In 1989 he appeared in the sitcom The Nineteenth Hole which he later toured as a stage show and many other appearances on television throughout the nineties culminating in a beautiful performance as Mollocks in the controversial Gormenghast (2000). He was the subject of the BBC’s Heroes of Comedy and was much in demand on chats shows were he was regarded as the Senior Citizen of British Comedy.

His views however were straight forward and in 1978 he launched an attack on modern comedy, criticising aggressive comics, bad language and BBC bosses for rewarding mediocrity. “I’m proud of being a vaudevillian,” he said at the age of 78, A lot of people think my entertainment is candy floss. Well, entertainment is too aggressive these days, all in your face. If comedian’s want to make a social comment they can go to the House of Commons. I don’t swear or do anything suggestive , and I’ve held on to that belief because when you are on stage you are a role model.”

His appearances on stage during the nineties were numerous and demanding and the public flocked to see him not least for his immaculate timing. He appeared in Run for Your Wife, Two of a Kind, Fools Rush In, School for Wives, and he was hilarious in Caught in the Net as the senile father vaulting around on a zimmer frame.

Later films included The Boys in Blue (1983), Splitting Heirs (1993), and The Others (2001). He wrote several books including Sykes of Sebastopol Terrace, UFO’s Are Coming Wednesday and Smelling of Roses.

He was appointed OBE in 1986, and a CBE in 2004. He died on July 4, 2012 and he is survived by three daughters and a son.

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