Eric Sykes, 1923 – 2012
In tribute to the late great Eric Sykes, all next week we are looking at the life and works of some of the legendary names in British comedy. These are the people regarded by their piers as the best of the best, whose names will live on. We start today with Eric Sykes.
Eric Sykes was one of the last remaining Great British post-war comedians, a legend in his own right with a career that spanned over 50 years. Perhaps best remembered for his sitcoms with Hattie Jacques, Sykes was also a prominent TV and Radio comedy script writer.
Born in Oldham, Lancashire on 4th May 1923; his mother died during his birth. His parents were Vernon Sykes and Harriet Stacey who had married in Oldham in 1921; he was the second child of his parents’ marriage. His older brother (by two years) was named Vernon. Sykes’s father, a twin born in Huddersfield, was a labourer in a cotton mill and a former army sergeant. When he was two, his father remarried and he gained a half-brother named John.
Educated at Ward Street Central School in Oldham, Sykes joined the Royal Air Force during World War II, where he qualifyed as a wireless operator with the rank of Leading Aircraftman.
He married Edith Eleanore Milbrandt on 14 February 1952 and they had three daughters, Catherine, Julie, Susan, and a son, David.
As an adult Eric Sykes became partially deaf. His trade mark spectacles contained no lenses but were in fact a bone-conducting hearing aid. Sykes also suffered from Disciform macular degeneration, brought about by age and possibly smoking, this left him partially sighted and consequently he was registered blind. Sykes was unlucky in the health stakes as in addition to his deafness and partial sight, in 2002 he suffered a stroke and underwent heart bypass surgery.
In 2012 after a short illness on the 4th July Eric Sykes passed away, another of the all time great post war comedians was no longer with us, but he left a legacy of work stretching back 50 years.
Eric Sykes’s entertainment career began during World War II, whilst serving in a Special Liaison Unit, here he met and worked with then Flight Lieutenant Bill Fraser.
When the war ended Sykes decided to try his luck in London, arriving in the middle of the coldest winter in living memory (1946-47). He rented lodgings, expecting to find work quickly, but by the end of the first week he was cold, hungry and penniless. The turning point in his life and career came on the Friday night of his first week in London: he had a chance meeting in the street with Bill Fraser, who was by now featuring in a comedy at the Playhouse Theatre. Fraser took the impoverished Sykes to the theatre, offered him food and drink, and then asked if Sykes would like to write for him. Sykes began providing scripts for both Fraser and Frankie Howerd and soon found himself in demand as a comedy writer. Forming a partnership with Sid Colin, he worked on the BBC radio ventriloquism show Educating Archie, which began in 1950, and also Variety Bandbox. His work on Educating Archie led to him meeting Hattie Jacques for the first time.
During the 1950′s he began to make the transition from radio to television where he wrote a number of series episodes and one-off shows for the BBC. These included: The Howerd Crowd (1952), Frankie Howerd’s Korean Party, Nuts in May and The Frankie Howerd Show, as well as The Big Man (1954) starring Fred Emney and Edwin Styles.
It was around this time that Sykes stepped in front of the camera, making his first screen appearance at this time in the army film comedy Orders Are Orders (1954), which also featured Sid James, Tony Hancock, Peter Sellers, Bill Fraser and Donald Pleasence.
Around 1953 Eric Sykes was part of a writing team consisting of himself, Spike Milligan, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, they called themselves Associated London Scripts (ALS). This partnership lasted for over ten years before it ended in 1967.
Various film, TV and writing projects followed, but it was in the 1960′s that he began to produce some of his best known work, The Plank (1967), which was adapted from an episode of his TV series Sykes And A, became a forty five minute all star film on the big screen, in the 1970′s with a revised cast it would be re-made for TV. Nine series of Sykes And A were made between 1960 and 1965. In 1969 he starred with Spike Milligan in the controversial sitcom Curry And Chips. There had been a host of other projects in between. It was in the 1970′s, 1972 to be exact that the BBC resurrected Sykes And A, as simply “Sykes” the format was the same and in fact forty three of the scripts were re-workings 0f the 1960′s scripts.
Between the 1980′s up until his death Sykes continued working at a marathon pace in everything from another TV adaptation this time entitled Rhubarb, Rhubarb for ITV in 1980. There was It’s Your Move and Mr H Is Late (all of which we’ve covered). The list just goes on in recent years he made guest appearances in Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire and Last Of The Summer Wine.
All in all Eric Sykes packed more into a fifty year career than most people manage in a lifetime. His humour will continue to entertain generations for many years to come.