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Eric Sykes

Eric Sykes, actor, comedy writer and director, died on 4 July 2012. He was 89.

The Independent‘s obituary is strong on the influence of Sykes’s mother on his life – in spite of the fact that she died in childbirth:

This was to be a defining event in Sykes’ life, not least because his father, a cotton mill overseer, went on to marry again and had another son upon whom the couple doted. To compound matters, Sykes’ elder brother was doted on by the relatives of his late mother. Sykes would later describe his experience of growing up as “being a lodger in my own home” and compared himself to an orphan.

The Daily Telegraph gives most detail about Sykes’s career in the Royal Air Force, particularly the farcical way in which it ended:

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.

As The Guardian relates, his first successes after the war came from writing comedy scripts.

Because he worked alone, he was at one point the highest-paid comedy writer in Britain. Strangely for such a talented man, Sykes seemed to dislike writing and saw it mostly as a means of achieving his true ambition, which was to be a principal comedian. He never did become a star solo stand-up performer, however, but in the late 1950s found his forte writing and acting in TV situation comedy.

The Guardian also gives a good summary of his best-known TV work, his eponymous series:

In the Sykes shows, he played Jacques’s nervous, well-meaning but totally ineffectual brother (it didn’t seem remarkable that she had a southern accent while his was as flat and northern as his cap) and the humour came from calamity-prone Eric’s unwitting threats to the ordered, suburban world of his sister, “Hat”. Stylish comic support came from Richard Wattis as a waspish neighbour and Deryck Guyler in the role of cheerful policeman. The show was gentle, appealing and warm-hearted, and ended only as a result of the death of Jacques in 1980.

The Daily Telegraph gives a different version of the ending of Sykes:

But around 1979 Sykes’s television career began to run into the sands. In that year 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.

All the obituaries note Sykes’s often melancholic style, both of content and of delivery, and Sykes’s own belief that conscription and even war had provided a uniquely fertile breeding ground for comedy writers. The Guardian cites Sykes’s own words:

Sykes, who described his career as “… living in a world that doesn’t exist”, believed that the only way Britain would get another crop of writers like Milligan, Frank Muir, Denis Norden, Speight and himself would be through the reintroduction of conscription. “Take away the necessity of earning a living,” he said, “provide food and bed so that you can just sit on your backside for two years and you will find that the violinist will practise his violin, the language student will learn a language and the comedian will create comedy. It’s no good expecting it to come from people who are in boring, undemanding jobs, for they have already half-settled for what they’ve got. Conscription is an obvious staging post. A war is even better if you can keep alive.”

(Eric Sykes CBE, born 4 May 1923 in Oldham, died 4 July 2012)


The Telegraph, 4 July 2012: Eric Sykes
The Guardian, 4 July 2012: Eric Sykes obituary
The Independent, 4 July 2012: Eric Sykes: Actor and writer who overcame adversity to become a leading figure of British comedy

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