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Sykes, Eric (1923-2012)

Actor, Writer

Main image of Sykes, Eric (1923-2012)

Despite once professing himself averse to television - believing it a poor medium for stage comedians - Eric Sykes (born in Oldham on 4 May 1923) forged for himself a successful career both in front of and behind the camera. A gifted comic performer in his own right, he was also an acclaimed writer and director for some of the best comedians in the business. This is all the more remarkable considering his hearing and sight disabilities (he has been deaf since the early 1960s and, following years of gradual eye failure, blind from the early 1990s).

Following war service, Sykes found his first foothold in the business writing material for comedians Bill Fraser and Frankie Howerd, both of whom he had worked with in army entertainment units. The Howerd connection proved the more significant, with Sykes providing the comedian with material for his appearances, between 1946 and 1950, on the popular radio show Variety Bandbox (1944-52), the success of which made Howerd a household name. This in turn led to further radio work for Sykes himself, not just on subsequent Howerd shows but also on other popular series, including Educating Archie (1950-60), and that comedy milestone, The Goon Show (1951-60).

For television, Frankie Howerd was again to be one of the main beneficiaries of Sykes' writing skills, with such shows as The Howerd Crowd (BBC, 1952; 1955) and The Frankie Howerd Show (BBC, tx. 10/9/1953), the latter co-written with Spike Milligan.

Other notable television writing in this period includes The Tony Hancock Show (ITV, 1956-57) and two all-star Pantomania specials (BBC, tx. 24/12/1955 and 25/12/1956). In addition to his writing credit, Sykes was also credited as director and lyricist on the first of those Pantomania specials, an indication of the high regard in which he was now held within the business.

After years of appearing in small roles in the shows he wrote for others, Sykes was finally awarded his own starring vehicle, Dress Rehearsal (BBC, tx. 31/3/1956). Further specials of his own followed over the next three years, including Opening Night (BBC, tx. 22/8/1956) and Gala Opening (BBC, tx. 7/3/1959), the latter co-starring an actor with whom he would become closely associated in the ensuing years - Hattie Jacques.

It was with his first series of his own, Sykes and a... (BBC, 1960-65), in which he and Jacques played brother and sister, that they were to become firmly linked in the public's mind as a comedy duo. The domestic misadventures of the bumbling Eric and the long-suffering 'Hat' (Jacques was, as ever, a joy to watch) struck a chord with viewers, the success of the series helping to win Sykes a Society of Film and Television Arts award for his performance in 1962. Following a seven-year break, Eric and Hat successfully reprised the format with Sykes (BBC, 1972-79).

During the 1960s and 1970s, in addition to these two series and a run of television specials (all featuring Jacques), Sykes was becoming increasingly occupied with appearances in feature films, invariably in supporting roles - although he did star in an adaptation of the N.F. Simpson play One Way Pendulum (d. Peter Yates, 1964). However, it was a short film, not a feature, that would showcase Sykes at his best.

Inspired by his love of visual humour, The Plank (1967) was a virtually dialogue-free comedy, written and directed by Sykes, in which he and Tommy Cooper appeared as two accident-prone workmen attempting to transport a plank from a lumber yard to a building site. The film was successful enough for Sykes to revisit the 'silent' format on six further occasions between 1969 and 1994, including his remaking of The Plank for television (ITV, tx.17/12/1979), with Arthur Lowe replacing Cooper.

Although it was rare for Sykes to appear -on television - in works written by others, one writer whom he deigned to work for was Johnny Speight. The first series of Sykes and a... had actually been written by Speight (the remainder were primarily down to Sykes), and subsequent projects with the writer included the controversial Curry and Chips (ITV, 1969) and The Nineteenth Hole (ITV, 1989), a disappointing sitcom set in a golf club.

The latter was to be the final comedy series in which Sykes would participate in any leading capacity; blinkered television executives now viewed him as too old-fashioned. His final 'silent' comedy, The Big Freeze (1994), was even refused a television screening, and was released direct to video instead.

Television's loss, however, was the theatre's gain. Despite his disabilities, Sykes found a new lease of life on the stage, enjoying renewed success in works by Ray Cooney, Molière, Alan Bennett and others.

He was awarded an OBE in 1986 and the James Carreras Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Variety Club of Great Britain in 2002.

John Oliver

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From the BFI's filmographic database

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Curry and Chips (1969)Curry and Chips (1969)

Notorious sitcom starring Spike Milligan as an Irish/Pakistani worker

Thumbnail image of Sykes and a... (1960-65)Sykes and a... (1960-65)

First sitcom pairing of Eric Sykes and Hattie Jacques

Thumbnail image of Tony Hancock Show, The (1956-57)Tony Hancock Show, The (1956-57)

Hancock's first TV series, more sketch and variety-based than his later work

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Related people and organisations

Thumbnail image of Jacques, Hattie (1922-1980)Jacques, Hattie (1922-1980)


Thumbnail image of Speight, Johnny (1920-1998)Speight, Johnny (1920-1998)