Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Eric Sykes (1923-2012)

Eric Sykes was a British comedian, actor and scriptwriter, who became deaf at an early stage of his career, and who continued acting into his eighties, by which time he was also nearly blind.  He was a pioneering British example of how disability need make no difference to success.

Sykes was born in Oldham, Lancashire in 1923, son of working class parents: his mother died during childbirth.  During the Second World War, he was a wireless operator in the Mobile Signals Unit, Royal Air Force, and it was during the war years that he discovered comedy.
After the war, Eric Sykes struggled to establish himself as a comic, with little success.  Then, through an old RAF friend who had become a stage performer, Sykes broke into scriptwriting.  He went on to write for BBC radio shows like Educating Archie and The Goon Show, co-writing 24 episodes with Spike Milligan from 1954 onwards.  He also wrote for Frankie Howerd, Tony Hancock and Peter Sellars, among others. 
From appearances on the Tony Hancock show in the late 1950s, Sykes developed his own performing career, with his enduring persona as an incompetent lazy bachelor.  At about the same time, he began to lose his hearing: he was forced to lip-read his fellow actors to get his cues.  Ultimately he was to go almost completely deaf.
In the 1960s, he had his own television show with his co-star Hattie Jacques (who I always liked, perhaps because she was as large as my Aunty Penny).  In the 1970s, the show was revived in colour as Sykes, resulting in the production of 68 episodes, the series brought to an end when Hattie Jacques died of a heart attack in 1980.  Eric would always get things wrong, and sister Hattie would always scold him (much like the relationship between my parents).  Eric Sykes was notable for never swearing and never doing lewd material in his performances, although he was involved in several rather politically incorrect 1970s TV shows.
Eric Sykes continued into old age as a character actor, contributing to TV adaptations of Alice in Wonderland, Gormenghast, and Agatha Christie among others.  His voice is also heard in the Teletubbies childrens show and he made an appearance in the film of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

Eric Sykes died on 4 July 2012, aged 89.