sat 24/03/2018

Thinking of Something Funny: Eric Sykes, 1923-2012 | reviews, news & interviews

Thinking of Something Funny: Eric Sykes, 1923-2012

Thinking of Something Funny: Eric Sykes, 1923-2012

The last of the vaudevilleans, who ignored disability to carry on seeing the funny side

'All the comedians I've ever known are always thinking every waking hour'

“One never consciously observes. The only people who consciously observe are policemen and undercover agents.” Eric Sykes, who has died at the age of 89, was the last of the great vaudevilleans. When I met him in the late 1990s, he was already totally deaf and largely blind, and somehow continued to work and remain remarkably chipper with it. He had his first ear operation in 1952, another a decade later, whereafter he wore a hearing aid camouflaged as a pair of thick-rimmed glasses. He would sometimes rub his eyes through the plane where the lenses ought to be: a sight gag if ever there was one.

The arms of the glasses had micro-speakers which conducted sound through his skull. He was advised by doctors that he had "good bone conduction", which sounds like something all comics should have. What the glasses couldn’t do was give the noise a coordinate. "I could sit in a restaurant looking at my plate and I'd be laughing - when there's a chuckle I always chuckle too, so they think I can hear what's going on - and look up and there are stony faces round the table, and I realised it was a joke being told three tables away. They're all looking at me thinking, `Aah, he's thinking of something funny.'"

I believe that one visual joke is worth a page of dialogue

I met Sykes in his office, a spacious first-floor room down a Bayswater backstreet. All the greats had mingled there, and most of them still lined the walls. His favourite photograph found him deep in conversation with the Queen. Without his glasses on, he couldn’t hear a word she was saying. It's somehow fitting that among Sykes's most garlanded works is The Plank, a silent film by someone who couldn't have had a deeper affinity with silence. More than most comics of his generation, he was always a virtuoso of the visual. "I believe that one visual joke is worth a page of dialogue," he said.

Watch a clip from The Plank

Sykes's simple theory of comedy was that it should come from the heart rather than the head, and that good comedy is medicinal. "One show of Ken Dodd's is worth six months on the National Health,” he said. “The great comics all had one thing in common, and that was vulnerability. It seems to me a lot of today's comedy is fireproof. People shouting at each other. Well, children do that."

If he was not quite regarded as one of the true greats, it's because he was always as much a writer as a performer, a split ability that in his time was surprisingly rare. He was much more of a household name than Ray Galton and Alan Simpson (the geniuses who wrote Steptoe and Son and Hancock's Half Hour and the great comic writers of their generation), but never quite up there with Frankie Howerd, Tommy Cooper, The Goons, Norman Wisdom and Hancock, for all of whom Sykes wrote gags. Perhaps because of this he was spared the great comedian's traditional penalty, the offstage misery that afflicted Spike Milligan, with whom he shared an office for years. In fact he believed the dichotomy between genius and glumness was exaggerated.

There is a price to pay for everything. But I find that the price is very very reasonable

"People call it a dark side,” he said, “but all the comedians I've ever known are always thinking every waking hour. You might be on the verge of cracking the funniest routine, but you've got such a serious expression and people think, `What a miserable sod he is.' A better word could be `anxious'. I've very rarely seen a feed with lines on his face. All the lines are on the face of the comic. Ernie has a lovely baby face. Eric was always staring morosely at the floor."

The worry-lines started appearing on Sykes's face promptly. His mother died giving birth to him (in Oldham, where he grew up). His father remarried, "and I was left to my own thoughts. I was always like a lodger in my own house; I had a lot of time to live within my own head. I didn't have anybody to run to bury my head in when I was in trouble. There is a price to pay for everything. But I find that the price is very very reasonable."

A radio writer and performer in the 1950s, he was from the first generation of comedians to move to television. In the 1960s he had a popular sitcom in the American mould named after himself. Sykes also starred Hattie Jacques as the sister with whom his workshy alter ego lived. Sykes in real life was hungry for employment. He also wrote novels and, latterly, a memoir. Among his more notable acting appearances in his senior years were in Peter Hall’s production of Molière’s The School for Wives, the BBC’s adaptation of Gormenghast, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and, most surprisingly of all, as a ghost in Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others. “When I feel that I've gone over the finishing line,” he said, “I hope that I'll be the first to know.”

Eric Sykes, 3 May 1923 - 4 July 2012

Eric Sykes and Hattie Jacques perform at the Royal Variety Performance

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When I feel that I've gone over the finishing line, I hope that I'll be the first to know

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Incredibly sad, a great. So many wonderful things that he'd done, but the show Sykes, seemingly made up as it went along, will always remain a favourite - years before Seinfeld coined it, it was 'the show about nothing'. Even though neither really were.  

Kieron, Funny you should mention Seinfeld because with his stooping gait, cigar and fondness for golf Kramer always made me think of Eric Sykes. And like Kramer, Sykes could also make people laugh just by the way he moved, as Jasper so astutely alludes to above.

A sad loss, Sykes was just about the last of that bunch of entertainers and writers who came up through the Forces / Wartime experience. On the 'Sykes' sitcom, he assembles a tremendous ensemble of characters, including Hattie Jacques, Dickie Wattis and the wonderful Deryck 'Corky' Guyler, an actor who made an art of playing jobsworths and minor officials, in this case, the local bobby, ever-hungry. Sykes avoided smut and race jokes for the absurdity of the everyday, and was all the funnier for all that. The circumstacnes that produced Sykes and his contemporaries simply don't exist, and, 'scuse the cliche, but we shall never see his like again.

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