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Eric Sykes
Born 4 May 1923 (1923-05-04) (age 86)
Oldham, Lancashire, England, UK
Medium Television
Radio
Years active 1947—present
Spouse Edith Milbrandt (1952-present)
Notable works and roles Sykes, The Goon Show, The Plank
British Comedy Awards
1992 Lifetime Achievement Award

Eric Sykes, CBE (born 4 May 1923) is an English radio, television and film writer, actor and director whose performing career has spanned more than 50 years. He is widely acknowledged as one of the most significant figures in British radio and TV comedy in the latter 20th century and he frequently wrote for and/or performed with many other leading comedy performers and writers of the period, including Tony Hancock, Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, John Antrobus and Johnny Speight. Sykes first came to prominence through his many radio credits as a writer and actor in the 1950s, most notably through his work on The Goon Show. He became a TV star in his own right in the early 1960s when he co-starred with Hattie Jacques in several popular BBC comedy television series. A trademark of Sykes' work is the idea of taking a single comic idea to its extremes, as epitomised by what is probably his best remembered work, the famous slapstick film "The Plank".

Contents

Biography

Career

Sykes was educated at Ward Street Central School in Oldham. He joined the Royal Air Force during World War II and qualified as a wireless operator with the rank of Leading Aircraftman.

Sykes' entertainment career began during World War II while serving in a Special Liaison Unit, when 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 broke. 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 then starring in a comedy at the Playhouse Theatre. Fraser took the impoverished Sykes to the theatre, offered him food and drink 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, contributing to the successful BBC radio series Educating Archie -- where he first met Hattie Jacques -- as well as Variety Bandbox. By 1948 he had begun writing for TV[1].

1950s

In the early 1950s Sykes made the successful transition from radio to TV, writing a number of series episodes and one-off shows for the BBC. His credits in this period include The Howerd Crowd (1952), Frankie Howerd's Korean Party, Nuts in May and The Frankie Howerd Show -- all starring Frankie Howerd -- as well as The Big Man (1954) starring Fred Emney and Edwin Styles.[2] During 1954 Sykes also made his first screen appearance in the 1954 army film comedy Orders Are Orders, which also featured Sid James, Tony Hancock, Peter Sellers, Bill Fraser and Donald Pleasence.[3]

Late in 1954 Sykes began collaborating with Spike Milligan on scripts for The Goon Show when Milligan was unable to meet the workload. Their first collaborative script was for a Goon Show special called "Archie in Goonland", a crossover between The Goon Show and the "radio ventriloquism" show Educating Archie (which Sykes had also been writing). The special was broadcast in June 1954 and featured the regular Goon Show cast plus Peter Brough, his dummy Archie Andrews and Hattie Jacques.[4] It was not a success, however, and the recordings and scripts have not survived.

Sykes and Milligan co-wrote all but the first six of the 26 episodes in Series 5 (1954-55)[5] and three episodes of Series 6 (1955-56); Sykes also wrote a 15-minute Goon Show Christmas special, "The Missing Christmas Parcel", broadcast during the Children's Hour on 8 December 1955.[6] Sykes and Milligan shared an office for years as founding members of the writers' collective Associated London Scripts.[7][8]

In 1955 Sykes wrote and performed in a BBC Christmas spectacular, a spoof pantomime called Pantomania, which featured many well-known BBC personalities of the era; it was directed by Ernest Maxin, who went on to produce some of the most famous comedy routines for Morecambe & Wise. That same year Sykes signed a contract as scriptwriter and variety show presenter for the newly formed independent television company ATV, while continuing to write and perform for the BBC.[9]

In 1956 Sykes performed, wrote scripts and acted as script editor for the pioneering BBC TV comedy The Idiot Weekly, Price 2d, the first attempt to translate the humour of the Goons to television. It starred Peter Sellers, with Sykes, Kenneth Connor and Valentine Dyall. During the year he also made his second film appearance, playing a minor role in the Max Bygraves film Charley Moon, which also featured Bill Fraser, Peter Jones, Dennis Price and (as a child) Jane Asher.[10] During 1956–57, Sykes also wrote for and performed in The Tony Hancock Show, where he again worked with Hattie Jacques.

His next venture for the BBC was a 1-hour special, Sykes Directs a Dress Rehearsal, playing a harassed director in a fictional TV studio rehearsal room, just before going live to air. Later that year he wrote and appeared in another all-star spectacular called Opening Night which celebrated the opening of the 1956 National Radio Show at Earl's Court. In 1957 he created Closing Night, which closed the 1957 Show.

By this time Sykes had developed hearing problems, and he subsequently lost most of his hearing, but he learned to lip-read and watch other performers say their lines to get his cues. In 1957 he wrote and appeared in an edition of Val Parnell's Saturday Spectacular, the first of two shows in this series that he wrote for Peter Sellers. The first went out under the title of Eric Sykes Presents Peter Sellers, and the second, in 1958 was called The Peter Sellers Show.

In 1959 Sykes wrote and directed the one-off BBC special Gala Opening, with a cast that included "Professor" Stanley Unwin and Hattie Jacques,[11] and played a small supporting role in the Tommy Steele film Tommy the Toreador.

1960s

At the turn of the decade Eric Sykes and his old friend and colleague Hattie Jacques co-starred in a new 30-minute BBC TV sitcom, Sykes and A..., which Sykes created in collaboration with writer Johnny Speight, who had worked with Eric in the 1950s on the Tony Hanccock shows. The original concept for the series had Eric living in suburbia with his wife, with simple plots centering on everyday problems, but Sykes soon realized that by changing the housemate from wife to sister it offered more scope for storylines and allowed either or both to become romantically entangled with other people.[12]

In the revised concept, Sykes played a version of his established stage persona, a bumbling, work-shy, accident-prone bachelor called Eric Sykes, who lives at 24 Sebastopol Terrace, East Acton with his unmarried twin sister Harriet, played by Jacques. The other regular cast members were Deryck Guyler as local constable Wilfred "Corky" Turnbull and Richard Wattis as their snobbish, busybody neighbour Charles Brown. Wattis left the show after Series 3 and his departure was explained by having Mr Brown emigrating to Australia. Other guests included Hugh Lloyd, John Bluthal, Leo McKern and Arthur Mullard.

The first series (5 episodes, all written by Johnny Speight) premiered on 29 January 1960 and it was an immediate hit, establishing "Eric and Hat" as one of Britain's most popular and enduring comedy partnerships. The second series of 6 episodes (written from storylines suggested by Speight) were mostly written by Sykes, although he co-wrote one episode each with John Antrobus and Spike Milligan.[13] All subsequent episodes were written solely by Sykes[14].

Nine short seasons of Sykes and A... were made between 1960 and 1965; each ranged from 6 to 9 episodes, plus a 1962 Christmas special. Regrettably, 34 of the original 59 episodes made between 1960 and 1965 are now missing, presumed erased, as is the 1962 Xmas special.[15] It was during this series that Sykes premiered one of his best-known creations, the wordless slapstick routine "The Plank", which originally appeared in Episode 2, Series 7 of Sykes And A..., first broadcast on 3 March 1964 under the title "Sykes and A Plank".

In December 1961 Sykes co-starred with Warren Mitchell in Clicquot Et Frils, a one-off, 30-minute comedy written by ALS colleagues Ray Galton and Alan Simpson. This was the premiere episode of a new BBC series Comedy Playhouse, which became an important proving ground for new TV comedy - numerous episodes were subsequently developed into their own highly successful series, including Meet the Wife, Steptoe and Son, Til Death Us Do Part, All Gas and Gaiters, The Liver Birds, Are You Being Served? and Last of the Summer Wine.

In 1962 Eric scored his first starring film role, playing a travelling salesman in the comedy Village of Daughters, set in an Italian village, but featuring a mostly British cast including John Le Mesurier (then married to Hattie Jacques), Warren Mitchell and Roger Delgado (later the first actor to play Dr Who's nemesis The Master). This was followed by a supporting role in the MGM (UK) comedy, Kill or Cure, starring Terry Thomas with a cast of British comedy stalwarts including Dennis Price, Moira Redmond, Lionel Jeffries, David Lodge and it also featured one of the first film appearances by Ronnie Barker. Both films were made by the same writer-director team behind the popular Margaret Rutherford Miss Marple film Murder She Said.

Sykes was very busy during 1965, making what proved to be the final series of Sykes and A... and appearing in three major films. He had a small role in Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines, joining an all-star cast of British TV and film luminaries including Terry Thomas, Tony Hancock, Robert Morley and Flora Robson, as well as US stars Stuart Whitman and Red Skelton. The spy spoof The Liquidator was directed by Jack Cardiff and starred Rod Taylor with Sykes, Jill St John, Trevor Howard, Akim Tamiroff, Wilfrid Hyde-White, David Tomlinson, John Le Mesurier and Derek Nimmo. His third film of that year was the Boulting Brothers' Rotten to the Core starring Anton Rogers (who replaced Peter Sellers) with Sykes and featuring an early screen appearance by Charlotte Rampling.[16]

In 1966 Sykes had a minor film role in the spy spoof The Spy with a Cold Nose (written by Galton and Simpson) which also featured Laurence Harvey, Lionel Jeffries, Eric Portman, Denholm Elliott and June Whitfield.

In 1967 Sykes expanded the Plank routine into a 45-minute wordless colour short The Plank featuring Sykes, Tommy Cooper, Jimmy Edwards, Roy Castle, Graham Stark, Stratford Johns, Jim Dale, Jimmy Tarbuck, Hattie Jacques and future Goodies star Bill Oddie. Also in 1967 Sykes and his old comrade Jimmy Edwards started touring with the theatrical farce Big Bad Mouse, which while keeping more or less to a script, gave them rein to ad lib and address the audience. They would return to the production on and off until 1975, touring the UK twice and also taking the show abroad including Australia.

Returning to TV, Sykes and Jacques appeared in the 1967 TV special Sykes Versus ITV with Tommy Cooper and Ronnie Brody. In 1968 he had a supporting role in a British-American film co-production, the Edward Dymytryk western Shalako, starring Sean Connery and Brigitte Bardot.

In 1969 Sykes co-starred with Spike Milligan in what proved to be one of the few major flops of his career - the ill-fated TV sitcom Curry & Chips, a satire on racial prejudice created and written by Johnny Speight and made for London Weekend Television. Milligan (who grew up in India) played Kevin O'Grady, a half-Pakistani/half-Irish man who comes to work in a British factory and ends up boarding with his ineffectual foreman Arthur Blenkinsop (Sykes), who has to regularly defend Kevin against his racist workmates. The supporting cast included pop singer turned actor Kenny Lynch, Geoffrey Hughes, Norman Rossington, Sam Kydd, Jerrold Wells and Fanny Carby as Arthur and Kevin's landlady. The series provoked a storm of complaints about its liberal use of racist epithets and bad language (although Sykes refused to swear, as he has done throughout his career) and it was cancelled on the orders of the Independent Broadcasting Authority after just six episodes.[17]

Also in 1969, Sykes wrote, directed and performed in two comedy short films in the style of The Plank. It's Your Move was a wordless slapstick comedy depicting the travails of young couple (Richard Briers and Sylvia Sims) moving into a new home, who hire an accident-prone firm of removalists (headed by Sykes); it featured an all-star cast including Tommy Cooper, Bernard Cribbins, Jimmy Edwards, Irene Handl, Bob Todd and Andrew Sachs, who later came to fame as the hapless Manuel in Fawlty Towers.[18] In Rhubarb all the characters interact using only the word "rhubarb". The idea was drawn from the British showbiz tradition in which extras used the word "rhubarb" to simulate low-level background dialogue, and the expression was a running joke in The Goon Show. The cast list included Sykes, Hattie Jacques, Harry Secombe, Jimmy Edwards and Carry On regular Kenneth Connor, with a rare on-screen appearance by Johnny Speight.[19]

Sykes also made another minor film appearance in 1969 in the comedy Monte Carlo or Bust! (aka Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies.

1970s

In 1970 Sykes returned to BBC-TV with a guest appearance in an episode of Till Death Us Do Part. This was followed in 1971 by two television specials, Sykes and A Big Big Show for the BBC and Sykes: With the Lid Off for Thames Television.

In 1972, seven years after the cancellation of Sykes and A..., the BBC revived the series under the title Sykes. Eric and Hat (who had by then moved to 28 Sebastopol Terrace) were rejoined by both Richard Wattis as the snooty Mr Brown (who had returned from Australia) and Derek Guyler as PC "Corky" Turnbull [20].

Many shows in the early series of Sykes were re-workings of scripts from the 1960s series; the original series had been in monochrome. These included a remake of the 1960s episode "Sykes and a Stranger", which originally featured Leo McKern; in the new version Peter Sellers had the guest role as a childhood sweetheart of Hattie's who arrives on the Sykes' doorstep claiming Hattie as his fiancé.

Sixty-eight episodes of Sykes were made between 1972 and 1979. Richard Wattis died suddenly in February 1975, so from Series 4 onwards his character was replaced by a new neighbour, Melanie Rumbelow (Joy Harrington); Carry On veteran Joan Sims also made occasional appearances as Madge Kettlewell, the widowed local baker who fancies Eric. The series was brought to an enforced end by Hattie Jacques's death from a heart attack in October 1980.[21]

In 1973 Sykes had a small role as a police sergeant in the Douglas Hickox thriller Theatre of Blood, starring Vincent Price with an all-star supporting cast including Jack Hawkins, Diana Rigg, Robert Morley, Diana Dors, Michael Hordern, Arthur Lowe, Dennis Price and Milo O'Shea.

In 1977, Sykes wrote and starred in another TV special, Eric Sykes Shows a Few of Our Favourite Things, with Hattie Jacques, Irene Handl, Jimmy Edwards and Peter Cook. He also wrote the script for the 1977 Yorkshire Television adaptation of Charley's Aunt; Sykes also appeared in the role of Brassett, playing alongside Jimmy Edwards and Judi Maynard.

The third version of The Plank was made in 1979 for Thames TV as a half-hour TV special, with a cast including Eric, Arthur Lowe (taking Cooper's role), Charlie Drake, Charles Hawtrey and Wilfrid Hyde-White.

Sykes was the subject of Thames Television's This Is Your Life, broadcast on 25 December 1979 with guests including Sean Connery, Spike Milligan, Douglas Bader and Hattie Jacques.

1980s - present

Sykes wrote and appeared in two Thames Television specials broadcast during 1980 -- The Likes of Sykes and Rhubarb Rhubarb. The latter special, a remake of his 1969 short film Rhubarb which Sykes also directed, featured many of his old friends including Jimmy Edwards, Bob Todd, Charlie Drake, Bill Fraser, Roy Kinnear, Beryl Reid, Norman Rossington. It was also to be his last screen appearance with Hattie Jacques.

In 1981 Sykes wrote, directed and starred in the offbeat comedy If You Go Down in the Woods Today for Thames, with a cast including Roy Kinnear, Fulton Mackay and George Sewell.

During 1982 Sykes played the Chief Constable in the slapstick police comedy film The Boys in Blue, which starred the comedy duo Cannon and Ball, with Jon Pertwee. For Thames TV that year he also appeared in and wrote The Eric Sykes 1990 Show with Tommy Cooper and Dandy Nichols and It's Your Move, a remake of his 1969 short film featuring virtually all of the cast from the original.

In 1984 Sykes played the Genie in the children's film Gabrielle and the Doodleman, which also featured Windsor Davies (who would also appear with Sykes in the BBC's Gormenghast in 2000), Bob Todd, Lynsey De Paul and Gareth Hunt.

In 1985 he played The Mad Hatter in the Anglia Television serial adaptation of Alice In Wonderland, joining an all-star cast that included Paul Eddington, Michael Bentine, Eleanor Bron, Leslie Crowther, Leonard Rossiter and Joan Sanderson, and he also had an uncredited role (as an arcade attendant) in the Julien Temple film musical Absolute Beginners, starring Patsy Kensit with David Bowie, Ray Davies, James Fox and Mandy Rice-Davies, the former friend of Christine Keeler with whom she was involved in the famous Profumo Scandal in the 1960s.

In 1986 Sykes played Horace Harker in the "The Six Napoleons", an episode of the Granada TV adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes stories starring Jeremy Brett.

Sykes toured Australia with the play Run For Your Wife (1987–88) with a cast that included Jack Smethurst, David McCallum and Katy Manning.

From 1997, Skyes, together with Tim Whitnall and Toyah Willcox, provided narration for the BBC pre-school TV series Teletubbies. It is his voice that announces "Teletubbies!" during the title sequence[22] and on the Teletubbies theme music which became a number one single in December 1997.[23]

In the British New Year's Honours List published 31 December 2004, Sykes was awarded a CBE for services to Drama, following a petition by MPs after he was excluded from the Birthday Honours List. In a 2005 poll to find The Comedian's Comedian, he was voted among the top 50 acts by fellow comedians and comedy insiders. Also in 2005, his autobiography If I Don't Write It, Nobody Else Will was published.

In 2000 Sykes appeared as Mollocks, the servant of Dr Prunesquallor, in the BBC's mini-series adaptation of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast, which is notable both as the last production to feature both Sykes and Milligan (although they did not appear together on screen) and as Milligan's last screen appearance before his death in 2002. In 2001 he had one of his few serious screen roles, playing a servant in the blockbuster supernatural thriller film The Others, starring Nicole Kidman. In 2005 he played Frank Bryce in Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire.

Sykes continues to act on stage and on television - he appeared in the 2007 series of Last of the Summer Wine. Also in 2007, he had a small role in an episode of the sitcom My Family.

Personal life

Sykes became partially deaf as an adult. His spectacles contain no lenses but are a bone-conducting hearing aid. Disciform macular degeneration, brought about by age and possibly smoking, has left Sykes partially-sighted, and he is registered as blind. In 2002 he suffered a stroke and underwent heart bypass surgery.

He was awarded the OBE in 1986 for his services to drama. He received The Bernard Delfont Award For Outstanding Contribution To Showbusiness at The Variety Club Show Business Awards in 2002.

He married Edith Eleanore Milbrandt on 14 February 1952 and they have three daughters, Catherine, Julie, Susan, and a son, David.[24]

Sykes is an honorary president of the Goon Show Preservation Society.

Awards

Filmography

Created by and starring Eric Sykes

(television)

Other roles

References

  1. ^ Television Heaven - TV Greats - Eric Sykes
  2. ^ IMDb - Eric Sykes
  3. ^ IMDb - Orders Are Orders
  4. ^ Wilmut's Goonography - Goon Shows - 4th Series
  5. ^ Wilmut's Goonography - Goon Shows - 5th Series
  6. ^ Wilmut's Goonography - Goon Shows - 6th Series
  7. ^ Eric Sykes' Comedy Heroes, published by Virgin ISBN 1852270985 p154
  8. ^ Spike & Co, Graham McCann, published by Hodder & Stoughton ISBN 0340898086
  9. ^ Television Heaven - TV Greats - Eric Sykes
  10. ^ IMDb - Charley Moon
  11. ^ Television Heaven - TV Greats - Eric Sykes
  12. ^ Memorable TV - Eric Sykes
  13. ^ Television Heaven - Sykes and A...
  14. ^ Memorable TV - Eric Sykes
  15. ^ IMDb - Sykes and A... - Trivia
  16. ^ IMDb - Rotten to the Core
  17. ^ Television Heaven - Curry & Chips
  18. ^ IMDb - It's Your Move
  19. ^ IMDb - Rhubarb
  20. ^ Television Heaven - Sykes and A.../Sykes
  21. ^ Television Heaven - TV Greats - Eric Sykes
  22. ^ "The Stone-Deaf Goon from Oldham who Became a National Treasure". Pride of Manchester. http://www.prideofmanchester.com/comedy/ericsykes.htm. Retrieved 2010-01-11.  
  23. ^ Teletubbies top the charts, BBC, 1997-12-07, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/37712.stm, retrieved 2008-12-29  
  24. ^ [1]

External links








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