Eric Sykes & A Plank …

5 07 2012

‘I’m proud of being a vaudevillian, the last of my line… A lot of people think my entertainment is candy-floss. Well, entertainment is too aggressive these days, all in your face.’  

‘Some people walk on stage and the audience warms to them. You can’t explain it and you shouldn’t try. It’s an arrogant assumption to say you decide to become a comedian. The audience decides for you.’

‘If you understand comedy, you understand life: drama, death, tragedy – everybody has these.’

‘One visual gag is worth a page of dialogue, but you cannot learn how to do it, it’s a natural gift – they don’t teach it Rada.’

‘A good comedian has more Hamlet in him than any straight actor.’

‘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.’  

Eric Sykes CBE, OBE (1923- 2012)

Eric Sykes one of Britain’s best loved comedy figures died peacefully, yesterday, aged 89. One of the last, of a ‘golden generation’ of post-war comics, he was still working well into his 80s – a remarkable feat given stone deafness, since his early thirties, and almost total blindness, for the last ten years.

Oldham-born, Sykes, left school at 14 to work as a greengrocer. In the war he served as a wireless operator for the RAF, and it was during those years that he first became involved with light entertainment.

In peace-time, he cut his professional comedy teeth writing radio material for the likes of the late, great, Tony Hancock and Frankie Howerd. He also collaborated with Spike Milligan on twenty-four episodes of ‘The Goon Show’ – a comedy classic.

However, he is probably most widely remembered, at least by my generation, for a seemingly never-ending series of eponymous sit-coms throughout, the sixties and seventies, most notably ‘Sykes and A…’ opposite Hattie Jacques. Eric and Hattie, the brother and sister from 24 Sebastopol Terrace, endured for 128 episodes.

‘His was the comedy of innocence. He didn’t raise any bruises, only laughter…. Like Spike Milligan and PG Wodehouse, he was a great British man of comedy.’ So writes Eddie Braben, himself a writer for Ken Dodd, Ronnie Corbett and Morecambe and Wise.

From the ‘80s onwards, as comedy tastes changed, Eric’s gentle sit-com humour became increasingly out-dated, but he was always able to diversify, being a novelist, director and producer, as well as a writer and performer, and always remained – a career that spanned five decades.     

In 1985 he played the Mad Hatter in an acclaimed TV version of ‘Alice in Wonderland’, and later landed a small but significant narrating part in a ’97-2002 children’s TV phenomena. It is Eric who exclaims, ‘Teletubbies!’ at the end of that programme’s title sequence.     

In the latter stages of his career he played alongside Nicole Kidman and Christopher Eccleston in a psychological chiller, ‘The Others’, and as Hogwarts caretaker, Frank Bryce, in ‘Harry Potter’ blockbuster, ‘The Goblet of Fire.’ As recently as 2007 he appeared in an episode of ‘Poirot’ and on the big screen, in ‘Son of Rambow’ – a coming of age comedy/drama.

I will always remember Eric for his 1967 piece de resistance, ‘The Plank’ – a short, ‘wordless dialogue’ (45 minutes) about the misadventures of two workmen, played by Eric and Tommy Cooper, requiring a floorboard to complete their job on a building site. The cleverly constructed storyline largely revolves around a series of slapstick routines as they try to convey ‘the plank’, from a timber-yard, on the roof of a Morris 8. It was written and directed by Eric and the cast is a veritable who’s who of 1960s comedy stars.

The ‘silent’ comic caper proved so popular that there was a 1979 remake, and in 2011 the 6 ft. piece of wood used in the film, signed by the original cast, went under the hammer, for £1,050, at a Colchester auction.      

In 2005, Eric’s autobiography, ‘If I Don’t Write It Nobody Else Will’, was released. Typically, Eric’s preferred title, ignored by his publishers, who it seems didn’t have a funny bone in their bodies, was, ‘If I Don’t Write It Somebody Else Will’ –  much more clever, in my opinion.    

Quite recently I listened to Eric discussing his latest DVD release, ‘The Likes of Sykes’, with Richard Bacon, on 5-Live. The comic master was as quick-witted and entertaining as ever.

It is fitting to finish with a few, of the many, tributes emanating from the great and good of the comedy world:

‘Eric was one of the greats of comedy in this country…He was just one of the funniest men ever in comedy. What a shame so many young people would not have seen him in his prime’: Bruce Forsyth  

‘An adorable, brilliant, modest, hilarious, innovative and irreplaceable comic master’: Stephen Fry

‘He was one of the nicest and most decent men in the business and one of a kind. No one else could do what Eric could do’: Michael Palin

‘A joy to be with, a wonderful man… a genius at creating comedy, he found laughter in anything’: Ken Dodd

‘He was a gentle man and a gentleman. There’s a big difference between the two but he was both… He was a comedy genius and there’s not many of them’: Jimmy Tarbuck  

‘A giant of comedy and a gentleman – funny to his very core’: Mark Gatiss (‘League of Gentlemen’)

‘RIP the great Eric Sykes’: David Baddiel

 

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