Eric Sykes (4th May 1923 — 4th July 2012) was fascinated almost to the point of obsession with silence. As a very young man, working at the clattering Lancashire cotton mill where his father was a supervisor, he was already dreaming of silent comedies. "I was trying to create the act that didn't have one word in it, the complete mime act, and I'm still trying," he said in 1971.
Sykes was born in Oldham, Lancashire, and worked as a painter and a greengrocer's assistant before following his father into the mill. His early ambitions to become a comedian were frustrated by WW2 service, but it was during this period that he made the acquaintance of a number of budding comics, including Spike Milligan, Tony Hancock, Peter Sellers, Michael Bentine, and Harry Secombe. He joined the RAF as a wireless operator but was seconded into the army and also served aboard naval vessels.
Back in civilian life, he began supplying material to the friends he had made during the war, for radio shows such as Stars in Battledress and Variety Bandbox. Because he worked alone, he was at one point the highest-paid comedy writer in Britain.Strangely for such a talented man, Sykes seemed to dislike writing and saw it mostly as a means of achieving his true ambition, which was to be a principal comedian. He never did become a star solo stand-up performer, however, but in the late 1950s found his forte writing and acting in TV situation comedy.
Silent humour was a field Sykes was driven to explore because he spent his life struggling with a hearing impairment. The heavy, black-framed glasses he wore contained no lenses and were actually a hearing aid. As he became older, the lenses became irrelevant, for he was also by then virtually sightless, and registered as blind. Yet this remarkable performer continued to appear on television and in films, and even on stage, well into his 80s.
"If you understand comedy, you understand life," he said. "Drama, death, tragedy everybody has these. But with humour you've got all these, and the antidote. You have found the answer. It doesn't follow that because you are a good comedy writer, you're a happy fellow. I've got one of the most miserable faces in the world. I am only happy when I am working. If I'm not working, I get screwed up because my time is going, my life is slipping by."
Sykes was one of the finest comedy writers of the postwar years. He wrote the radio show Educating Archie (1950-58) and, with Spike Milligan, co-wrote some of the best episodes of The Goon Show. He and Milligan founded Associated London Scripts together. Sykes also created many of Frankie Howerd's funniest routines.
During Spike Milligan's sectioning to mental hospitals, Sykes took over writing The Goon Show, contributing twenty-two scripts. He was also one of several actors who appeared covering for Milligan and performing his parts in the show, a duty shared with Dick Emery.
An untidy, uncoordinated, lugubrious man with a mildly irritated air and a reedy, doleful voice, Sykes did not look or sound at all like a comedian. One aspect of his appeal was that he was more like the bloke behind the counter of a DIY shop, or a harassed minor local government official.
Sykes and A ..., and Sykes, the BBC TV series in which he starred with Hattie Jacques, who played his sister, ran from 1960 to the late 70s. The comic world he created was enclosed. He carried an air of faded, working-class gentility and stifling respectability, of best suits on Sundays and highly polished boots, of boiled ham and limp lettuce salads and the best tea-set specially got out for visitors.
In the Sykes shows, he played Jacques's nervous, well-meaning but totally ineffectual brother (it didn't seem remarkable that she had a southern accent while his was as flat and northern as his cap) and the humour came from calamity-prone Eric's unwitting threats to the ordered, suburban world of his sister, "Hat". Stylish comic support came from Richard Wattis as a waspish neighbour and Deryck Guyler in the role of cheerful policeman. The show was gentle, appealing and warm-hearted, and ended only as a result of the death of Jacques in 1980.
An earlier TV series, Curry and Chips (1969), had proved to be a rare flop for Sykes. Written by Johnny Speight and co-starring a browned-up Spike Milligan as a Pakistani worker in a British factory, it was an interesting early reflection on integration, but withits late 1960's attitudes to race and ethnicity, could not be screened today.
While experimenting with his own soundless film comedies, Sykes appeared in a number of other movies, sometimes paired with Terry-Thomas (Village of Daughters, 1962; Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, 1965; and Monte Carlo or Bust!, 1969), often playing a much put-upon servant or apprehensive henchman.
One venture was Shalako (1968), a bizarre western starring Sean Connery and Brigitte Bardot, in which he played a butler. Other films included Heavens Above! (1963), One Way Pendulum (1964), Theatre of Blood (1973) and Absolute Beginners (1986).
In 2001 he attracted much favourable attention when Nicole Kidman specially asked for him to be cast as her ghostly servant in The Others. He had good roles in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005) and, on television, as Mollocks, the servant of Dr Prunesquallor, in a BBC adaptation of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast (in which his old friend Milligan made his final appearance) in 2000, and featured in the 2007 series of Last of the Summer Wine.
He switched from comedy to drama with deftness. "It's a load of crap to say that comedians want to play Hamlet," he said. "A good comedian has more Hamlet in him than any straight actor."
Sykes, who described his career as "... living in a world that doesn't exist", believed that the only way Britain would get another crop of writers like Milligan, Frank Muir, Denis Norden, Speight and himself would be through the reintroduction of conscription. "Take away the necessity of earning a living," he said, "provide food and bed so that you can just sit on your backside for two years, and you will find that the violinist will practise his violin, the language student will learn a language and the comedian will create comedy. It's no good expecting it to come from people who are in boring, undemanding jobs, for they have already half-settled for what they've got. Conscription is an obvious staging post. A war is even better if you can keep alive."
His contribution to the laughter of the nation over more than half a century was massive. His life was punctuated with showbusiness accolades and awards, as well as an OBE in 1986 and a CBE in 2005. He died in 2012, leaving a large legacy in British media.