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Obituary: Eric Sykes

Eric Sykes

Obituary by Jack Foley

ERIC Sykes, one of Britain’s best-loved comedy actors and writers, has died at the age of 89.

The news was revealed on Wednesday, July 4 (2012) by his manager, Norma Farnes, who said: “Eric Sykes, 89, star of TV, stage and films, died peacefully this morning after a short illness. His family were with him.”

Sykes found fame via a series of TV sitcoms from the 1950s, including Sykes And A… alongside co-star Hattie Jacques. But he also enjoyed a successful movie career, appearing in films such as Monte Carlo or Bust, Harry Potter & The Goblet of Fire and The Others.

Born on May 4, 1923 in Oldham, Lancashire, Eric was the son of a millworker but his mother died in childbirth.

In spite of such a sad beginning, Sykes developed a passion for comedy at an early age and although the advent of the Second World War prevented him from pursuing a career immediately, wartime service did give him the chance to shine in several Royal Air Force entertainment shows, as well as a role in the Normandy landings.

After the war, he decided to make his living writing comic scripts and got his first break when he managed to sell one to Frankie Howerd for £10.

It set him on his way and before long he was writing regularly for radio, including the popular show Educating Archie, which saw him working with Hattie Jacques, Max Bygraves and Tony Hancock for the first time.

By the 1950s, he had become the highest paid scriptwriter in Britain and wrote for a wide variety of some of the most famous people in the industry, including Peter Sellers and The Goon Show – the latter after being recruited by co-creator Spike Milligan.

Having established himself as a writer, Sykes then branched into appearing on TV and in film himself, earning his next break in Orders Are Orders in 1954. He went on to appear in over 20 films, including Heavens Above!, Monte Carlo Or Bust, Absolute Beginners and Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines.

One of his biggest successes on the screen was The Plank, which saw him working with the likes of Tommy Cooper and Roy Castle, and which paved the way for it to be re-made for television in 1970.

In laters years, Skyes endeared himself to a new generation of cinema-goers by playing the character Frank Bryce in Harry Potter & The Goblet of Fire, as well as Mr. Edmund Tuttle alongside Nicole Kidman in The Others.

His final film appearance was in the critically-acclaimed British coming-of-age comedy Son of Rambow but he continued to make small screen appearances in shows such as Last of the Summer Wine, Heartbeat and, finally, Agatha Christie: Poirot in 2010.

He was awarded the OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) in 1986 for his services to drama and was then made a CBE (Commander of the order of the British Empire) in the 2005 Queen’s New Years Honours List for his services to drama.

Sykes success was, however, all the more remarkable given how it frequently came against adversity.

Sykes had, in fact, been deaf since his early 30s and his trademark horn-rimmed spectacles were a sophisticated hearing-aid, enabling him to sense vibrations. Doctors always expressed their susprise that he could hear anything at all but somewhat poignantly, Sykes himself always attributed this ability to the protective spirit of his dead mother, Hattie.

In his later years, he also had to tackle blindness but, again, this didn’t stop him from performing on-stage well into his 70s.

And in 2002 he suffered a stroke and underwent heart bypass surgery.

But he was dedicated to his profession and often called comedy a ‘calling’. He is quoted by the BBC as saying: “You don’t decide to be a comedian. I don’t ever stop. Even when I’m in the bath or shaving, my brain is going like an express train, thinking up funny things.”

He is survived by his Canadian wife, Edith Eleanore Milbrandt, three daughters – Katherine, Susan and Julie – and one son, David.