To say Eric Sykes was multi-talented would be selling the Oldham-born actor, writer and comedian seriously short.
During his 60-year career, he not only wrote for radio, stage, TV and movies, but also starred in his own TV shows and directed award-winning films.
He worked with Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe on The Goon Show, wrote for Tommy Cooper and Tony Hancock, and formed one of the nation’s most enduring comic TV partnerships with Hattie Jacques.
As if that wasn’t enough, Sykes produced shows for troops in World War II with fellow writer Denis Norden as part of the RAF Special Liaison Unit. Sykes was a wireless operator during the conflict.
Also involved in the unit was well-known character actor Bill Fraser, who was a Flight Lieutenant. Little did Sykes know at the time that Fraser would have a major impact on his life after the war.
Along with Norden, Sykes was one of the first servicemen to enter the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp after it had been liberated in 1945.
The RAF pals were looking for stage lighting at the time at what they thought was a prison camp. Appalled at what they saw, they quickly organised a food collection among their colleagues to feed the starving inmates.
Born in Oldham in May 1923, Sykes attended Ward Street Central School. His father, a former army sergeant, was a labourer in a cotton mill. His mother died three weeks after his birth.
After honing his theatrical talents during the war, Sykes moved to London in the winter of 1946 looking for more stage work.
His timing couldn’t have been worse as he’d picked the coldest winter in living memory to try his luck in the capital – and he only had enough money for one week’s lodgings.
Faced with being out on the street, Sykes was saved by his old RAF comrade Fraser. He came up with two lifelines – the chance to write sketches for emerging comic star Frankie Howerd and Fraser himself.
The assignments were just the introduction Sykes needed. Over the next few years, he found himself writing for the radio show Variety Bandbox and Educating Archie, where he first met actress Hattie Jacques.
Ventriloquist Peter Brough and his dummy Archie Andrews were major stars by the early 1950s. Educating Archie had a radio audience of 15 million listeners and a fan club of 250,000.
The 1954 army film Orders are Orders gave Sykes his first screen appearance alongside Sid James, Tony Hancock and Peter Sellers.
At that time, Sykes shared a small office above a grocer’s shop in Uxbridge Road with Spike Milligan. The two collaborated on Goon Show scripts.
In the early 1960s, Sykes teamed up with Hattie Jacques in their own BBC sitcom created with Johnny Speight. Sykes played a bumbling bachelor, Jacques his sister and Deryck Guyler was Corky Turnbull, the friendly local police constable.
Eric and Hat, as they were soon labelled, became an instant TV hit. No less than nine series followed.
One of the shows featured the first version of the wordless sketch The Plank, directed by Sykes himself. It later won the Golden Rose of Montreux award.
In 1961, Sykes played hapless travelling salesman Herbert Harris who ended up in an Italian town full of women in the MGM comedy movie Village of Daughters.
Three major films followed in 1965 – Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines, The Liquidator and Rotten to the Core.
Sykes then worked with scriptwriters Ray Galton and Alan Simpson on the movie The Spy with a Cold Nose in 1966. It was based on a bulldog with an espionage device under its skin!
The film also featured Pickles, the dog who found the lost football World Cup when it went missing before the summer finals of the tournament in England.
Sykes starred with fellow Oldham comedians Cannon and Ball in the film The Boys in Blue in 1982. He also collaborated with Collyhurst comic Les Dawson in 1986.
In 2001, Sykes played a serious film role in the supernatural thriller The Others starring Nicole Kidman, and was the short-lived caretaker Frank Brice in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in 2005.
Sykes was profoundly deaf, relying on a bone-conducting hearing aid in his spectacles. In later life he was also registered as blind.
A keen Oldham Athletic fan, Sykes was an honorary director of the club in the 1970s. He was also honorary president of the Goon Show Preservation Society.
He died at the age of 89 on July 4th 2012 at his home in Esher, Surrey.
*Clive Hardy’s latest book, The Home Front – Britain 1939-45, published by iNostalgia Ltd, is now on the sale at the special pre-order price of £14.99 including UK postage and packing.
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