Thursday, 27 December 2012

"Sykes and A Life..." Eric Sykes, the man and his work...

In this age of comedy, with stand-ups, sketch shows and panel games. Its it refreshing to think back on a time when silence was golden, with the passing of Eric Sykes this year this seems like a perfect time to look back this breed of comedy film where the actions speak louder then words as well as the man himself.

Eric Sykes was born in Oldham, Lancashire in May 1923 but owing to complications from his birth, his mother died three weeks later. The second and younger of two children, Sykes had an older brother called Vernon and when his father remarried when he was only two years old, he gain a half-brother called John. Schooled in Oldham, Sykes joined the RAF in World War Two as a wireless operator and a rank of Leading Aircraftman. But the war was to have effect on what Sykes was going to do afterwards in peace time, whilst ensconced with a Special Liasion Unit, he met Flight Lieutenant Bill Fraser.

Afterwards Sykes came to London to try his luck, but arriving in the capital during the coldest winter in living memory at that time in 1946, renting lodging to stay in at the end of his first week in them, he was cold, hungry and penniless but a chance meeting with Bill Fraser who was performing comedy at the Playhouse Theatre himself, invited Sykes along to a performance and offered him food and drink, but he had invited Eric there to ask him if he would like to write material for Fraser. Sykes accepted the offer and before long he was scripting for both Bill Fraser and Frankie Howard as well. When he formed a writing partnership with Sid Colin, they worked on BBC's radio's Educating Archie Andrews featuring Archie Andrews and his ventriloquist friend Peter Brough, but working on the show lead Eric to meet fellow performer Hattie Jacques, who would share a vast majority of his career with her playing Sykes' long time identical twin sister in the television series bearing Sykes' own name.

The 1950's was to see Sykes to move to television with him writing episodes of series and also one-offs for performers, in 1954 he wrote the The Big Man which starred Fred Emney and Edwin Styles, also he made his first ever performance on film Orders Are Orders with Sid James, Tony Hancock, Peter Sellers, Bill Fraser and Donald Pleasence as well. Eric shared an office with Spike Milligan at this time in Shepherd's Bush writing above a grocer’s shop, though later on Sykes and Milligan were to form Associated London Scripts which was a co-operative, not for profit writing agency, which was Eric's idea for writers to be in one place to do their writing. Sykes and Milligan were the first two writers to take space later with Tony Hancock, Johnny Speight, John Antrobus taking offices alongside with Dalek creator and Doctor Who writer Terry Nation plus with a friend of Alan Simpson, Beryl Vertue who eventually became the firm's business affair manager and agent being the in-house agent, by 1957 the co-operative had over thirty writers eventually moving to Baywater Road adjacent to Hyde Park. By 1967 impresario and producer Robert Stigwood brought a controlling interest in ALS, which Galton and Simpson agreed to but Sykes and Milligan did not. The reason that Galton and Simpson had agreed to it because at that time Stigwood was moving into film productions, so they sold their share to Stigwood but they sold their share in Orme Court where they were based to Eric and Spike, but Milligan sold his share to Sykes and meant that Sykes held onto the freehold until into the 21st century. Meanwhile Beryl Vertue went with Stigwood becoming Stigwood's Deputy in the group and that lead her to becoming a leading independent producer and also still working with Eric as well.

Sykes' most famous film with Tommy Cooper was The Plank, this silent film with two of comedy's masters involving the titular plank itself, was filmed in 1967 by Associated London Films, written and directed by Eric Sykes following the journey of two workmen who require a floorboard for a house they are building. This may seem easy enough, go to the timber yard and by the plank so it can be measured and cut to size. But its the return journey which is fraught with incident as the plank itself causes a whole heap of trouble for people who come across it. The actual plank itself from the film sold for over one thousand pounds at auction in December 2011, showing its place in British comedy as one of most key props. But what about the cast of the film itself? Cooper and Sykes were the two main stars, the supporting cast reads like a who's who of comedy, light entertainment and even acting for the next twenty years after it was made. Jimmy Edwards of Take It From Here and Whack-O! fame plays a police constable who has to deal with all the chaos left behind by the plank, Edwards was later to take a role in the next Sykes silent film project in 1969's Rhubarb.

From the world of comedy and entertainment come first of all from the Carry On world Hattie Jacques, Jim Dale and also Roy Castle. Jim Dale fresh like Jacques from the Carry Ons was already a big household name from those films as well as his time presenting Six-Five Special, Thank Your Lucky Stars and also as compère of Sunday Night at the London Palladium as well. Roy Castle had already found fame for his own BBC show during the mid 1960's and was to join the Carry On team during the next year for Carry On Up the Khyber. Plus with the additions of Bill Oddie, Jimmy Tarbuck and Kenny Lynch to name but three others who appeared in The Plank.

The set pieces owe a lot to the vaudeville style and also the silent films of early Hollywood, though it could be said that it had a lot of influence on the young Sykes seeing these films not only on his comedy career and the music hall/vaudeville as well. So routines which could have been seen on the stage were transferred on the screen by the comedians of the age and reused in different ways. Though the slapstick style can been seen in the Goodies body of work with Jim Franklin later to be their producer using the style with their writing, so it is interesting that Bill Oddie appeared in The Plank and also the similar style is seen in the Goodies' series as well.

But the 1960's saw the launch of Sykes and A... written in collaboration with Johnny Speight, the original idea was to have Eric living with a wife but Sykes saw the opportunity to changing it so he would have a sister as a housemate and giving greater scope for the scripts being written and allow them to have romantically interlinked with other characters, see the dynamic change and where it would lead the script in that way.

1969 saw the Rhubarb starring once again Eric Sykes and Jimmy Edwards starring again along with Jacques, Harry Secombe as a vicar with Graham Stark and Gordon Rollings, remarkably to later on to both play in a slapstick scene in Superman III. The origin of rhubarb come from radio dramas and productions, where extras in a crowd scene or a party scene would mutter the word over and over again to make it sound like people talking. But The Goons would use the phrase to make to sound there was more people in a scene then Peter Seller, Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe themselves though they would say it loudly and clearly with the occasional shout of “Custard!” to break the monotony of it. In Rhubarb, Eric Sykes as the Police Inspector and the Vicar played by Secombe play a round of golf, but the inspector uses one of his constables played by Jimmy Edwards to manipulate his ball from awkward lies but Secombe asks for devine intervention when it is needed to help his vicar character. Even all the signs, any of the number plates plus a baby holding a sign, they all had the word Rhubarb on them. Though
it is plausible that this project happened and included Harry Secombe in it, that Eric Sykes was friend and close collaborator of The Goons.

The actual silent comedy golden era in the 1920's and 1930's, which was prevalent before the age of 'talkies' made names of the stars such as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd to name three. Though the approach of producers such as Mack Sennett and Hal Roach, made sure that their stars were the ones who were making people laugh with 'sight gags', 'prat falls' and other types of slapstick. The timeless nature of the style has meant that even today, Shaun the Sheep can link itself back to these great days with it being a silent comedy relying on comedy and slapstick for its plots, Mr Bean is another one with no talking from its main character plus also some of Benny Hill's silent sketches as well. It is no wonder that the world of silent comedy exports around the world so well
and that film directors Blake Edwards and Mel Brooks revived the art of the silent comedy with The Great Race and Silent Movie respectively, the slapstick remains in the movies today, maybe in different forms and those forms have been pushed further but the idea remains.

In the 1972, the BBC had decided to revive Sykes and A... calling the new series Sykes again with Hattie Jacques, Eric himself, Richard Wattis and Derek Guyler as the irrepressible PC “Corky” Turnbull. But these episodes were re-working of scripts of the 1960's shows, forty-three episodes to be exact, a total of sixty-eight episodes were made between 1972 and 1979 including a reworking of the episode Sykes and a Stranger which had originally Leo McKern later played by Peter Seller in the 70s revival. The series ended in 1980 when the death of Hattie Jacques from a heart attack, made the series impossible to carry on.

Come the 1980's having remade The Plank for television again with Tommy Cooper in 1979, went back to remaking Rhubarb also for television in 1980 and with It's Your Move in 1982 a remake as well. The popularity of all the films being remade for television, showed that the art which was created and formed wholly, meant Sykes star was still shining brightly at this stage of his career with a further starring role in Mr H is Late in 1988, its safe to say that these films brought Eric Sykes to a whole new audience as well as comedians who appreciated his talent for writing and directing as well. Even in 1993 when writing and directing 'The Big Freeze' featuring Bob Hoskins and Spike Milligan in a tale of a father and son team of plumbers trying to their job in freezing temperatures at an old people's home in Finland.

Sykes did all that with being hard of hearing, so much that he had to wear specially designed glasses frames that fitted bone conducted hearing aids, that Eric could hear. Though his hearing had been going for a long time, after waking up from a second operation in 1954, he found himself hard of hearing plus his eyesight went over the years due to macular degeneration. But this was not a barrier to Sykes and his writing that he kept on doing it day after day and with Eric Sykes taking a voice-over part in the Tellytubbies. Come the new millennium, he was starring in a adaption of Meryvn Peake's Gormenghast which also had a part for Spike Milligan as well, though the were not on the screen together at any point but it was to mark the last time they would appear in anything together. But for the early part of the new century, it was film where Sykes' career would lay. In 2001, he starred alongside Nicole Kidman in supernatural thriller The Others as a servant and four years later he took the role as Frank Bryce in Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire. He fame spread with all ages with these film roles, plus with Sykes working with roles in Last of the Summer Wine and New Tricks in 2007 and an appearance in a Poirot story entitled Halloween Party.

For all his long career taking the great days of BBC Radio, television, the advent of Colour, through his films both written and directed plus others as well. His light maybe gone, but for all what Eric Sykes did, we will remember the man and the body of work he has left behind.

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