The first few chapters of most showbiz memoirs are generally pretty boring, but Sykes's recollection of his working-class childhood is one of the highlights of this gentle book; not just for the intimate portrait of life in Lancashire between the wars, but for the fresh light it sheds on one of our most cherished entertainers. Sykes was born in Oldham in 1923; his mother died giving birth to him, and he spent his first few years living with a local spinster: "My father couldn't take me with him to the cotton mill every morning, and crèches were unheard of in those days."
By the time he returned home, his father had remarried and had another child. As Sykes tells it, his was a happy family, but this hard beginning gave him a sense of separation that fed his humour. His mother's ghost glides like a guardian angel through this shrewd but softly spoken account.
Then as now, a string of dead-end jobs was the best apprenticeship for a comedian, and Sykes endured his fair share before Hitler intervened. As with a lot of working men with comic talent, the war was his salvation. He joined the RAF, where he met Denis Norden, writer of his first Forces revue. Back in civvy street, he drifted into weekly rep, and ended up writing for Frankie Howerd, Norman Wisdom, Harry Secombe and Max Bygraves. By the time he turned 40, he had already won a lifetime-achievement award, but he was middle-aged before he became a household name.
There's a penetrating mind at work behind this unassuming alter ego, and the throwaway tales that he tells about stars such as Spike Milligan, Tommy Cooper and Tony Hancock are far more perceptive than all the namedropping yarns in most theatrical potboilers. However, it's the quirky details of his early years that really linger. Did you know that a knocker-up was a man with a long stick who would tap on your bedroom window every morning, in the days when some people couldn't afford alarm clocks? Until I read this charming memoir, neither did I.
William Cook edited 'Eric Morecambe Unseen', published by HarperCollinsReuse content