“Comedy great” Eric Sykes, whose entertainment career spanned half a century from The Goon Show to Harry Potter, has died at the age of 89.
Sykes, who worked with comedians including Frankie Howerd, Hattie Jacques and Peter Sellers and inspired subsequent generations, today died peacefully after a short illness, his manager Norma Farnes said.
Tributes poured in today. Sir Bruce Forsyth called him “one of the greats of comedy in this country” adding: “He was very lovely, very gentle and not a loud-mouth. He was a very clever writer."
Sykes, who won scores of British fans for the gentle humour of scripts for radio and his work as a performer. He was also a novelist, director and producer.
Comedian Ken Dodd said: "He was a genius at creating comedy, he found laughter in anything,” and continued: "He worked with the great stars but never got big-headed. He was brave and courageous, wanting to work despite the difficulty with his hearing and sight."
He was still performing on the West End well into his 80s, despite near blindness and being almost totally deaf. His last appearance on TV was in a Poirot drama in 2007, and he appeared on the big screen in 2007’s Son of Rambow. That came two years after a role in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
Stephen Fry today described him as an “adorable, brilliant, modest, hilarious, innovative and irreplaceable comic master.” Mark Gatiss, who co-wrote and starred in The League of Gentlemen, said Sykes was “a giant of comedy and a gentleman – funny to his very core”.
Sykes described his comedy in an interview as “very visual” and went on to say: “One good visual gag is worth a page of dialogue, but you cannot learn how to do it, it's a natural gift - they don't teach it at Rada.”
Born in Oldham, he left school at 14 to work in a greengrocer. He served as a wireless operator for the Royal Air Force from 1941 until the end of the war, and was introduced to entertainment during his years in the service.
After a week spent cold, hungry and penniless in the capital, a chance meeting with comic actor Bill Fraser, who he had known in the RAF, turned Sykes’ fortunes around.
He wrote comedy scripts for Fraser, who was performing at the Playhouse Theatre, as well as other comedians initially on the radio, before moving to TV.
The demand for his scripts led him to work with Howerd on shows including Nuts in May and The Frankie Howerd Show. His first appearance on screen was around the same time in 1954 movie Orders Are Orders, with Sid James, Tony Hancock and Sellers.
During the period, he landed the job of co-wroting The Goon Show with Spike Milligan, working on a total of 24 episodes.
Other significant projects included The Plank in 1967, a silent film he wrote, directed and starred in alongside Tommy Cooper. He also appeared in Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines with James Fox in 1965 and Monte Carlo or Bust four years later with Peter Cook and Tony Curtis.
The comedian is remembered particularly fondly for Sykes And A… television series with Jacques, a long-term collaborator, which ran between 1960 and 1965, and then from 1972 to 1979.
As well as a series of eponymous television shows, his diverse career involved playing the Mad Hatter in a 1985 television adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, a voice on the Teletubbies and opposite Nicole Kidman in the 2001 chiller The Others.
He performed in the West End throughout his career, including Caught In The Net, despite his increasing blindness. He married Edith Eleanore Milbrandt in 1952, and they had one son and three daughters.