Tributes pour in for 'comedy great' Eric Sykes, who has died aged 89


“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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Recruitment Genius: Project Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This privately-owned company designs and manuf...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources Officer

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen at th...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager - London - £40,000 + Bonus

£36000 - £40000 per annum + Bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own