COMEDIAN, actor and writer Eric Sykes died today after a short illness. He was 89.
I last met him in the summer of 2005 ahead of the autumn broadcast of an ITV1 South Bank Show profile.
That interview appeared in the the Manchester Evening News a month or so later – and is online below.
Rest in peace Eric. A true legend.
ERIC Sykes loosens his tie on a warm day in Soho. At 82, the comedy legend and national treasure has just one ambition left.
“To die peacefully,” he smiles. “I think that’s all one can ask for. I’m only grateful that I’ve been able to last the course. And I’m still working.
“So if an offer comes through tomorrow – as long as it’s not on a trapeze – I shall be happy to accept it. But I don’t think I’ve got any other ambitions left.”
Oldham-born Eric is one of the last survivors of a golden generation of comedians. His career started in the 1940s when he began writing for Frankie Howerd in the hit comedy radio show Variety Band Box.
He went on to write for almost every top post-war comedian from Tony Hancock to Peter Sellers and co-wrote some of The Goons with lifelong friend Spike Milligan.
Eric later became one of the nation’s best loved performers, particularly in the classic BBC TV sitcom Sykes, with Hattie Jacques, the Dawn French of her day. It was a huge success, running for 20 years until Hattie’s death in 1980. “We never had a cross word. She was a real life and soul of the party. And I wasn’t. I’m a bit of a recluse.”
Although you can buy a DVD of the first colour series of Sykes, Eric thinks it deserves a wider audience. “What does bother me a little bit is the fact it’s not shown on BBC1 or BBC2, like other series, because, personally, I would like people to see what happy days we had in olden times.
“I don’t know why they’re not shown. But I do know that at the time I was doing them, the Head of Light Entertainment couldn’t understand what was the secret. And as there’s no formula for comedy, I’m not surprised.
“All I want to do is to make people laugh. There’s no angle to it. It’s the same philosophy that Laurel and Hardy had, and they were my role models. We were sent to entertain. We are meant to make people forget the worries of life for half an hour.”
Virtually deaf and registered blind, Eric is honoured with a special profile in next Sunday’s edition of ITV1’s The South Bank Show, which bills him as the last great British vaudevillian. Presenter Melvyn Bragg laughed so much, he had trouble getting through an interview filmed at the London Palladium.
He may need audio-enhanced black spectacles to help him hear, but Eric is still on top form as he talks to the M.E.N. After a 60-year career, he shows no sign of retiring.
In recent years he performed his first Shakespearean role, directed by Sir Peter Hall, and appeared in The Others with Nicole Kidman. Later this year he’ll be seen in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, playing gardener Frank Bryce.
“I learned so much on The Others and Harry Potter than I think I have in my whole career in films. There were one or two comments on Harry Potter that I was the best person they’d ever seen die. And I said it wasn’t the first time I’d died on stage.
“It was so enjoyable. I thought it was all going to be shot in half a day and it went on for a couple of weeks. They kept adding little bits until it’s my scene coming down the stairs, and that’s the opening of the picture.
“They wanted him to be so well known so that when he dies after the first five minutes, all the audience would go, ‘Ahhh’.”
Although he can no longer watch television, Eric still keeps up with the latest generation of comedy performers. “The only difference about modern day is that, now, it is mandatory for everyone in the country to have a sense of humour. Even on the broadcasting side, if you’re reading the news or you’re forecasting the weather, they always have to finish with, or put a witty remark in the middle of it.
“If they don’t have laughter in the studio, they feel they’re not successful. But why? Being a doctor or violinist isn’t mandatory. But to purvey humour seems to be what everybody can do. And that’s the trouble. There’s so many people now being humorists, that poor professionals have really got to be brilliant.”
Eric’s autobiography – If I Don’t Write It, Nobody Else Will – is published next month. “It’s taken me nearly two years to write and 50 years off my life. My manager Norma was trying to get me to write it for at least 10 years and being the reclusive person I am, I wanted people to judge me for what they saw on the television, on the films or on the stage. And what I did apart from that was my own affair. So to write my autobiography was, to me, an anathema.”
He changed his mind after the death of Spike Milligan. Eric read an article by his friend’s “biographer” – a man Spike had never met. “It was a scurrilous attack. It was the dark side of Spike. And Norma said to me, ‘Do you want that to happen to you when you’re dead?’ And I said, no.”
The book includes fond memories of working on stage with Jimmy Edwards at Manchester’s Palace Theatre – “ignoring the play” – when mounted police had to hold back crowds wanting to see the duo.
Now silver-haired, Eric’s sense of comic timing has rarely let him down. But he does have one regret. “I didn’t meet Laurel and Hardy,” he reflects. “I was in a hotel in San Fransisco and the manager came to me and said, ‘Stan Laurel lives just two blocks away from here. Why don’t you go and say hello?’ And I hadn’t got the courage to go. If only I could have done.
“My philosophy is the same as theirs. They weren’t there to make any political points or to be clever. They were there just to make people laugh.”