5 Jul 2012

Comedian Eric Sykes dies

6:06 am on 5 July 2012

British comic actor and writer Eric Sykes, star of radio, television, stage and film, has died.

In a career spanning more than 50 years, Sykes was a regular collaborator on the popular 1950s radio comedy programme The Goon Show and became a leading star after appearing in several hit television series.

Sykes was born in Oldham, northern England, in 1923, and was introduced to show business while serving as a wireless operator in the Royal Air Force.

A chance meeting with wartime friend and actor Bill Fraser in 1940s London led to a breakthrough in comedy writing and his collaboration with comedian Frankie Howerd on the successful radio show Variety Bandbox.

Further radio work followed for Sykes, including the groundbreaking 1950s programme The Goon Show - partly to ease the workload of its co-creator Spike Milligan.

His early television projects included The Howerd Crowd and The Tony Hancock Show, but his big breakthrough came in 1960 with the launch of Sykes and a... in which he starred alongside Hatti Jacques in a brother-sister act that struck a chord with viewers and attracted huge TV audiences.

Sykes took on a variety of supporting roles in feature films including Heavens Above! (1963), Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines (1965) and The Spy With A Cold Nose (1966).

But he is best remembered by many for a virtually dialogue-free film called The Plank (1967) in which he and Tommy Cooper appeared as two workmen delivering planks to a building site.

Two years later he starred alongside Milligan in Curry and Chips, a controversial sitcom that was criticised for being racist and taken off the air after only six episodes.

Co-creator Johnny Speight defended the series, saying it was specifically designed to highlight discrimination in society.

Sykes' television career subsequently faded, but he was still appearing on the stage well into his 70s, including in Alan Bennett's Kafka's Dick.

His enduring success was all the more remarkable because he was almost totally deaf since his early 30s and blind from the early 1990s.

He is widely credited with introducing an offbeat tone to mainstream British comedy.

His manager told the Reuters new agency he died after a short illness. He was 89.