Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Eric Sykes 1923-2012

A few years ago, I heard of a successful young stand-up comedian who had become baffled when conversation turned to great figures in the British comedic tradition. Who, they asked, was Eric Sykes? For someone who grew up with the television of the 1970s, this response revealed how time and changes in fashion had pushed Sykes to the margins of public consciousness during the 1980s and after. The confused early press reports of his death refer to his deafness of 'later life' - in reality, most of his life was spent profoundly deaf - and emphasise his role in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, as if this is all a readership would be able to remember. Indeed, in later years Sykes was known for materialising in unexpected places, whether as one of the mysterious new servants in The Others, or as a solicitor in an episode of Agatha Christie's Poirot. Part of his power in his later career was talismanic, a figure from an earlier and perhaps more straightforward time whose appearances authenticated the works of a later entertainment age. The combination of evident strength of character and physical frailty was startling, as if performance alone kept Eric Sykes alive.

This wasn't the case. A BBC television documentary several years ago depicted Eric Sykes on the golf course and poring over documents with the help of magnification and computer screens, guarding his business interests carefully but avuncularly with the help of the formidable Norma Farnes, in what was still then 'The Office of Spike Milligan and Eric Sykes' in Orme Place on the borders of Bayswater and Notting Hill in west London. This was one of the fragments of the old Associated London Scripts, and with Eric Sykes's death another link to the heyday of that creative collective and agency has gone.

I'm too young to have seen Sykes and a..., but I watched its successor Sykes as a child, and recognised something funny in it even if I couldn't quite say what it was at the time. I've seen very little of it since, but in my mind the humour of Sykes had an openness of possibility to it, the consequences of Eric's ideas could be imagined playing out in wider society even if we didn't see them do so. There's also a determined ordinariness to the setting of Sykes; aspiration tends to be personal and while not without material objectives, these are often couched in terms which have more to do with inner personal obession and self-assurance of identity than wealth. There's a recognition that most people make their way through common frustrations. Eric and sister Hattie dwell in a sort of claustrophobic contentment, where everyday privations are reassurance that one still exists. Sykes is idiosyncratic, but it's for that reason it has something to say about a post-war suburban Britain of moderate incomes and ill-articulated expectations.