Comedy writer and actor who starred in 70s sitcom Sykes and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire has died after a short illness
From writing a film where the only word uttered is “rhubarb” to creating one of TV’s most popular sitcom partnerships, Eric Sykes – who died on Wednesday aged 89 – will be remembered as one of Britain’s finest comedy actors and writers.
Tributes came in thick and fast for a man who was seldom off radios, stages or screens in a career spanning 60 years that will spark different memories for different generations.
Some will know him best for writing and directing the silly slapstick film The Plank while others will remember his sitcom partnership with Hattie Jacques, who played his perpetually exasperated sister.
More recently, in the face of near total deafness and blindness, Sykes appeared in the fourth Harry Potter film and, in 2007, the British comedy Son of Rambow. Even younger viewers will know him as a voice on Teletubbies.
Ken Dodd said Sykes was loved by everyone. “He was a genius at creating comedy: he found laughter in anything. More than anything else, he loved everybody and everybody loved him.
“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.”
Sir Bruce Forsyth called him “one of the greats of comedy in this country”. He added: “He was just one of the funniest men ever in comedy. We used to play golf together with Sean Connery. We were a great golfing fraternity. He used to love smoking cigars on the golf course. I’d spike his cigar with my shoes … That’s a loving memory I have of his face when I did that. It was very expressive. He was very lovely, very gentle and not a loudmouth. He was a very clever writer. His scripts were amazing.”
There were numerous fond tweets from a younger generation of performers. Mark Gatiss tweeted: “The wonderful Eric Sykes has left us. A giant of comedy and a gentleman – funny to his very core. RIP.”
Katy Brand wrote: “Eric Sykes goes just as the God particle is found – coincidence? I don’t think so. RIP Eric.”
And Stephen Fry tweeted: “Oh no! Eric Sykes gone? An adorable, brilliant, modest, hilarious, innovative and irreplaceable comic master. Farewell dear, dear man.”
In a long career, Sykes worked with just about everyone in comedy and light entertainment.
Michael Palin said: “He was one of the nicest, most decent men in the business and one of a kind. No one else could do what he could do. To me, he was a great inspiration, both as a writer and performer.”
His films The Plank (1967, remade in 1979) and Rhubarb (1969, remade in 1980) are classics, starring a gamut of comedy stars including Tommy Cooper and Jimmy Edwards.
The actor Bernard Cribbins, who was in the second version of The Plank, said: “He will be very sadly missed. I just wish him a lot of rest up there with all the other comics, Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe. They will all be up there, having a laugh together.”
The comedy writer Eddie Braben said: “Any funny line that I write from now on will be dedicated to his memory as a thankyou … we were great friends.”
He added: “Like Spike Milligan and PG Wodehouse, he was a great British man of comedy. He had a very quirky sense of humour.
“He had a way with his body – he was the only man I ever knew who could do a double take with his feet. Others could do it with their eyes or head – he could do it with his feet.”
Oldham-born Sykes, like many performers of his generation, was introduced to the world of showbusiness through friends he made while serving during the second world war.
After the war, he became one of the most in-demand radio comedy writers, providing scripts for programmes such as Educating Archie, Variety Bandbox and The Goon Show.
He first appeared with Jacques in “Sykes and a …” in the early 60s and by the 70s it had become simply Sykes, one of the most popular sitcoms on TV.
His film appearances were numerous, whether as the bullied servant of Terry-Thomas in Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines and Monte Carlo or Bust; or with Nicole Kidman in Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others.
After TV began to fall out of love with Sykes, he began to take on more theatre work such as the Ray Cooney farce Caught in the Net, or more classical roles in As You Like It and Three Sisters. He also wrote two novels and a 2005 memoir that reflected his self-deprecating nature: If I Don’t Write It, Nobody Else Will.
Sykes’s manager, Norma Farnes, said he died peacefully. “His family were with him,” she said.