ARTYFACTS: Day 6 – Eric Sykes

Friday, May 12, 2006

Day 6 – Eric Sykes

This was one of the earliest sell-outs of the festival. I now know why. Sykes, at 83, took off like a bullet. Simon Fanshawe, who knows how to tell a tale or two, was left in his wake, as Sykes reeled of anecdote after anecdote. However, it was the ad-libs and interaction with the audience that were warm and wonderful. Sykes exudes a sort of worldly wisdom with his humour, and talks fondly of the stars, now gone, with whom he worked; Hattie Jakes, Frankie Howard, Spike Milligan, Tommy Cooper. The mere mention of their names makes you smile.

Applause for being 83 was greeted with "they never applauded when I was 82". He started with some tales about how he got into showbusiness in the Army. When they asked if anyone had theatre experience he said "Yes - I had been to the theatre twice". When asked about his experience he claimed he was a famous northern comic Rick Small.

There was a touching moment when he told us that his mother had died during his birth, but that she had been a living presence throughout his life. He often felt this physically.

Of Spike Milligan he described how they had to cross a wide and busy road to get to lunch every day in Shepherd's Bush, and how they would take turns in pretending to limp and help each other across the road. Hatti Jakes was his soulmate, a trained ballet dancer, she would end her act with the splits. Sykes spotted her and cast her as his sister. There were some real insights into the process of comedy writing and how careful the selection of characters and context had to be if the writer(s) were to maintain momentum across a long series, but he was damning when it came to the BBC. He thought them crude and unsophisticated.

Simon Fanshawe was perfect. He saw what was happening and just tickled Sykes along, repeating the audience's questions to the now deaf Sykes, and on one fine moment supplying a surname that Sykes was struggling to remember, with comic timing.

Good old days? Perhaps.
"What did you think of your role in Harry Potter? Very short. I got killed off early - and so did my agent". He answered every question from his fans with funny but always pertinent stories. At 83 he had leant a thing or two and what stuck you afterwards was the simple honesty of the man. He played for laughs, but beneath it all was a deep understanding of comedy and comic writing. It was a masterclass.

Then the predictable, "What do you think of today's comedy writers?" Some older members of the audience were baying for blood and this is where it got a little odd. Sykes started off being gracious, claiming that he was now to old to judge, then proceeded to condemn them all. His argument was that the older comics and comic actors were the same on and off stage - wonderful characters. True, but so is Ricky Gervais, Eddie Izzard and Billy Connelly. Even if they weren't, that's what acting is - being in character. Charlie Chaplin didn't troop around tripping up over every kerbstone.

I did feel like pointing out some of the downsides of this much admired Vaudeville tradition. Try watching re-runs on UK Gold - it wasn't all funny. It also, arguably, perpetuated racist views in the UK. Remember that the BBC were still airing The Black and White Minstrel Show as late as 1978, and Sykes appeared in a Speight written comedy called 'Curry and Chips' featuring a blacked-up Spike Milligan as an Irish Pakistani. I would have got lynched if I had asked a question on this subject. But this was not an evening for debate.

Not so much a performance as a privilege. Those who grew up with Sykes remember his wonderful expressions and asides. His character hangs around fondly in your memory. A naturally funny man, he transported us all into an hour of so of blissful memories while making us all laugh like ten year olds. The standing ovation was really heart-felt. Truly, truly wonderful.

5 stars


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