THE LIKES OF SYKES - Three Classic ITV Shows / DVD Review

Eric Sykes is, of course, a comedy legend. In a career spanning more than 50 years he has written for, and performed with, the greats of British comedy, acted in a wide variety of film and television productions - comedy and drama - and won numerous awards and accolades.

He came to preeminence in the 1950s after being invited to write for Bill Fraser, Frankie Howerd and then contributing to the radio series Educating Archie. It was here that he first met Hattie Jacques who would become an enduring comedy performer in numerous radio and television series with Eric.

In the mid-1950s he was writing with Spike Milligan on The Goon Show and by the end of the decade he had formed Associated London Scripts, a non-profit, co-operative writers' agency, in partnership with Milligan, Howerd and Galton and Simpson. The agency worked with Tony Hancock, Johnny Speight, Terry Nation and John Antrobus and became a successful creative hub for the some of the major names in comedy performing and writing.

By the 1960s, he and Hattie were co-starring in the original black and white run of the BBC sit-com Sykes and A...where Eric essentially played an extension of the blundering, feckless bachelor character he had created for stage and stand-up and Hattie played his long-suffering sister. The series also introduced the now classic Sykes line-up of Deryck Guyler as local constable Wilfred "Corky" Turnbull and Richard Wattis as their snobbish, busybody neighbour Charles Brown.

Open publication - Free publishing - More sykes  
Radio Times February 1971: Cover and articles, including interviews with Eric and Hattie, on 'Sykes and a Big, Big Show'

This series also featured the first version of his 'silent' slapstick piece The Plank in the 1964 episode Sykes and a Plank which he would later remake in 1967 as a short film with Tommy Cooper and once again in 1979 for Thames Television with Arthur Lowe, standing in for Cooper, and leading a star-studded cast of comedy actors, light entertainment stars and celebrities of the time.
... Eric played with the conventions of television itself 
The Sykes and A... series ran for nine series between 1960 and 1965 and the partnership between Eric and Hattie was so successful that it would be revived in the later sit-com/musical experiment of Sykes and a Big, Big Show in 1971 and in the classic Sykes sit-com that ran from 1972 to 1979, only coming to a close due to the untimely death of Jacques in 1980.

What marks out the appeal of Eric's humour and the success of the BBC sit-coms with Hattie is a sense of the absurd. In the sit-coms, everyday problems were turned on their head and often Eric played with the conventions of television itself, turning the situations inside-out to knowingly surreal, very postmodern effect. The characters were aware that they were in fact in a television show, the audience were equally complicit in the fact that they were participating in a show and Eric would introduce some stunningly left-field concepts as he developed this meta-textual sensibility and the series is littered with dream sequences, visual gags and farce that would constantly disrupt the fourth wall of television.

By the early 1970s, Oldham-born Sykes had become one of TV’s best-loved comedy performers. Following the phenomenal success of the Sykes series he spread his wings in a number of one-off shows and films and between Sykes and a Big, Big Show and the subsequent revival of Sykes he worked with Thames on the special Sykes - With the Lid Off. This and two further specials, made after Sykes had concluded on the BBC, The Likes of Sykes and The Eric Sykes 1990 Show, are now available on DVD from Network.

It's clear that Eric is keen on deconstructing television and uses his surreal humour to point out how absurd the making of television programmes is. Each of the specials follows this formula, using his humour to comment on and reduce mass entertainment to its constituent and rather shabby elements, ridiculing the notions of celebrity, making a farce out of the commissioning and producing of such entertainments. He's in his element here and you get the impression that no matter how rough around the edges this is, with much humour arising out of getting a number of jokes wrong, it's all timed and scripted to perfection in just the same way he wrote all the stand-up for Howerd and included all the 'oh, no, missus' and  the 'yes, no, well' stuff in between the gags.
... the audience are all part of this absurdist proposal
The classic Eric and Hat partnership of Sykes is seen at its best in the first of the specials Sykes - With the Lid Off, made in 1971.

Here, Eric is warm-up man, actor, writer and floor manager attempting to get a television show made. It's a ramshackle production -  and Eric knows this and lets the audience in on it - and the television show, the studio, the cameras and the audience are all part of this absurdist proposal. The 'joke bell' opener is an homage to the warm-up man used to prepare the audience for studio recording and the studio practice of requiring an audience to laugh or applause on cue. You can even hear the floor manager in the background telling Eric he has four minutes to finish the introduction.

Eric and Hat attempting to stage 'I Remember It Well' from Gigi is probably the highlight here. There is great misdirection with guest Leslie Noyes and Eric blocking the camera's view of Hat with Philip Gilbert then stepping in as a floor manager having to stop the number much to Hat's consternation. Later, we get a witty send-up of Rolf Harris, the hilarious filming of a beer commercial (a theme he would cover again in the Sykes series) with Eric slowly getting drunk as all sorts of disasters plague the filming, and rather like that other cherished Eric, he also indulges in some misguided musical numbers.
... subverts the audience's sense of expectation
It concludes with Philip Gilbert camping it up as the director of a horror film where Eric plays the vampire and continually mucks it up and followed with a piece of slapstick where two children (Eric and Hat) cause mayhem as they attempt to steal a cake from the top shelf of a kitchen cupboard. This again illustrates Sykes's penchant for visual humour and he also cleverly subverts the audience's sense of expectation.

Definitely the best of three specials simply because the chemistry between Sykes and Jacques is so perfect and it feels very similar to the set-up attempted in Sykes and a Big, Big Show also from 1971. 

The Likes of Sykes from 1981 and the The Eric Sykes 1990 Show from 1982 are less successful as a whole but have their moments. Both follow much the same formula, using a Greek Chorus in the form of a stage door manager commenting on the proceedings and further satire from Eric on the making of television/theatre productions interspersed with musical numbers. In the former there is a running joke using character actor Hugh Burden who appears hilariously miscast in an opening musical number and then in the closing sketch about Napoleon's retreat from Moscow.

There is some rather knowing material about union demarcation, often the bane of television productions in the late 1970s and the cause of intermittent strikes, where John Comer appears as a set constructor/scene shifter upbraiding Sykes for daring to move bits of the set. The best stuff is probably the Flamenco number, the homage to Brief Encounter featuring Burden and Diana Coupland ('it's going very well from the front' Sykes reassures Burden) and the snow-bound Moscow sketch where the hierarchies of responsibility and technical calamities of television production are brilliantly mocked.
... satirical and farcical elements that seek to debunk the way these shows are made
The final of the three specials sees Eric predicting that, by 1990, celebrities will have to pay for their own TV shows. Again, it features various satirical and farcical elements that seek to debunk the way these shows are made, the people that make them and those that star in them. Celebrities who can't afford their own shows get what they deserve - penny-pinched productions where sets fall apart, parts of it are in black and white (you have to ask and pay extra specifically for colour) and wardrobe mistress Dandy Nichols gives Tommy Cooper an old costume from a ten year-old show about Edward VIII. 'He abdicated in that,' she states proudly. 'You've had it cleaned since, then?' asks Cooper.

The surrealism is to the fore here with Chic Murray cross dressing as the channel's producer, Eric finding his guitar duet with John Williams results in him emptying his guitar of flowers, a string of sausages and him pulling the shirt off his own back.

The final sketch, set on a WW2 warship, is highly reminiscent of similar sketches previously featured in The Morcambe & Wise Show (the opening show of the 1973 series with Cliff Richard) and The Stanley Baxter Picture Show.

It shares much of the same humour, leaving you with a sense that perhaps you've seen much of this before even though the sequence bizarrely features Chic Murray appearing as an Indian squaw on the bridge of the warship and Eric and Tommy deciding to do a musical number with their piano succumbing to enemy gunfire, exploding as shells hit it, as they valiantly sing on through clouds of smoke.

Any DVD release featuring the work of Eric Sykes is welcome and while the last two specials on here are perhaps not as charming or as effective as Sykes - With the Lid Off there is enough visual absurdity and cleverness here to mark much of the material out as somewhat ahead of its time. The humour, often gentle and tongue-in-cheek, is subtly subversive even though by the late 1980s and early 1990s Sykes was seen as anything but and was considered old fashioned by many executives in television. Definitely one for Sykes fans.

Now, if we could only get Sykes and a Big, Big Show and the rest of Sykes released...

The Likes of Sykes
Sykes With the Lid Off - 1971 / The Likes of Sykes - 1981 / The Eric Sykes 1990 Show - 1982
Released 24 January 2010 / Network / 7953405 / Region 2 / Cert PG / 150 mins / 4:3

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