The late Eric Sykes went from comedy to more serious roles as his movie career progressed – and there are many highlights to salute.
Eric Sykes is a name synonymous with slapstick. From 1967 to 1993, Sykes wrote and directed ten films of varying lengths which showcased his superb eye for physical comedy. Five of the films are remakes of the earlier versions in order to make use of colour film and updated casts.
And what casts. Sykes had a nose for talent and these films contain some of the greatest comic actors ever assembled.
Sykes started his career in radio, writing for the likes of Frankie Howerd and ventriloquist Peter Brough in Educating Archie. He soon moved into television, creating an office space for writers that became known as Associated London Scripts, which he co-owned with Spike Milligan. The company played host to luminaries Galton and Simpson, Johnny Speight and Dalek creator and regular Hancock writer Terry Nation.
By the early 1960s, Sykes was beginning to have hearing problems, something which inspired him to create a film without dialogue. Ironically, given Sykes’ reputation as a writer, no script was every written for any of his short films. As he says in his autobiography If I Don’t Write It, Nobody Else Will “I didn’t deliberately decide not to put a word on paper. The truth is I couldn’t. How does one write a script without words?”.
The Plank originated as a vehicle for Sykes and Peter Sellers. Sellers loved the idea and desperately wanted to play the other workman. His involvement lent a cachet that allowed Sykes to raise funding for the film. Unfortunately, Sellers was offered the lead role in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, which would be a platform for him play multiple characters. This left Sykes in a lurch, but thankfully Tommy Cooper leapt at the chance to be in a role that only required a single costume and no lines to learn.
Sykes wrote the script with the camera, as it were, working with the actors to choreograph the slapstick set pieces. For the original version of The Plank, Sykes recruited many of the actors with whom he already had relationships, like Hattie Jacques, with whom he shared a comic partnership for many years in his self-penned sitcom Sykes.
Other actors included the magnificently moustachioed character actor Jimmy Edwards as a bungling bobby on the beat, a role he would reprise in almost every Sykes film that followed. Because most of the roles were essentially cameos, showing up for a bit of comic business then moving on, Sykes was able to recruit the highest calibre of comedy stars of the day. To list them all would take me well over the wordcount, but amongst them are Roy Castle, John Junkin, a prolific writer for the likes of Bob Monkhouse and impressionist Mike Yarwood, Carry On actor Jim Dale and Goodies star Bill Oddie.
The stage is set right from the opening credits, as the titular plank, which gets top billing, taunts Sykes before whacking a drink into his face. Of course, physical comedy described in an article is never going to be anywhere near as funny as going to watch it. At the time of writing, both versions of The Plank are available on YouTube.
The plot of The Plank is very simple. Sykes and Cooper are workmen finishing a home renovation. They have all but finished, except for a gap in the floor. So off they go and before they know it, the pesky plank is causing calamity everywhere they go.
Sykes cites Laurel and Hardy as a major influence, and it is clear to see, both is the filming, where there is lots of wide shots, holding on the gag, and in the relationship between Sykes and Cooper. Sykes takes the straight role while Cooper is the comic relief. They are a superb comic contrast, Sykes’ wiry frame against Cooper’s huge, lumbering gait.
In the tradition of the great silent comedies, there’s always an internal logic to the chaos. For example, a running gag sees Sykes’ car door slam, causing the opposite one to spring open. This escalates throughout the film, as the bonnet, then the boot, follow suit. It is this attention to detail that secured The Plank’s seminal status. Sir Peter Hall, former director of the National Theatre, once described “the sheer poetry of his physical comedy is extraordinary”, an apt description, for Sykes is as painstakingly precise in constructing his slapstick sequences as he is a page of dialogue.
Take Roy Castle’s introduction in The Plank. Carrying a pile of boxes, the car door springs open just as he reaches it, causing him to smash into it and drop the boxes. As he picks them up, Tommy Cooper slams the other door, causing the original door to spring open again, this time knocking him face first into the road. As he climbs into the back of the lorry in front and sits down, the angle means that we are as surprised as Castle when the lorry drives off, leaving him suspended in mid-air – he is, of course, sat on the plank, which is tied to the top of Sykes’ car, which proceeds to drive off with his clutching onto the end.
It’s easy to see why Sykes insisted on refusing to write a script. Written down it would be easy to imagine these scenes being trite or forced, but Sykes and his parade of performers have such synchronicity of vision, as well as extensive experience of everything from vaudeville, pantomime and everything in between, these scenes showcase dazzling displays of comic chemistry and timing.
Another huge influence on Sykes was French comic Jacques Tati, in particular his character of Monsieur Hulot. In an interview for The South Bank Show, Sykes revealed that, in later life, he and Tati met. Tati was complimentary, particularly of The Plank, even going so far as to say that he was known as “the Eric Sykes of France”, to which Sykes retorted “well nobody’s ever called me Jacques!”.
Compared side by side, the similarities are clear to see. The way Tati chooses to hold his shots, letting the comedy build as the situation escalates meaning that the audience can focus on the smallest gesture, which of course leads to bigger and bigger laughs.
In a Heroes Of Comedy programme, Sykes described how he once asked a comedy commissioner to explain, in simple terms, what comedy is. The commissioner replied that “you show you audience what you’re going to do, i.e., a shot of a banana skin, a fat man walking towards it and then he slips”. After a beat, Sykes responded “That’s not comedy, that’s cruelty. To use your analogy, I’d show the banana skin and a fat man walking towards it. He gets to it, stops, and whips it into the street with his cane. Then, he turns around and smacks straight into a wall”. Sykes’ point being that comedy comes not from the familiar, but from the unexpected.
While none of Sykes’ other films have quite the same seminal status as The Plank, they are no less painstakingly produced. His penultimate film produced in 1987, Mr H Is Late, has an even larger ensemble, focussing as it does on a group of undertakers attempting to collect and deliver the body of the eponymous Mr H, a task made infinitely more difficult due to its location – the top of a tall tower block. Leaning even more heavily on his love of Laurel and Hardy, particularly their iconic short The Music Box, Sykes also proved that he didn’t just rely on his stable of star turns, but he embraced contemporary comics of the time, such as Freddie Starr and Cannon and Ball, who appear alongside veteran comedy actors like Charlie Drake and Spike Milligan.
The coalescence of comedy styles is seamless and proves that Sykes was adept at writing to the strengths of any comic actor.
Another of his films, Rhubarb, Rhubarb, is notable for containing only one word of dialogue – rhubarb. The gag is a play on the famous legend that extras in film and television use the word to simulate chat and general hubbub in the background of scenes.
Sykes drifted away from comedy films in the latter stage of his career. Like many comics before him such as Ken Dodd and Ronnie Barker, he tried his hand at Shakespeare onstage and took on more serious roles, starring opposite Nicole Kidman in Alejandro Amenábar’s 2001 psychological thriller The Others. In 2004 he played Frank Bryce in Harry Potter & The Goblet of Fire. His final film role was another Frank, this time in the wonderful Son Of Rambow in 2007.
His legacy, though, will always be one of laughter. With his films being almost completely silent, they are enjoyed all over the world. Just as children still laugh at Laurel and Hardy, the slapstick shenanigans of Sykes and his comic comrades are an example of the apex of the artform. Because of the lack of dialogue or contemporary references, bar perhaps the production design, there is a timelessness to them which means they will be enjoyed for generations to come.
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