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'Monumental man of comedy' Eric Sykes dies, aged 89

Sykes received a CBE from the Queen at Buckingham Palace in 2005. Photo: ANDREW PARSONS/PA Archive/Press Association Images

Eric Sykes, one of the most endearing and popular comic actors of his generation, has died today after a short illness, aged 89.

He was still appearing on the West End stage into his 80s, even though he became almost totally deaf and nearly blind.

But he was much more than an actor. He was also a hugely successful comedy scriptwriter of enormous talent, energy and imagination, a novelist, a film director and a producer.

Whenever he was asked when he was going to retire from work, he invariably replied that he enjoyed doing what he did so much that he did not regard it as work at all.

Sykes is probably remembered best for the long-running and widely acclaimed Sykes And A... TV series with Hattie Jacques.

Comedy writer Eddie Braben said Sykes:

Was a monumental man of comedy, an inspirational figure for those who aimed for comedy success and a fine hero of comedy. He leaves an enormous gap in the field of fun. His was the comedy of innocence. He didn't raise any bruises, only laughter.

Footage from 'The Best of Eric Sykes' and courtesy of BBC Worldwide Ltd 2005.

It attracted huge audiences in its nine series - involving well over 125 shows - between 1960 and 1965, and then from 1972 to 1979. The episodes have been repeated scores of times since.

Sykes wrote the scripts for the show in conjunction with Johnny Speight, the man who created Alf Garnett.

The cast of Sykes' first film "The Plank" starring Tommy Cooper and actresses Anna Carteret (left) and Clovissa Newcombe. Credit: PA/PA Archive/Press Association Images

In his heyday, he was also writing scripts for stars including Peter Sellers, Frankie Howerd and Stanley Unwin.

His humour was always gentle and warm-hearted. He invariably steered away from smut and had little to say in favour of the modern "alternative" comedians, whose bawdy repertoire entirely failed to appeal to him.

Eric Sykes was born in Oldham on May 4 1923. He served as a wireless operator in the Mobile Signals Unit, Royal Air Force, from 1941 until after the end of the First World War. Like many comics of his generation, he was introduced to showbusiness during his wartime service.

On demob, he tried to forge a career in comedy, but found very little work. Luckily he met Flight Lieutenant Bill Fraser, a friend from his RAF days, who was enjoying some success on the London stage.

Sykes with Spike Milligan (far right) in 1963. Credit: PA/PA Archive/Press Association Images

Fraser asked Sykes to write some scripts for him and before long Sykes found himself in huge demand as a showbusiness writer. He was soon writing for hit BBC radio shows, like Educating Archie and Variety Bandbox. Then he became one of TV's first fledgling scriptwriters.

Meanwhile, he was appearing in a number of TV variety shows, including the 1955 spoof Pantomania, as well as starting to write scripts for The Goon Show. He co-wrote 24 episodes with Spike Milligan.

Sean Connery with Sykes. Credit: Myung Jung Kim/PA Archive/Press Association Images

It was relatively early in life that he was afflicted by deafness, but that disability seemed to have little effect on either the quality or quantity of his work.

During his run with Jacques, which lasted until shortly before her death in 1980, Sykes was involved in a number of other projects, including a controversial comedy show called Curry And Chips, in which he played opposite a blacked-up Milligan.

He was also the mastermind behind silent film The Plank, about the mishaps caused by a man carrying a large plank, which is now regarded as a movie classic.

Sykes did not let age interfere with his work either. Even though he was approaching 80 he starred with Nicole Kidman in the acclaimed movie The Others, and also starred in the hilarious West End farce Caught In The Net in which, despite his years and his increasing blindness, he played an immensely active role.

Sykes with actors Sir John Mills and Bob Hoskins at a special lunch thrown in his honour at the Dorchester Hotel, London. Credit: SAMANTHA PEARCE/PA Archive/Press Association Images

Before all that, Sykes had starred in scores of West End hits and was eagerly sought after by top-flight casting directors.

Other films in which he appeared or wrote or both, included Heavens Above! (1963), Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines (1965), Monte Carlo Or Bust (1969), Theatre Of Blood (1973), Rhubarb, Rhubarb (1980), Boys In Blue (1982), and Splitting Heirs (1993).His two novels were The Great Crime Of Grapplewick (1997) and Smelling Of Roses (1998). In 2000, he wrote Sykes Of Sebastopol Terrace, an illustrated guide to the TV series, including short stories based on its episodes.

Sykes is accompanied by daughter Kathy, grandson Thomas and wife Edith after receiving his CBE from the Queen. Credit: ANDREW PARSONS/PA Archive/Press Association Images

And in 2003 he produced an anthology of his favourite comics, with Tommy Cooper heading his list.

In 1952. he married Eith Eleanore Milbrandt, with whom he had one son and three daughters. He was awarded an OBE in 1986.