The Genius of Eric Sykes – An International Comedian

Last month the world lost a major contributor to radio and television; also a film writer, actor and director whose career spanned 60 years.  Eric Sykes. 89. died after a short illness.

Sykes was a world renowned comedian but best known in Britain for his comedy acts and a BBC show, “Sykes” during the 1970s.  His skills put him in the middle of radio in the 1940s, beginning as a script writer and moved him through the beginnings of television all the way to entertaining the next generation as Frank Bryce in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in 2005.

The Hearing Loss

It is well documented that Eric Sykes suffered mixed hearing loss.   Sykes become partially deaf as a young man in his 30s during World War II which, in his opinion, was exacerbated by the noise of continuous shelling during the Normandy invasion.   He lost most of the remaining hearing in his right ear after a mastoid operation in 1952. In 1963 he underwent further surgery to save the hearing in his left ear.   When he woke up in hospital profoundly deaf, his first thought was that he’d never hear his children’s voices again.  He recalled: The next few days were horrendous. Then, one morning, I said to the nurse, ‘Listen to that rain’. We both did a double take – I had some hearing back!”  

As the 1960s turned to 1970s Sykes had increasing trouble with deafness and balance. Later in his career he wore spectacles as a concealed hearing aid. In fact, the glasses-style hearing aids simply concealed his impairment– the rims did not even have lenses in them.   His hearing impairment, however, did nothing to deter him from a dazzling career among the showbiz giants of his time, making the most of his residual hearing. He remembers that on “Sykes” (his eponymous TV show which entertained the nation for 20 years and is still the longest-running TV comedy), that he had difficulty hearing the lines of his co-star and friend Hattie Jacques.  While working on Sykes with Hattie, he began to struggle with the hearing technology of the time.  He said of his early use of hearing instruments, “I was wearing in-the-ear aids for a while but they caused me such problems. During one recording, as well as trying to listen to Hat, I also had the producer’s instructions to the cameramen coming through my aids at the same time!”   As technology improved he said of his newer hearing aids:

I didn’t hear a laugh for 25 years… then I got these and I realized I hadn’t been getting any!

One of his BBC episodes called “Sykes and a Plank” in 1964 was done with Tom Cooper and a cat and became a British slapstick classic which lead to a short film in 1967  titled “The Plank.” The BBC episode is slapstick–for instance, he is sitting with a glass of milk, bends over to take a drink as the plank passes over him, drinks the milk as he sits up, and the returning plank hits him in the face, spilling the milk everywhere.  The film is the story of two builders who buy a floorboard, put it on top of a Morris Eight (a British car), and take a driving journey fraught with unexpected difficulties. At another point in the film the plank is tied to the top of the car and projects backward into the open back of a large van. A man enters the back of the van and sits down. The van drives away, leaving him suspended in mid-air sitting on the end of the plank.  (Click here for excerpt from The Plank)  The film is a series of “plank jokes” elaborating on the “man with a plank” slapstick routine seen in vaudeville and silent films, and adding new ones.

The world is just a bit less funny without Eric Sykes.


About Robert Traynor

Robert M. Traynor is a board certified audiologist with 45 years of clinical practice in audiology. He is a hearing industry consultant, trainer, professor, conference speaker, practice manager, and author. He has 45 years experience teaching courses and training clinicians within the field of audiology with specific emphasis in hearing and tinnitus rehabilitation. Currently, he is an adjunct professor in various university audiology programs.

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