Saturday, July 07, 2012

All of my heroes have left the stage: An obituary of sorts for Eric Sykes

Nothing is permanent. Nothing stays the same. I say this in sadness as another of my comedy heroes - the great Eric Sykes - dies at the age of 89, the post-war boom in comics taking another step toward extinction.

I met Sykes just the once, the same day that I met another great comedy writer in Denis Norden in the staff canteen at Bush House, headquarters of the BBC World Service.

Bush is another of those great institutions soon to be lost to the nation, as the Beeb gives up its lease on the venerable old building on the Aldwych in London to move its global operations to Broadcasting House.

You have to dice with death to get to Bush, it's on a traffic island along with the Australian and Indian High Commissions, surrounded by roaring traffic, and if you want to reach this quiet gem of British excellence, you have to take your chances. Once through the impressive columned entrance, the canteen is in a windowless sub-basement of the warren-like building that always seemed to be in a constant state of renovation, which can only be reached from some quarters via the boiler rooms. It's a shadow of its former self, thanks in part to the ubiquity of Pret a Manger in the capital, soon to be lost for good as Bush speaks to the world for the last time these coming weeks.

One of the unwritten rules of the BBC is that you don't bother the talent around the buildings. They're here to work as much as you are, and shouldn't have to spend their days being hassled for autographs. I have dined out for years on the time I exchanged a knowing look with Ian Beale from EastEnders as we stood at a the urinals in the gents at Elstree, while another member of the cast of Britain's second favourite soap suffered what can only be described as explosive diarrhoea in the end stall, complete with realistic sound effects which will haunt me to my grave. But - and this is most important - not a word was said. And now Ian Beale is living my executive lifestyle, fighting tramps for their clothes and sleeping under a hedge.

But there was Sykes, in the queue in front of me, and then at the same table in the postage stamp-sized canteen. And I'll never forget the words he said to me that morning, which I shall treasure forever: "I've gone and sat down now. Could you get me a spoon?"

I got him a spoon. I like to think he got a joke out of it. A joke about a small fat scruff with a spoon.

It's a lie that you should never meet your idols. It's a phrase that only stands true for footballers, who are - almost to a man - perhaps the most disappointing people on the face of the planet; but brief meetings with the great Sykes, Norden, Milligan are amongst the most treasured of my life. Thanks to my father, I grew up with post-war radio comedy such as Around the Horne and The Goon Show. While my contemporaries were quoting Not The Nine O'clock News around the playground, I was still saying "He's fallen in the water" and "What time is it Eccles?" and looked upon as a bit different. I learned reasonably quickly that Julian and Sandy quotes didn't go down too well in the all-male school gang.

So I went and met Spike Milligan at a book signing.

I'd heard the warnings about him. In fact, if you get the chance to read the seven volumes of his war memoirs, do so. They should be required reading for anybody studying mental health in general and PTSD and bipolar in general. "He hates giving autographs", I was told. "You've got to get him on a good day," they said. I got both.

He look up at me, old and tired, having spent the best part of an hour signing copies of what were - truth be told - not his best work. But the glint was still there.

"Who do I make it out to?" he asked.

"Cash," I replied, and got a smile from my hero. The result: Not his best work, with his name printed in beautiful copperplate fountain pen. A treasure.

I heard recently that he wanted to be buried in an old washing machine, just to give future archaeologists something to puzzle over.

Now he is gone, along with Eric Sykes, Harry Secombe, Peter Sellers, Frank Muir, Ronnie Barker, Kenneth Williams, Morecambe and Wise. British comedy owes them so much.

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