Memories of a masterclass in comic communication

COMMENT: Bandstand event is a victim of its own success

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Seven years ago I was asked to interview Eric Sykes on stage in front of several hundred people.

The event was part of the Chichester Festivities, and I confess to being surprised at the size of the audience because Sykes had not – until that evening – been a particular favourite of mine.

He had been a continuous presence in my life; a form of human wallpaper which was always there in the background, pleasant and unobtrusive without leaving much of an impression.

But he had written his autobiography, called (with typical self-effacement and impeccable logic) If I Don’t Write It, Nobody Else Will.

Just three nights later (and it was a hardback of more than 500 pages) I had read it from cover to cover and emerged at the end rather ashamed to have learned so much about someone I seemed to have known for so long.

His television series with Hattie Jacques is part of BBC folklore, but he also wrote dozens of scripts for the likes of Frankie Howerd and Tommy Cooper.

He also collaborated with Spike Milligan on The Goons’ scripts, when the man himself was in the grip of manic depression and in no fit state to commit another word to paper.

Eric’s was the household to which all the household names of the time made a bee-line – and he also appeared in big-budget films and Shakespeare.

So there was plenty to talk about – but would he co-operate?

I had been down this road before; the bigger the name, the bigger the ego and the quicker you wanted the encounter to end.

I need not have worried.

Sykes was friendly, delightfully unstarry, warm, amusing and held, in the palm of his hand, an audience he could barely see or hear.

He was already deaf and his eyesight was deteriorating rapidly – but his connection with the paying public was based on timing, mutual affection and instinct.

It was a master-class in communication to which I was privileged to have a front-row seat.

Jimmy Carr? Graham Norton? Frankie Boyle? Comedians? Don’t make me laugh.