I asked him whether he fancied her, and he chuntered: "Not in the way that you think I fancied her." I asked him about his deafness (he was deaf since his early 30s): had fighting in the war caused the problem? "It didn't help."
Sykes had been shelled repeatedly at Normandy, and while appearing in an army gang show called Three Bags Full, he visited Belsen, wherre he saw some of its last inmates. In his autobiography, Sykes observed, " ... nothing angers me more than when some people today not only defend the Hitler regime but also deny that the death camps ever existed". Yet he was keen in later life on Ian Smith, leader of the white minority government in Rhodesia ("a tall, handsome man, bearing facial scars of a devastating crash in his Spitfire defending Britain … ", so it appears the war didn't give him any great moral overview. But I think it did allow him to access a beguiling minor key in his writing. In one episode of his sitcom of straitened suburbia, Sykes, Peter Sellers plays a leather-jacketed delinquent, who recalls his more innocent boyhood when he pumped the organ in church: "It was 26 pumps for Abide With Me and 48 for Rock of Ages. And when it came to the Hallelujah Chorus … me little arms was a blur."
Sykes's best work is perhaps in the Goon Show scripts he wrote with Spike Milligan, when the strain of producing them alone became too much for Milligan. Sykes was the only writer Milligan considered an equal, even if he did once attempt to murder him by flinging a heavy paperweight at his head. One collaboration, The Secret Escritoire, is among my favourite Goon Shows. It begins with the line: "That same afternoon, three weeks later …" and is set in the far east, among other places. Neddie Seagoon is fighting his way through thick jungle: "For weeks, we cut our way through the dense jungle that runs alongside the arterial road." The script reveals a fascination with the Oxford dictionary definition of the word "escritoire", as you might expect from two ambitious autodidacts.
Besides a threadbare education, Sykes and Milligan – and the other Goons – also had the war in common. Milligan first met his fellow Goon, Harry Secombe, in the north African campaign when Milligan was looking for a field gun that he'd "lost". You can see how comedy might have taken root for both of them in the discrepancy between the ideal of soldierly rectitude and human fallibility. At the battle of Monte Cassino, for example, Milligan had been afflicted with a terrible case of piles.
Later, he was hospitalised for shell shock, which is no doubt why people keep getting blown up in the Goon Shows. In The Missing Heir, a bomb features. "Is it dangerous?" Seagoon asks Major Bloodnok, who languidly replies: "Only when it blows up."
My own father joined the army just too late to fight, but did manage to exacerbate his varicose veins by excessive drill (or so the army charitably concluded, for which he was awarded a disability pension). He has speculated ever since about how he might have responded under fire, and he accorded heroic status to those older men who'd "been through it" – the comedians particularly, because there seemed something especially large-minded about turning to comedy after all that. I recall him watching Stanley Baxter on TV in the 70s. Baxter would be mincing around in a tutu, and my dad would say, "He fought in the far east, you know."
I inherited this fascination, and I attribute the darkness and strangeness of the comedy made by that generation to the war. It is in the haunting gloominess of Kenneth Williams' diaries: "This was one of those dark, rainy mornings that I love." Admittedly, Williams had a cushy national service, but he was describing himself as a "suicidalist" from 1947, the year after his demob. The diary chronicles Williams' stockpiling of the "poison" (barbiturates) on which he eventually overdosed; I remember one Goon character, quavering Henry Crun, was always described as "partially dead".
A friend of mine is David Secombe, writer, photographer, and son of Harry, and he told me: "After the war, Spike and my father couldn't quite believe they weren't dead." They felt justified by what they'd been through. According to David, "They'd earned the right to be satirists, or just to be silly." The thing about the Goons was that it was both, and a whole generation subscribed to their take on the war as something horrific, but also absurd.
As a student of those comics I have developed a form of snobbery that says there's something missing from all subsequent comedy, and what is missing is a war. To refine the position: yes, there has been very good comedy since then, but the best of it – Beyond the Fringe, Monty Python, Eddie Izzard, Chris Morris – was directly influenced by the Goons, which arose from the war.
Eric Sykes rated Izzard highly, but he told me he found much modern comedy smug or, as he put it, "fireproof". I think he meant he was against the "high status" comedian: the patter merchant who points out the foibles of everyone else from some Olympian height. This fireproof character is well in with the broadcasting executives, and is not a comedian due to some life event, but because he chose to become one while at university. We know who they are. They tend to occupy the accursed comedy slot on Radio 4 at 6.30pm on a weekday. Their schtick has the lineaments of humour – timing, punchlines, observations – but it doesn't actually make you laugh. Or they crop up on panel shows, where they lounge about being quite funny, but seeming lazy, overentitled. In their own later years, the Goons had a word for the successful, confident comedian who had a distinctive persona that was inflicted on the audience in an almost bullying manner: they called it "achieved comedy." These sorts of performers are usually not personally eccentric, perhaps because nothing has made them so.
Eric Sykes was eccentric – not as bracingly mad as Milligan or Peter Sellers. The latter thought he was possessed by the spirit of Dan Leno, but Sykes ran him close here in that he thought he channelled in his work the spirit of his mother, who died giving birth to him. And so we come back to death, as it seems humour must, and which is why war is so useful in its creation. I wanted to broach this matter of the dead mother with Sykes, but I had been warned he wouldn't "go there" on the record, and in any case, he had finished his small glass of white wine.