Likes of Sykes (The) (TV)
R2 - United Kingdom - Network
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (23rd January 2011).
The Show

The Likes of Sykes: Three Classic ITV Shows


1. ‘Sykes – With the Lid Off’ (Thames, 1971) (51:48)
2. ‘The Likes of Sykes’ (Thames, 1980) (52:28)
3. ‘The Eric Sykes 1990 Show’ (Thames, 1982) (51:11)

After a significant career writing for radio and television, Eric Sykes achieved major recognition after being given his own show, Sykes Directs a Dress Rehearsal (BBC, 1956). As Louis Barfe has asserted (in Turned Out Nice Again: The Story of British Light Entertainment, 2008), prior to the late-1950s the work of television writers was largely ignored (56); however, writers became increasingly acknowledged by audiences at a time when ‘authored’ situation comedies (such as those of Ray Galton and Alan Simpson) were starting to dominate the television landscape. Barfe suggests that writers were first foregrounded by The Goon Show (BBC Radio, 1951-60), which ‘put the spotlight on writers in a way that no show had done before’ (55). Throughout the 1960s, the work of comedy writers was also foregrounded by the appearance of writers like Denis Norden and Frank Muir on panel shows such as Call My Bluff (BBC, 1965-88) (see ibid.: 56). Up until that point, as Barfe notes, the ‘punters had been allowed to think that their favourite stars came up with all their own funnies, and it was a potent belief’ (ibid.). To illustrate this, Barfe relates an anecdote involving Sykes, who had written much material for Frankie Howerd and wanted to be credited in the Radio Times; according to Sykes, the producer of the show ‘patted me on the shoulder and smiled the smile of a hungry crocodile, and then he said “All Frankie’s fans think he makes it up as he goes along. Ergo, if they had an inkling that it was all written for him he’d lose an awful lot of fans”’ (Sykes, quoted in ibid.).

Sykes’ fame as a comic performer was largely sourced from the series Sykes and a… (BBC, 1960-5), in which Sykes and Hattie Jacques played a brother and sister who became involved in a different comic scenario each week. This was the start of a long-running working relationship between Sykes and Jacques, who would also star together in the 1970s situation comedy Sykes (BBC, 1972-9). During this period, Sykes also worked with Tommy Cooper, in The Plank (Eric Sykes, 1967), based on a 1964 episode of Sykes and a… (‘Sykes and a Plank’). Both Hattie Jacques and Tommy Cooper appear in the three television specials contained on this DVD release from Network.

All of the television specials on this disk were produced for Thames Television. The first is Sykes – With the Lid Off (1971); this is followed by The Likes of Sykes (1980) and The Eric Sykes 1990 Show (1982).


Sykes – With the Lid Off opens in a television studio with Sykes walking in front of the audience and performing as the ‘warm-up man’, delivering a series of one-liners (‘Two peanuts walking down the road; one was assaulted’). Sykes addresses the audience and the viewers at home directly. Shots from behind Sykes show the audience and the television cameras recording the performance. From the opening moments onwards, the humour is wholly reflexive, stripping away the veneer of television and reminding the audience/viewer that they are watching a spectacle that is controlled and manipulated by writers, cameramen, editors, directors and performers. Sykes’ opening performance as the ‘warm-up man’ goes on for ten minutes before Sykes introduces the show ‘proper’, which opens with a brief musical extravaganza-interruptus, halted by a shot of Sykes, as the producer of the show, on the other side of the camera. Sykes explains the technique of production: ‘We’ve stopped there in order to let the dancers change their costumes. And then when we get the film, you see, we send it down to […] stick it together, and you must think, “By God, they’ve got over a hundred dances”. We’ve only got six’. The musical number continues but is continually interrupted by ‘behind the scenes’ shots of its ‘producer’, Sykes. Next, Sykes and Hattie Jacques stage a performance of Lerner and Loew’s song ‘I Remember It Well’ (from Gigi; Vincente Minelli, 1958), which once again is continually interrupted – this time by debates about the logistics of the performance. After this, Jacques introduces the next sketch by asserting, ‘Now you may have noticed during that scene that the stage manager came on, more than once. And of course he wasn’t talking to himself: he was talking to the director, up in the control box. And that is where we would like to take you now’. With Jacques’ comment, the camera pans around the stage to the audience and there is a cut to Sykes, playing the show’s director, in the control box, barking increasingly difficult orders to the cameramen via a microphone.


As this brief précis of the opening moments of Sykes – With the Lid Off suggests, the humour throughout all three of these television specials is the kind that now attracts the label ‘postmodern’: it is reflexive and comparable to Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, foregrounding and demystifying the artifice of television and playing with notions of celebrity and performance.

The Likes of Sykes features a similar premise and opens with the door manager (played by Sykes) of the theatre in which the show is taking place, relaying a story about Sykes to the camera. Sykes also plays the director of the television show being staged in the theatre who has to deal with the problems raised by the staging of yet another big musical number. As the director of a series of sketches, Sykes also has to contend with a number of issues including malfunctioning props and union-savvy crew.

Produced two years after The Likes of Sykes, The Eric Sykes 1990 Show is very similar in its format and structure. Like The Likes of Sykes, it opens with a sketch involving Sykes playing the door manager of the theatre in which the show is being recorded. Then Sykes comes onto the stage in the theatre and speaks to the floor staff and audience. This show features a series of sketches involving Sykes and Tommy Cooper. The first sketch is highly self-reflexive: Cooper comes onto the stage and the colour image cuts to a monochrome one. Sykes enters the stage, in character as the director, and asks Cooper if there are any problems. ‘I’m in black and white’, Cooper complains. ‘Yes, well you didn’t specifically ask for colour, did you?’, Sykes retorts. Again, Sykes, as the door manager, is intercut with Cooper’s act – which involves an altercation with the director, played by Sykes, over the logistics of the performance.


Ahead of their time, some of the ideas in the specials contained on this DVD can be seen throughout Sykes’ career as a performer, including his first starring role in the 1956 BBC production Sykes Directs a Dress Rehearsal; in this, Sykes played a television director struggling to pull together a production before it is broadcast live. The reflexive humour of these three specials is one of their big strengths.


Shot on video in a studio environment, these television specials look surprisingly good on this DVD release: they have strong, stable colours and, for shot on video material, surprisingly good contrast levels. The image is consistently clear, with very little tape damage present.


The shows are all presented in their original broadcast screen ratio of 4:3, and the original break bumpers are present.


Audio is presented via a functional two-channel track. There are no problems with this; dialogue is clear. Sadly, there are no subtitles.




In all three of these television specials, Sykes wins over the audience with his amiable persona. Watched back-to-back, it’s fairly safe to say that Sykes – With the Lid Off is the strongest of these three shows, handling its self-reflexive format most capably. However, there is much to enjoy in all of the shows contained in this release, especially in Sykes’ collaborations with his comic partners-in-crime Hattie Jacques and Tommy Cooper.

Barfe, Louis, 2008: Turned Out Nice Again: The Story of British Light Entertainment. London: Atlantic Books

For more information, please visit the homepage of Network DVD.

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