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Last Updated: Saturday, 3 June 2006, 15:21 GMT 16:21 UK
Sykes, Alda play Hay for laughs
Steve Duffy
BBC Wales News website

Eric Sykes signing books at the Hay Festival
Sykes said Big Brother and I'm A Celebrity were 'nonsense'
Comedy veterans Eric Sykes and Alan Alda looked back at their long careers performing on different sides of the Atlantic at the Hay festival.

"I always say to young people, you can have the best script, be the funniest man, but if they don't laugh - you're not a comedian," said Sykes.

Not that Sykes, 83, had any problem raising the laughs at an event which could have sold out three times over.

Actor Alda said he was first taken on stage by Phil Silvers, aged six months.

Sykes said becoming a comedian was not something that was 'decided'.

"There are those who say they 'decided' when they were 12 to be a comedian.

"You can decide at 12 to be an engine driver and do that and good luck to you."

"Tommy Cooper was the greatest and like all top comics, they were never told they were funny people," said Sykes.

I don't watch TV - it's one of the best things about not being able to see very well.
Eric Sykes

"Tommy Cooper wanted to be the greatest illusionist in the world and he was doing every trick on stage and they were laughing. Frankie Howerd wanted to be a straight actor, he went to Rada. 'To be or not to be - oh no, missus!'"

"Jimmy Edwards wanted to be a politician, an MP or the Archbishop of Canterbury.

"Les Dawson was playing piano in a French brothel, then he started to ad-lib and he got laughs."

Sykes traced his own comedy beginnings back to when he was in the RAF, bluffing his way into an entertainment unit, which included writer Denis Nordern.

"They asked if I had theatrical experience and I thought, I'd been to the theatre three times before the war."

Eric Sykes performing with Frankie Howerd in 1951
Sykes' big break was as a writer for Frankie Howerd

A later call to write for Frankie Howerd led to a career which included the long-running sit-com Sykes, with Hattie Jacques.

Sykes said he found some modern comedy "too aggressive".

"There are some good comedians about, with good writing, but why do they have to swear all the time? They're talented, they're too good for that, but I've a feeling there will be a backlash." Sykes added:

"I don't watch TV - it's one of the best things about not being able to see very well. Programmes like Big Brother and I'm A Celebrity are just nonsense, rubbish."

He showed he was as sharp as ever in friendly fencing with interviewer Michael Buerk, as they worked through his memoir, If I Don't Write It, Nobody Else Will which began in depression-hit Lancashire.

'Miracles in life'

"It starts off with you being born," said Buerk.

"I couldn't think of anything very much beforehand," said Sykes.

Perhaps the best comics always have a little tragedy just under the surface. Sykes mother died during his birth and he admitted "she never left me".

"I still think she's here, I owe her so much - there have been miracles in my life."

Later, Alda, best known as army doctor Hawkeye in the long-running 70s comedy series M*A*S*H*, admitted a near death experience in Chile led him to write his memoirs.


The film and stage actor had an emergency intestinal operation after being taken ill while filming a documentary in 2003.

But his surgeon in La Serena did not have to explain the details.

Alda said: "It was one of the first procedures I learned about while doing M*A*S*H*. The doctor at the time was in high school watching M*A*S*H*, so the two of us came to this evening from a fictional background."

Alan Alda
'You can't stop change' - Alan Alda

"I was so grateful to be alive. I started making notes when I got back to New York."

Alda, 70, seen more recently in West Wing, said of M*A*S*H*:

"It was well written, a good cast, we worked together well and we worked hard as a group. We didn't go to our dressing rooms between scenes, we sat around in a circle and went over our lines together or made each other laugh."

Of working with Woody Allen on three films, he said: "He never talked to anybody, never gave any direction, never said 'hello.' Meryl Streep said 'does he know I'm in the film?' He's made that part of his directing style."

Alda said his earliest memory was aged two.

"I remember standing in the wings of the burlesque show my father was in watching the strippers - you don't forget that."

The title of his autobiography Never Have Your Dog Stuffed, was inspired by the death of eight-year-old Alda's pet spaniel and the animal returning from the taxidermist with a ferocious look upon his face, which frightened tradesmen when placed on the porch.

"It came back from the taxidermist six weeks later and of course I'd forgotten about the dog."

It sums up his philosophy: "You can't stop change. I'm losing my hair but a hair-piece is a stuffed dog."

Organisers expect record crowds by the time the festival ends on Sunday, with dozens of events sold out on the expanded out-of-town site.


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