The passing of Eric Sykes earlier this month was a melancholy day. Sykes is an integral part of British comedy heritage. He had a hand in many of the best loved radio and television comedies of the mid 20th Century. For me, it was his partnership with Hattie Jacques in his eponymous television programme that stood out as the best of his work. Particularly the episode guest starring Peter Sellers. But on hearing of his death, my thoughts turned to 'The Plank', a short film that once seemed to be a Saturday afternoon staple. I hoped that the BBC would show it as a tribute, but if they did it passed me by. So, I presume along with many others, I turned to You Tube to watch him in action again.
This almost silent film shows Sykes' blend of scholarly comedy at its best. By scholarly I mean that he put a great deal of thought and theory into his work. It wasn't, as it could easily have been, plain old slapstick with reams of people being smacked over the head with a length of wood. I think that I read in his autobiography ("If I don't write it, nobody else will" - a title which never fails to make me smile) that he believed that true comedy was not man slips on banana skin and falls over. That's just too obvious. Rather, comedy is when man steps to one side to avoid banana skin and then walks confidently on straight into a lamppost. So, all kinds of scenarios ensue in 'The Plank' as the piece of wood takes a journey through London streets in the late 1960s.
Watching the film again was a real trip down the back alleys of my memory, taking me back to Saturday afternoons in the 1980s, when it would be used as a filler, or a replacement when the sport was called off due to bad weather. Being on the look out for snippets of history I was also taken back by the car types, many of which were still on the road when I was young. One particular vehicle and its operators opened up a whole avenue of reminiscence - and that was the dustbin lorry. How things have changed in the collection of household refuse in the past 40 years. Before wheelie bins and their myriad rules and regulations about when to put it out, where to leave it, what should be in it etc we had proper collections. I remember the round metal bin with black rubber lid that was emptied weekly. The binmen would come to your back yard, pick the bin up on their shoulder and carry it to be emptied into the lorry. This service was more human and flexible - especially near Christmas when there was chance of a tip! But we don't even know our binmen anymore. I never even see my bin being emptied, never mind knowing the people who do it. That's when I can get my head round when I should be putting it out.
I presume that the main reason for this change is the increase in rubbish. In the 1960s there wasn't nearly so much packaging on our foods. Or on anything else for that matter. Whatever you buy now comes wrapped in cellophane, cardboard, polystyrene and bubble wrap. Binmen simply couldn't carry a modern binful. But it's a shame that we have lost the human contact element - one more move towards isolation of the individual.
I could go on about how 'The Plank' portrays late 1960s society. What a legacy Sykes has left us with that short film, indeed with all his work. He was a national treasure, and an undervalued one. I hope to look at more of his work again in the future and to remember this comedy great - and apparently very nice man too.