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The famous optical illusion from the opening titles of his BBC TV series Harry Worth.
|Born||Harry Bourlon Illingsworth
20 November 1917
Hoyland Common, South Yorkshire, England
|Died||20 July 1989
Cause of death
Harry Worth (born Harry Bourlon Illingsworth, 20 November 1917, Hoyland Common, South Yorkshire – died 20 July 1989, Hertfordshire) was an English comedy actor and comedian. His standard performance was as a genial, bumbling middle-class and middle-aged man from the North of England, who reduced all who came into contact with him to a state of confusion and frustration.
Worth was the youngest child of a miner. He had ten siblings. When he was only five months old his father died from injuries resulting from an industrial accident. He left school at 14 and was a miner for eight years. He earned 2s 2.5d and worked near the lift in the mine, and said he hated every minute of it. He later joined the RAF in 1941.
As a teenager he was in the Tankersley Amateur Dramatic Society and taught himself ventriloquism from a book he borrowed, buying his first dummy in 1936. During World War Two, he performed in an RAF Variety show in India and had extra material written for him by the show's director, Wallie Okin. Harry Worth warned his audience beforehand that he was not very good, according to ITMA impressionist Peter Cavanagh, the start of his apologetic and inept style.
He was a variety act for many years before he became known and was often at the bottom of any "bill". Having left the RAF and adamant he would never go down the mines again, he started in show business with his first booking at the Bradford Mechanics Institute in 1946. In 1947 he married his wife Kay and in 1948 like many other comedians from the forces of the day, he got his audition at London's Windmill Theatre in 1948. Of 40 in the audition, he passed, along with Morecambe and Wise, who were sacked after just one week. He did six shows a day as comedian between fan dancers. In 1948 he also made his first radio appearance in a show New to You. He now had two dummies for his ventriloquist act, Fotheringay and Clarence but meanwhile developed his performing voice.
He toured for two years with Laurel and Hardy towards the end of their careers. He said he could always go in and talk with them and they told him about Hollywood and their careers. In 1952, in Nottingham, Oliver Hardy who watched his show persuaded him to drop the ventriloquist routine and concentrate on becoming a comedian which he then did. His first act without them was at a stage act in Newcastle. He did, however, continue to include the vent act in his cabaret act through his career, using much of the material that he'd used during the war. This included an appearance on the Royal Variety Show.
After appearing a number of times on Variety Bandbox, Worth gained his own radio show Thirty Minutes Worth. He took his scripts seriously and did not ad lib. He said he built a style of dithering in his shows without even realising it.
Worth's first appearance was a five-minute standup on Henry Hall's Guest Night in 1955. He became well known to the public and even appeared at the London Palladium, after which he took the show to Manchester, the main place for variety in those days, for 8 weeks. In 1960 The Trouble With Harry TV programme was broadcast. John Hammonds and Harry Worth wrote the pilot script in 3–4 weeks. A series of six was commissioned, and was written by Vince Powell, Ronnie Taylor and Frank Roscoe.
He is now best remembered for his 1960s series Here's Harry, later re-titled Harry Worth, which lasted for over 100 episodes. The opening titles of Harry Worth featured Worth stopping in the street to perform an optical trick involving a shop window: raising one arm and one leg which were reflected in the window, thus giving the impression of levitation. Reproducing this effect was popularly known as "doing a Harry Worth". He also starred in Thirty Minutes Worth and My Name is Harry Worth. The shop window sequence first used in Here's Harry was filmed at St Ann's Square, Manchester, at Hector Powes tailors shop, which is now a Starbucks coffee shop. The idea for this was suggested by Vince Powell who had done it himself as a child.
One famous comic sketch involved Worth and his family preparing for a royal visit to the area, during which the Queen was to visit his house. His fussing about the house drove his family mad. Just before the Queen was due to arrive, a beggar arrived at the door and kept coming back as an increasingly frustrated Worth tried to get him to go away. When a knock came on the door one more time Worth grabbed a bucket of filthy water and threw it out of the door at the caller, only to find that it wasn't the beggar but the Queen standing there, and he had just soaked her. Another sketch involved Worth complaining to a policeman outside the Houses of Parliament that Big Ben clock was slow because Jimmy Young, the BBC Radio 2 presenter known for "always being right" had said that it was ten minutes past ten, while the clock said it was 10am. After pestering the policeman, Worth had the clock moved forward by ten minutes. Just as the clock was changed, Young appeared on the radio to apologise that the studio clock was wrong by ten minutes. A mortified Worth was seen speeding away in his car, to furious shouts from the angry policeman.
Although never scripted, his catchphrase was generally known as "My Name Is Harry Worth. I don't know why - but, there it is!" It was really invented by impressionists of the day to give a common ground tag line to work with. One running joke in the television show involved references to Harry's never seen aunt known only as "Auntie", the popular nickname for the BBC itself. In one show, Harry commissioned a portrait of Auntie, only to receive a head-and-shoulders print of a woman with no face. He was the subject of This Is Your Life in October 1963 when he was surprised by Eamonn Andrews at Manchester’s Gaumont cinema.
By the early to mid-1980s Worth was forced to retire early from his shows by health problems but he continued working in radio (and made TV guest appearances time-to-time for either interviews or pop-up guest appearances on some shows) until a few months before he died. Among the last regular appearances of his career were leading roles in the sitcoms How's Your Father? (Yorkshire TV 1979-81) and Oh Happy Band! (BBC TV 1980).
Harry Worth was a private person and resisted attempts by publishers to write his biography; it was over 16 years after his death before a book My Name Is Harry Worth was published. He was married to dancer Kay Flynn; the couple had one child, a daughter, Jobyna.
Harry Worth died on 20 July 1989, aged 71, of spinal cancer.
On 20 July 2010 a blue plaque was unveiled by comedian Jimmy Cricket, a friend of Worth's, on the house where he was born. The British Comedy Society arranged the unveiling in conjunction with Worth's biographer, Roy Baines, and the event was sponsored by Revelation Films, who also released a DVD of his work the same week.
- Daily Mirror, 15 August 1971, page 11: "Harry Lands a Scoop"
- GRO Register of Deaths: JUL 1989 10 135 DACORUM, HERTFORDSHIRE - Harry Worth, DoB = 20 November 1917, aged 72
- "New York Times, 22 July 1989". The New York Times. 22 July 1989. Retrieved 4 May 2010.
- "The Official Harry Worth Website". The Official Harry Worth Website. Retrieved 15 June 2014.
- Roy Baines (2005) My Name is Harry Worth; ISBN 0-9551854-0-8
- Martin Smith (2007) The portrayal of the working class and the left in British situation comedies 1960-1980 and its relevance for anti-fascism today in Julie Waterson (ed.) 30 Years of Fighting The Nazis: An ANL Symposium; ISBN 1-872208-86-X
- Harry Worth at the Internet Movie Database
- Harry Worth: The Man in the Window BBC Radio 4 programme
- Jo Batchelor recalls her father's appearance on This Is Your Life
- The Official Harry Worth Website