Keith Harris (ventriloquist)

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Keith Harris
Keith Harris and Orville fair use.jpg
Keith Harris and Orville performing "Orville's Song" in 1982 on Crackerjack
Born(1947-09-21)21 September 1947
Lyndhurst, Hampshire, England
Died28 April 2015(2015-04-28) (aged 67)
Blackpool, Lancashire
OccupationVentriloquist, puppeteer, voice actor
Years active1965–2014

Keith Shenton Harris (21 September 1947 – 28 April 2015) was an English ventriloquist, best known for his television show The Keith Harris Show (1982–90), audio recordings, and club appearances with his puppets Orville the Duck and Cuddles the Monkey. He had a UK Top 10 hit single in 1982 with "Orville's Song" which reached number 4 in the charts.[1]

The son of variety performers, Harris assisted in his father's ventriloquy acts as a child; as a teenager, he created his own ventriloquism characters which he performed at holiday resorts in the summer season, attracting the attention of television producers. He debuted on screen in 1965 and became a popular act guest starring on various shows; he had his first solo series Cuddles and Company in the 1970s, but got his big break in 1982 with The Keith Harris Show. He, Orville and Cuddles became popular performers on primetime television until the show was cancelled in 1990, as audiences and television producers began to move away from variety performances.

After a low period and two failed business ventures in the early 1990s, he embarked on a busy stage career (mostly in pantomime) and found new appreciation in the 2000s, appearing as a guest in several television programmes. His output declined after a 2013 cancer diagnosis and he died two years later.

Early life[edit]

Born in Lyndhurst, Hampshire on 21 September 1947,[2] Harris grew up in North Baddesley in Hampshire[3] and near Chester (where he attended a secondary modern school).[2] His parents were variety performers; his mother Lilian "Lila", née Simmons (born 1917), was a dancer; his father, Norman Harris (1912–2005), was a singer, comedian and ventriloquist.[2][4][5] From age nine Harris appeared on his father Norman's knee as a "dummy" in his ventriloquist act.[6][7] Harris was severely dyslexic at school[6] and in 2014, he claimed that his dyslexia had cost him millions of pounds because of his inability to read contracts accurately.[2]

Career[edit]

Early television appearances[edit]

Harris began creating ventriloquism characters as a teenager. After appearing in summer seasons at holiday resorts, he had spots on the television series Let's Laugh (1965).[2] Harris became a popular act on television variety shows, and following a spell as the host of The Black and White Minstrel Show, was given his own show called Cuddles and Company. He appeared several times on BBC TV's long-running show The Good Old Days.

Height of fame[edit]

Harris' best known creation, Orville the duck, came about after he saw some green fur lying around backstage at a performance of The Black and White Minstrel Show in Bristol.[2] Orville, recalled Simon Farquhar in his Independent obituary of Harris, was "a huge, gormless, falsetto-voiced green duckling sporting a nappy fastened by a giant safety pin".[8] Harris recorded "Orville's song", written by Bobby Crush. It made the Top Ten in the UK singles chart in 1982 and sold 400,000 copies. It was later voted the worst song ever recorded.[6]

The Keith Harris Show ran on Saturday evenings on BBC1 from 1982 to 1990 and a series for children The Quack Chat Show (1989–90) also on BBC1.[2] Harris appeared in several Royal Variety Performances and also performed privately for the Royal Family. At the request of Diana, Princess of Wales he was booked as an act for the birthdays of Princes William[6] and Harry at each of their respective third birthdays at Highgrove and Kensington Palace.[9]

Depression, recovery and pantomime[edit]

The end of Harris's television show coincided with a period when television was "turning away from variety acts".[2] He entered a period of depression, drank heavily and was arrested for drunk driving; his third marriage collapsed during this period.[6] He also opened clubs in Blackpool and Portugal which failed, leading him to declare bankruptcy twice.[2] However, he recovered and began performing in clubs, in pantomimes and at holiday camps, touring the United Kingdom;[6] he wrote 17 of his own pantomimes and had his own pantomime company, Keith Harris Productions, which he sold in 2009 to Richard Jordan.[10]

Renewed television career[edit]

Alongside his continued pantomime performances, from the late 1990s Harris and Orville also enjoyed what The Stage described as a "long Indian summer" as they re-emerged on television in a new "era of knowing post-modern irony".[10] Harris made guest appearances in a number of television shows during the 2000s including Harry Hill, Never Mind the Buzzcocks, Little Britain, Al Murray's Happy Hour,[11] Banzai[12] and The Weakest Link (2004).[13] In 2002, he was the subject of a Louis Theroux documentary When Louis Met... Keith Harris.[2] He and Orville won the Channel 5 reality TV show The Farm in 2005,[6] the same year that he featured in Peter Kay and Tony Christie's music video to "(Is This the Way to) Amarillo".[14] He became an auctioneer on Bid TV and also appeared in an episode of the first season of the children's television programme The Slammer (2006).[15][n 1] According to The Guardian, this renewed attention "established a new cult status for Harris and Orville and triggered a small comeback";[2] he appeared in Ashes to Ashes (2009) and Shameless (2011),[2] in student unions (with his more adult show, Duck Off),[6] and performed to the housemates in Celebrity Big Brother (2012).[2]

Illness, death and appraisal[edit]

Harris had his spleen removed and chemotherapy after a cancer diagnosis in 2013. He subsequently returned to work. The cancer returned in 2014 and he died on 28 April 2015, at the age of 67 at Blackpool Victoria Hospital.[18][19][20]

In Harris's obituary in The Stage, Michael Quinn noted that "For more than a decade, ventriloquist Keith Harris was one of the biggest stars in light entertainment... Together, the saccharine-sweet avian [Orville], acerbic simian [Cuddles] and Harris as straight man and stooge were one of the most high-profile acts of the 1980s".[10] Quinn also pointed out that this popularity faded after that decade, but that Harris nevertheless remained appreciated by audiences until his retirement.[10] The Telegraph, however, remarked that the 2002 Louis Theroux documentary exposed a "darker side" of Harris, "a nervous, edgy man who kept telling rotten jokes" and who struggled to forgive past slights against him.[6] In the same documentary Harris said of Orville that he had "created a monster ... Everybody knows Orville, not everybody knows Keith Harris", but also recognised that the bird had not "burdened" him and had contributed towards his success.[14]

Personal life[edit]

Harris lived with his fourth wife (married in 1999), Sarah Metcalf (b. March 1966), and his two youngest children, Shenton (born in 2001) and Kitty (now a singer,[21] born in 2000), in Poulton-le-Fylde near Blackpool, where he converted the local cinema and bingo hall into a jazz nightclub called "Club L’Orange".[22]

He had his first daughter, Skye, in 1986[23]with his second wife of nine years, singer Jacqui Scott, a winner of a BBC talent show in 1979 who entered the 1980 A Song For Europe contest with her own composition.

Discography[edit]

Albums[edit]

  • At the End of the Rainbow (1983) – UK No. 92

Singles[edit]

  • "Orville's Song" (1982) – UK No. 4
  • "Come to My Party" (1983) – UK No. 44
  • "White Christmas" (1985) – UK No. 40

References[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ He turned down an offer to appear in the second series of Extras (2007), claiming that the writer, Ricky Gervais, wanted his character to be a "racist bigot";[16] Gervais said that Harris simply "didn't get it".[17]

Citations[edit]

  1. ^ Roberts, David, ed. (2005). Guinness World Records: British Hit Singles & Albums (18th ed.). Guinness World Records. p. 227. ISBN 1-904994-00-8.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Anthony Hayward, "Keith Harris obituary", The Guardian, 28 April 2015. Retrieved 14 November 2019.
  3. ^ "Tributes paid to Orville ventriloquist Keith Harris as he dies aged 67", Southern Daily Echo, 28 April 2015. Retrieved 14 November 2019.
  4. ^ Green, Michael (13 July 2017). "Late Chester star Keith Harris' mother celebrates her 100th birthday". chesterchronicle. Retrieved 19 May 2019.
  5. ^ "Norman Harris". Companies House. Retrieved 19 May 2019.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Keith Harris, obituary". The Daily Telegraph. 28 April 2015. Retrieved 28 April 2015.
  7. ^ Strang, Fay (28 April 2015). "The man behind Orville: Keith Harris' depression, dyslexia and four wives". mirror. Retrieved 18 May 2019.
  8. ^ Simon Farquhar, "Keith Harris: Children's entertainer whose act with his dummies Orville and Cuddles was one of the last triumphs of the variety age", The Independent, 28 April 2015.
  9. ^ Caroline Westbrook (28 April 2015). "Keith Harris dead at 67: ventriloquist who gave the world Orville The Duck, dies of cancer – Metro News". Metro.
  10. ^ a b c d Michael Quinn, "Obituary: Keith Harris", The Stage, 29 April 2015. Retrieved 14 November 2019.
  11. ^ David Pollock, "Obituary: Keith Harris, ventriloquist", The Scotsman, 29 April 2015. Retrieved 14 November 2019.
  12. ^ ‘The Man Monster Petrol Pump Off Puzzle clip at channel4. Retrieved 29 April 2015
  13. ^ "In pictures: Keith Harris", BBC News, 28 April 2015. Retrieved 14 November 2019.
  14. ^ a b "Obituary: I created a monster", BBC News, 28 April 2015. Retrieved 14 November 2019.
  15. ^ Harris M. Lentz, Obituaries in the Performing Arts, 2015 (McFarland and Company, 2016), p. 153.
  16. ^ "Ricky Gervais – Ventriloquist Shocked By Ricky's 'Racist' Script – Contactmusic News". Contactmusic.com. 4 September 2006. Retrieved 5 June 2009.
  17. ^ Friday Night with Jonathan Ross, BBC One, 8 September 2006.
  18. ^ Entertainer Keith Harris dies at 67 BBC News 28 April 2015
  19. ^ "Secret weapon that gave Keith Harris and Orville humanity and appeal". The Guardian. 28 April 2015. Retrieved 28 April 2015.
  20. ^ Jenn Selby (28 April 2015). "Keith Harris dead: Orville the Duck ventriloquist dies aged 67 following battle with cancer". The Independent.
  21. ^ Jefferies, Mark (9 February 2019). "Keith Harris's daughter Kitty gives emotional Britain's Got Talent audition". mirror. Retrieved 18 May 2019.
  22. ^ "Keith Harris and Orville - Visit Poulton". Poulton-le-Fylde. 27 March 2018. Retrieved 18 May 2019.
  23. ^ "Keith's Skye in appeal to have phone returned". www.blackpoolgazette.co.uk. Retrieved 19 May 2019.

External links[edit]