Northern Life regular Duggie Chapman shares his memories of Keith Harris with Eric Beardsworth
The entertainment world lost an original and genuine talent with the death from cancer of star ventriloquist Keith Harris at Blackpool, his adopted home town of some 20 years.
Best known for his furry green duck Orville and bad-tempered monkey Cuddles, 67-year-old Keith had experienced the ups and downs of showbiz.
Born in Hampshire, he was on stage from an early age. His dad was a singer, and when he was a lad part of the act was Keith sitting on his knee, pretending to be a ventriloquist’s dummy.
He developed his own act as a teenager and worked his way up the hard way in summer seasons, variety, cabaret, overseas tours and pantomime.
A piece of green costume fur he found backstage one day inspired his idea for Orville, the nappywearing duck that established his image and propelled him to fame.
He starred in his own top-rated TV show in the 1980s, reaching number four in the pop charts with Orville’s Song, but also lost money on clubs he owned and on contracts he said he could not understand properly because of his dyslexia. He also became depressed and was once banned for drink-driving.
Undefeated, he continued to work on TV, in holiday camps, summer shows and pantomime, even turning his family-friendly image upside down by creating an adult-rated show mainly for student audiences.
His funeral at Sacred Heart Church, Blackpool, followed by burial at St John’s, Poulton, was attended by showbusiness names including Nolan sisters Maureen and Denise, Freddie ‘Parrot Face’ Davies, Jimmy Cricket, Bobby Crush (who composed Orville’s Song), Irish singer Rose Marie, and former Coronation Street actor Ken Morley, demonstrating the respect in which Keith was held by fellow professionals.
Mourners also included new TV star ventriloquist Steve Hewlett, who had studied with him, Keith’s agents Robert Kelly and Phil Dale, and Peter Pullan, who made the original Orville figure for Keith.
Keith’s 97-year-old mother Lila was also there, and Skye Taynton, his eldest daughter from his first marriage to Jackie Scott, read a poem she had written including the lines: “We know the kind of man The man who strives for better Rewrites his act until perfection Down to every single letter.”
Here, Duggie Chapman pays his own tribute to Keith Harris…
“I honestly think Keith was the best ventriloquist we ever had.
“I’d known him for more than 40 years, from when he was an up-andcoming performer. He was so innovative. He didn’t just have a doll, he designed his own, lots of them, including Orville the
duck and Cuddles the cheeky monkey.
“When he did a summer season at Blackpool Grand in 1983 he broke all box-office records. It’s never been equalled.
“Keith worked for me in six of my pantomimes, at Southport Floral Theatre, Billingham Forum and Bolton Albert Halls, and he was a real professional. There are some stars who can be a bit awkward and give you problems, but Keith was never any trouble.
“His last show for me was last September at Blackpool Opera House with Freddy ‘Parrot Face’ Davies and Jess Conrad and he was great as usual. Sadly, he became unwell not long afterwards.
“He called round to see me just a few weeks before he died with a load of costumes he’d had made for his pantomimes he’d produced for four years in Fareham, Hampshire. He said: ‘I’m not going to be doing it any more so you can have them,’ and gave me all these beautiful costumes. That was the kind of man he was, generous and a very, very nice lad. He will be missed by everyone who knew him.”