Keith Harris is one of the best known faces in showbiz. Seeing him waiting for me at Poulton-Le-Fylde station is like being met by a dear friend. He drives Stan and me to his house in a shiny black Mercedes complete with the famous number plate ORV 1L. He lives on the outskirts of Blackpool with wife Sarah and their two young children, Kitty and Shenton. As we pull into the drive, I notice a stone plaque on the wall outside his front door. It is of the Janus masks – the smiling and frowning faces more commonly known as Comedy and Tragedy - the universal symbol for theatre and drama from ancient Greece . I wonder if they also represent happy and difficult times gone by.
Every performer has two faces: the private and the public, but there is no pretence or mask-wearing with Keith, he says it how it is, although during our conversation, he is ever the entertainer, momentarily slipping into various characters' voices with resulting hilarity.
Keith brings Orville out for the photo shoot - a lot larger than I recall from TV. Ugly duckling springs to mind, but the big sad eyes soon soften me. He has a little car of his own and of course his name on the plate.
It was fourteen years ago when Keith acquired the ORV 1L number. A friend told him it was coming up for auction in Harrogate . “It was fourth on the list,” says Keith, “the one that sold before mine was CYR 1L which went for about £35,000. I thought, flipping heck, mine's going to cost a fortune. It started at £2,000 and nobody went for it, so it came down to £1,500 then down again to £1,000 so I put my little ticket up. Someone else put their ticket up and it went backwards and forwards until it got up to about £1,400 and the other fella said no, so I got it for that. I met him afterwards and he said he was only going to sell it to me anyway. It's got to be worth an awful lot more now. I would never sell it. The only other Orville I know is the singer Shaggy, who had the hit ‘It wasn't me'.
“I wanted my own number plate from when I was a kid, not realising at the time you had to do all the paperwork. When 24 KH came up in the newspaper on a pre-war moped, I bought it for £75. I had it on my MGB GT when I was a young guy zooming around. Having a number plate is a showbiz thing, especially when you're trying to get recognised. One's I saw around that I liked were Jimmy Tarbuck's number COM 1C, and Danny Le Rue's RU 12[are you one too], plus of course FU 2 which was on X-rated model Fiona Richmond's car.”
Since the late sixties, FU 2 has belonged to Hanna Smart, widow of Billy Smart Jr. Keith worked with their son Billy Jay in Smart's circus. “Billy Jay was my stooge; he was about four years old. My Mum probably has the show on video, she has about six hundred videos of everything I've done except the Minstrel shows. They didn't have videos then which is such a shame, but it's great to look back at all that stuff. “I did Billy Smart's Easter Circus and Christmas Circus every year for four years and the Minstrels before that. My first TV performance was when I was seventeen on a show called Let's Laugh which was the forerunner to The Comedians . At the same time I auditioned for Opportunity Knocks. Trouble was I appeared on it the same week as Let's Laugh and that came out first so Opportunity Knocks weren't very pleased that I'd already been on a TV show. I had Freddy the Frog then; he said he was going to be Prime Minister because he was always in deep water and he had a big mouth. We lost by 27 votes to a young boy trumpeter who many years later was playing in my band in the pit. I had my own TV show, Cuddles and Company (in the 1970's).
On that I had Dominic the Dog and Daphne who was a shark in a tank of water. My ideas came from animals, I was always looking for ‘the one' that was going to take off. I never really wanted to be known as Keith Harris andOrville. I was Keith Harris ‘the entertainer' and this was part of what I did. Ventriloquism never topped the bills anymore; there was always one on the bill, often to close the first half. I wanted to say look: I sing, I dance, I do impressions, I do everything and this is something else I do. The reason I picked ventriloquism was because working the theatre's as a kid, there were a few ventriloquists who were pretty old by then. I thought if I take it up as my main act, by the time they die I'll be able to step into their shoes.
“My Uncle and Aunt were both in showbiz. My Father could sing so when he came out of the army, they said there was a vacancy in the show. He went for the audition and got in. He met my Mum, a dancer and wardrobe mistress, on a show called No, No Nannette .
“As a boy I was always making puppet theatres; I loved everything to do with theatre. Unfortunately I had many years of bad schooling. I didn't have a teacher for two years, and the headmaster ended up in prison. I was in a class with all the rough and tough kids who were trouble-makers. There was me in my little Lord Fontleroy suit, and I was shoved in there because I couldn't read or write. I was dyslexic but it wasn't recognised as anything apart from ‘being thick'. But my mind was always full of being on the stage. I would leave school and go straight to the theatre. At weekends I'd work the clubs with my Dad, earning a few quid, getting recognition.
I knew that's what I wanted to do. They couldn't get any teacher to handle this class, so of course, nobody came. It was only when some of my Mum's pupils from the dancing school she ran said they don't have teachers, they don't do anything that she went down there and made hell with them. The headmaster used to get me up to his office with a book and say, ‘Read that' and when I couldn't he'd cane me. I was lucky to have the theatre as my focus. The kids at school didn't know what I did. I was quite a timid little boy, but on stage I was king, the main man. Even in my teenage years I was a quiet person but as soon as I got on there I was completely different because I could control that and I was good at my art which always surprised people. I suppose I was born into it. I joined my Dad's act when I was six. I used to sit on his knee – he was the ventriloquist and I was his dummy. That's where I learnt all my timing.”
Those early years of training meant that by the time Keith first used his own dummy all the technical aspects of being a ventriloquist came instinctively. “Dad retired when I was eleven so I decided to continue as a solo act. By fourteen, I'd turned professional.” It was only very recently that Keith discovered he had a great grand uncle called John Oliver Harris, born in 1884, who he has an uncanny resemblance to. Even more surprising is that John Harris was also a ventriloquist, and the dummy he used looked identical to Keith's first dummy, Charlie Chat.
“It was quite a shock seeing the photo of John. To think that ventriloquism is so deeply embedded in my family history and genes is incredible. It is not a talent thatanyone can learn. I could try and teach it to people, but there's a lot more to it than just speaking without moving your lips. You have to be two individual people and sometimes if I work with Cuddles for instance - I've been doing it for so long – sometimes he'll say something that I wasn't even thinking of saying and it is quite weird because your mind is working so fast – a bit of schizophrenia I suppose. One of the most important things about ventriloquism is the timing. You have to think what the dummy is going to say to set up the gag. The characters are so real to people that when I walk out there the last thing they say is what a clever ventriloquist.
“One of the oldest ventriloquists – Arthur Prince and Jim, topped the Palladium as one of the highest paid acts. He was known for doing a performance with a glass. He'd have a flunky with him and say: I will now drink a pint of beer and the flunky would come on stage with a tray, go up to the audience and someone would check it wasn't a trick glass and then he'd say: ‘And now Jim will sing' , so Jim (his dummy) would drink the pint of beer and sing It's a long way to Tipperary but the flunky would have the tray in front of him and it would be himsinging. Then Arthur would say: ‘I'll throw my voice to the back of the theatre – hello!' And the flunky would run right round the back and call ‘hello' and Arthur would call again and you'd hear the other voice and everyone would think it was marvellous. So you see you can't throw your voice; it's all illusions. I used to do a great one with the telephone, I'd go into Woolworth's and use one of the kid's phones: I'd ask the shop assistant, ‘Can I use your phone please?' [Keith makes the sound of a phone buzzing] ‘Hello?' [Keith makes a squeaky voice that sounds like the person on the other end of the phone.] After I'd finished the conversation, I'd put the phone down and watch the assistant pick the receiver up to see who was there.”
Ventriloquism comes from the Latin word ventriloquus meaning: speaking from the belly, but according to Keith, you don't speak from your stomach at all, “You speak from up here,” he says, touching his neck, “if you get a sore throat you've had it. Thank god we've got microphones these days as well. Once in Ireland , I lost my voice completely and I didn't know until I actually picked Orville up. I was alright with the monkey but with Orville I use the back of my throat because it's a fairly high pitched voice. Cuddles was talking and I said, where's Orville? I brought him on and nothing was coming out at all. It was such a funny experience. I very quickly did a ‘Sooty' where Orville was answering by whispering in my ear. Luckily the audience didn't twig. They were just so in awe of seeing him. The only difficult part was the singing! I went to see a specialist about my throat and he said if I tried to force it I'd ruin my voice so I had to cancel the whole week – lots of heartbroken children but there you are. They said can't you just bring him out, but it's not the same.”
So how does he make his dummies such engaging and convincing characters?
“You've got to believe in your character for them to come alive. I've had so many different ones, over 170, and when Orville came along he was the one everybody wanted to see. The balance between the monkey and Orville worked really well.
“Up to then, most of my characters were hard-hitting, while I was doing the Northern working men's clubs and places like that. The clubs turned from nightclubs into discos, they had to have an act on of sorts to keep the licence so because I was a young guy with long hair and looked more like a pop singer coming out and doing ventriloquism, it was something very hip and very different. I had a snake called Sidney Ram Jam, which I'm not allowed to do any more – he spoke with an Indian accent and wore a little fez. I had a gay rabbit too, and I'm going back a long time, he was called Percy Pickle-tooth, then there was Freddy the Frog.
“Before a show, I'd always find the toughest guy in the bar and say to him, ‘Do you want to earn a few beers?' I'd get him up on stage, squeeze him on the back and he'd open his mouth and mime what I was saying. Everyone loved it because it would be the most unlikely person letting me do this to them – his mates would say ‘That's Charlie up there!' – He loved it too; it worked a treat.
“I thought I'd invent a character that was a little bit softer. First I thought of a baby, but babies don't say much. People like animals so I came up with the idea of a baby bird. Orville's not really a duck, but he's an orphan – he was an egg when I found him. And he's always been shy; it took him six months before he came out of his shell. So I had to create this character, and being lime green, apart from when you're on stage where it's obviously visible, there's no such bird as a lime green bird so we don't know what species he is.
“The first time I worked with Orville was on The Good Old Days . I'd designed him and sent it to a person who made props for me. I was also in the Minstrels doing the Christmas season in Bristol . He arrived from the props maker on the Saturday and I had to work with him on the Sunday. I'd written a script and I had a voice - how I would imagine him. I pulled him out of the box and I thought, I hate this, I really don't like it at all, it wasn't what I expected. I took it to the girls' dressing room and they said Oooh isn't it lovely... aaah! So I thought well that's an instant reaction. I made the story up about he doesn't know what he is and he hasn't got a mummy or daddy. Together with the big sad eyes and the baby's nappy, he was an instant success. I sang a song I used to sing with my Dad - ‘Little man you've had a busy day,' I'd put Orville to bed [Keith sings a couple of lines for us] and by the end, the audience were crying. From there Val Doonican saw it and he wanted me on his show, then we did shows with Lena Martell, Cilla Black, who I also had on my show, and I used Cilla as a dummy, and Lulu; everybody wanted Orville.
“I did a series with Rolf Harris called Rolf's Here OK . He's a smashing guy, a great performer. The television producer, James Moya who then became head of BBC Light Entertainment, had been following my career. I was packing places out and it was all starting to happen for me. I was at Nottingham in Aladdin at the Theatre Royal in 1981. We held the record for the longest running panto – twenty two weeks from 23 December and finishing on April 10 – it's in the Guinness Book of Records. Billy Dainty was in it and Barbara Windsor played Aladdin. I was top of the bill. We invited Moya down to see the show and he said to me, you're there now. He gave me my first chance on TV with a Christmas Special and he said if it works you've got a series. All those years of building an audience paid off.”
The Keith Harris Show ran from 1982 – 1990 and The Quack Chat Show from 1990 – 1993. “Someone said you should bring a record out and I said I've got one, called ‘Orville's Song' but everyone knows it as ‘I wish I could fly' which Bobby Crush wrote. Bobby worked with me in several summer seasons. We used to sing ‘You've got a friend' or ‘It's not easy being green', but I said can you write one just about Orville so he took all the bits from the act ‘I haven't got a mummy and daddy' and ‘I can't fly' and wrote it. We went to Abbey Road and put the song down and I paid for it; £3,500 I think it cost. I said – if it's good enough for the Beatles, its good enough for the Duck! In fact it wasn't going to be the A-side, the one I wrote called ‘I didn't' was meant to be, so we spent all afternoon doing that with a kids' choir. We had ten minutes left so we got the other track down; we did it once off, which was Orville's song.
“I took it round all the record companies and at EMI I saw a big record producer. I said I've got this green singing duck, and he said: ‘Leave it in the bin on the way out son. We're pop stars here we don't have green ducks.' So it went in the bottom drawer for three years. The great thing was that when it did come out it was a hit. I was on Top of the Pops and the EMI record producer was there with Abba who were at number sixteen in the charts and I was at number four. I said to him, do you remember me? [Keith mimics the producer's mumbled reply]. It didn't get to number one but it sold 400,000 copies and won us a gold disc.”
Keith discovered many acts whilst he had his own TV shows, including Five Star, whose biggest hit was System Addict and Norwegian group A-ha, who performed Take Me On a year before it became a hit record. “I said to all the young comics of the day that I'd worked with in the clubs - if I get my own show I'll have you on and not only do your own spot but do a sketch with me - so I had people like Bobby Davro, Brian Conley, Joe Longthorne and Gary Wilmot . ”
Over the years Keith has worked with all the great stars: Tommy Cooper, Morecombe and Wise, Norman Wisdom and others. “I was in awe of Morecombe and Wise. You didn't speak to them they spoke to you. By seventeen I was on stage at the Palladium – they were great times when I look back, they were the kind of opportunities up and coming stars haven't got today unfortunately, but if you keep going and keep doing what you're doing, something comes around all of a sudden. I must be one of the youngest surviving variety acts. I was the last one to do a television show variety wise from that era. Sometimes there's a bit of a lapse when you're out of the public eye but I'm always working.
After my TV show ended I had to diversify. I saw the reasons why that sort of variety was a thing of the past and Ben Elton and The Young Ones was the next big attraction, but I thought, I can easily do what they're doing. I decided to do an adult show aimed at students. They already loved what I did for kids so I thought I'd sauce it up a bit. I call it ‘Duck Off'. Cuddles swears a lot but Orville not so much, in fact Orville's attitude is different altogether; he's grown-up. The routine goes like this: ‘Are you going to school tomorrow?' ‘No' ‘Why not?' ‘Because I'm forty bloody five and I've sat on your arm for twenty five years, I'm a bit pissed off about it.' It works well, but he still says he doesn't have a mummy and daddy and the audience still say ‘Aah,' and the monkey shouts out ‘Little bastard . '
The monkey is always having a go at him, it works so well. The monkey is funny, but Orville, you can't change him, I did try a few times at the beginning but the audience didn't want that. In the act, especially the adult show, the dolls knock me, if one of them is naughty or swears I tell him off so I'm always the intermediary between them and the audience, nothing to do with me. Cuddles will have a go at the audience, rip people apart. I did have one person say: ‘Its disgusting the way that bloody monkey spoke,' and I said, I do apologise and they said: ‘Its not you it's that bloody monkey . ' To be able to go up there and say whatever you want, insult people and get away with it is incredible. And no reflection on me at all! The admiration I get from the students is wonderful and it's always better than they think it's going to be, that's the thing.
“From that people like Harry Hill picked up on it; we were on Never Mind the Buzzcocks , The Weakest Link , shows like that. It's either I haven't been sussed yet or people enjoy what I do. To entertain the kids as well as the mums and dads, the grannies and grandads or in a gay club, or in front of ten thousand bikers – to be able to do that is great. But that's years of experience and getting on with the job.
“If someone came along now and said, here's a kids TV series, I know it would start all over again. It would be nice but I wouldn't like to be away from my family, I've been there and done that. I've got a beautiful wife and two beautiful children and I want to spend time with them. I'm really happy where I am now. This is the happiest I've ever been. I still come up with ideas and want to try different things, but this time for something that won't take me too far away from home.
“Quite a lot of the young entertainers that I see now have emulated me. It's hard to come up with something different. There will never be another character like Orville, that's a certainty. Orville means a great deal to a lot of people. He's touched so many people's lives - the letters I've received. We worked with Dr. Barnardos for years as their mascot. The blind children loved to touch Orville and listen to his voice; it was wonderful to witness. And there have been two children who died and had their toy Orville's buried with them. When it gets serious like that you know it has affected people. It's saved a few marriages too and brought people together. He's even been carved out on the helm of a ship and Brian May from Queen says he is going to write a song for Orville one day.”
Keith has suffered his share of vicious comments too. Following a Royal Command Performance, Keith was cruelly slated in the press: ‘I'm sure Charles and Diana would like to take a gun and blow the duck's head off.'Fortunately for Keith the total opposite was true. The following day he received a phone call from his manager. “He said to me, you've been asked to do a children's party, and I know you don't do children's parties but I'm sure you'd like to do this one. Princess Diana adores you and Orville and has asked if you will you come to Highgrove house to do Prince William's third birthday party.
I was absolutely delighted to accept. I arrived there and Charles came out and we had a Pimms [Keith does a convincing impression of Prince Charles.] Diana helped me in with the boxes, she was absolutely lovely. We were asked back to do Prince Harry's third birthday too. It was nice to be able to do it. Diana sent us a lovely letter saying: ‘The Princess hopes that Orville did not suffer from too much bruising after the rather rough patting he received from one or two of the smaller members of the audience.' I met her a lot after that because she worked for Dr. Barnardos as well.”
Considering Keith has been entertaining millions of us for half a century, I'm staggered to learn that he has never been the subject of This is your Life . "My wife said to me, you've done all these things, but nobody wants to know.” Fortunately Keith is beginning to receive the recognition he deserves, even if in a round about sort of way. In 2005 he became the winner of reality TV show The Farm . “I think they were looking for people who were instantly recognisable, people who would break the mold. Going in there was a difficult decision for me because my dad died the day before it started. But I knew he would have wanted me to do it.
They had a councillor who talked it through with me and they said I was okay to go ahead. Half-way through the programme I had to come back for the funeral. Despite many ups and downs it was a great experience, especially because I won. I wanted to prove to myself and other people that I'm not just a fella that sticks his hand up a duck's bum, I can do other things.” Since then he has been among the all-star line up on the Peter Kay and Tony Christie video for the hit Is this the way to Amarillo ? And in January 2007 he made a cameo appearance with Orville in Al Murray's Happy Hour .
Now approaching sixty, Keith still performs around the country. He also enjoys writing, directing and producing Pantomimes. In the coming year, he is looking to cut back on his work commitments although he says he has a few exciting projects in the planning stage. Perhaps ventriloquism is about to have a revival? Keith would like to think so. There is no doubt that he has inspired a new generation. Actor Tom Conti's daughter Nina is the latest to prove that the skill is far from a dying art. Ventriloquism may come from the word meaning ‘speaking from the belly' but Keith Harris always speaks from the heart.
Interview: Ruby Speechley
Photography: Stan Thompson