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Almost 50 pantos for grafter Keith

By Herald Express  |  Posted: December 22, 2011

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IAM speaking to Keith Harris who is backstage at the Theatre Royal. Having spoken to a fellow journalist who already interviewed Keith, I'm hoping for a quick chat with Cuddles The Monkey too. But alas, to no avail, Cuddles isn't very cuddly today.

Speaking to Keith about a life in the entertainment industry, I was interested to hear he feels that he is part of a team.

Throughout our chat he says: "We did this," and "we had to change."

Now taking part in his 48th pantomime, perhaps Orville and Cuddles really have become an extension of his personality.

Keith Harris, who plays Buttons, is one of Britain's most inventive and talented performers and together with his creations, Orville and Cuddles, has starred in every major theatre throughout the UK, including two pantomime seasons at the London Palladium and at the Dominion Theatre.

"This is my 48th panto this year — obviously I started very, very young!" he said.

"I am actually 64 now although I don't look it. I used to, but I don't now.

"I did have an idea that I'd still be doing this for a living at this age. If you don't believe in yourself and that you will be successful, then you never will.

"In my day, you started at the bottom and ended up wherever you could reach.

"It is a different world now, of course, with X Factor and Britain's Got Talent.

"Three weeks ago you are working in a butchers and now you are working earning millions. People say 'but it doesn't last', but with a few million in the bank, I don't suppose that they care."

Keith is one of life's grafters.

He's struggling with a cold, which must be a nightmare when you throw your voice for a living.

But he's such an old hand at panto that he even knows when he is going to get ill.

"It's all going very well but we are all suffering from colds," he said.

"There are so many, it is unbelievable. I am on the antibiotics. Usually this happens on the third week of a panto for me. It's come early.

"I don't think that people realise what goes into putting on a pantomime.

"Some just think that it just happens — you just throw it on and have a laugh.

"Believe me, there's a lot of hard work, especially with so many shows a day."

His life in the entertainment world began at the modest age of six when he appeared in pantomime.

His comedy flair and timing were honed when he joined his father in a double act that successfully survived many years on the hardest training grounds — the northern working men's clubs.

"I used to do an act with my father," he said.

"He would come on stage singing and I would be in the audience and start creating havoc.

"I would end up on stage with him, sitting on his knee and being the doll."

In fact, Keith has worked out that the entertainment gene goes a lot further than his parents.

"I come from a showbusiness background with my parents, but I've done some research and it actually goes back to 1822.

"I only found that out eight years ago when someone did a family tree.

"We discovered this chap called John Oliver and he was a ventriloquist. He looked like me, or I look like him. And Oliver is an anagram of Orville (nearly).

"His dummy was similar to the first one that I ever had. They were made in a shop called Gamages in London, they all came from the same puppet maker who had a mould.

"It's the same face that this one has from 1828. It is amazing, it's not an art that many do.

"There are lots of singers and dancers but to be a ventriloquist is a specialised art. So to find one that is in your own family is quite special."

By the time Keith was 17, he had appeared at the world famous London Palladium and in future years would appear there many more times — Sunday Night at the London Palladium and The London Palladium Show which also toured Canada and Australia with Orville and Cuddles and the rest of Keith's adopted family.

Over the past ten years Keith has broken the box office records at Nottingham and Oxford (Aladdin) and Cardiff, Birmingham, Rhyl, Southport, Sunderland, Ayr and London (Humpty Dumpty).

In a show at the Dominion Theatre in London's West End, Keith achieved a life-long ambition by not only starring but also producing and directing.

Bobby Crush penned a special tribute to Keith and called it Orville's Song.

The resultant record soared to number four in the charts, selling more than 350,000 copies.

By public demand, Keith moved into television and his show found him millions of new fans.

The latest offering, The Quack Chat Show, proved not only successful on TV but equally popular when it travelled throughout the country.

Among his millions of admirers are members of the Royal Family.

Keith achieved another milestone in his career when he was invited to appear on the Royal Variety Performance in 1984 in front of the Queen Mother and Prince Charles.

"I was lucky enough to work with all the big stars," Keith said.

"I worked with Morecambe and Wise up and down the country on tour, Norman Wisdom, Tommy Cooper, all the big stars.

"I used to stand on the side and watch them and hope that one day that would be me.

"Ventriloquists never really topped the bill. I knew that I would have to build a show around myself and the whole thing would have to revolve around me.

"It took 20 years to be successful, but then we were ready when it took off.

"It has always been seen as an old-fashioned art, a dying art perhaps.

"People still say that now but we are still out there doing it, and doing it well."

Keith has had to evolve over the years, ducking the 'children's entertainer' tag, but also getting his head around moving into more adult shows, dubbed 'Duck Off'.

"When the alternative comics came on the scene, I had to change. You don't lose your talent overnight, you can still go out and perform, you just need to change your material.

"I went onto the student circuit. Basically the same act, but with swearing.

"For 15 years now we have been doing an adult show. It took some time for me to get my head around it."

He added: "I was never really a children's entertainer. When we became a popular, it turned us into children's entertainment.

"I was surprised to be doing shows to little kids because we were more sophisticated, as such.

"It took me a bit of time to adapt to do a children's show. It did put us in a hole as being 'just for children' which was frustrating.

"The press has never really looked at the talent behind us that makes it work. Cuddles the Monkey hates the duck, and says the thing that people are thinking but won't say. There is meaning behind that."

There may be a chance for Keith to pass on his 'extended family' too, but the jury is still out.

"My daughter Kitty is 11 and in a pantomime in Blackpool. She is full of it. Some people have it, other's don't. She is all singing and all dancing.

"She is not really interested in ventriloquism though.

"My little boy is eight and is starting to come out with the gags now.

"I've never pushed them into entertainment though as they have always been around it. Kitty is a natural, my boy I'm not sure about. But if they want to carry on, fine.

"It is a hard art to master. If you make it look easy, then it is OK. People don't leave the theatre thinking 'Keith Harris is so good' it is always 'Orville is so cute'.

"That's the best back-handed compliment that you can get."


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