It was a pleasure to chat with Keith Harris and Orville back in 2012 for Visit Poulton, you can read our interview in full below. We were sorry to report that Keith died in the early hours of Tuesday 28 April 2015, aged just 67.
Keith had been a well known ventriloquist with his fluffy friend Orville and all round entertainer for over five decades, including his own TV show from 1982 to 1990. He also holds the record for the number of seats sold in a summer season at the Grand Theatre. It’s one which can’t be broken now because the theatre has less seats than it did when Keith was in residence.
Keith had cancer of the spleen which he was diagnosed with in 2013 and had undergone several rounds of intensive treatment for.
National names and local people alike left tribute after tribute to Keith Harris on social media. Everyone was so sad at the passing of a truly nice man, leaving their condolencys to his family. RIP Keith x
His funeral was on Friday 8 May 2015. A public ceremony was held at noon at Sacred Heart Church on Talbot Road, followed by a private burial for family and close friends.
Interview with Keith Harris
Originally Published Late 2011
If you’re over the age of about 35 then you should be able to sing along to the song that was on everyone’s lips in the late 80’s. And you’ll have grown up with a furry green bird in nappies!
We spent a couple of weeks tracking Keith down through his agent and eventually did a telephone interview in the autumn of 2011. It was quite a thrill to interview a television celebrity and something that I can’t remember having done before, and it left me a bit stuttery and falling over my words until I got into my stride. Of course we wanted to know about Keiths connections with Poulton, and the things that showbiz interviews miss out on, and along with a little walk down memory lane for us both, it was a very interesting interview.
When I was a child and we holidayed each year in Blackpool, the shows in the summer season ran for 30 weeks, with two appearances a day, and the stars of variety really earned their money. At that time, Keith was appearing each year in Blackpool so it made sense to move to the coast from his then home in Bournemouth. He told us that he ended up in Poulton by mistake ‘I’d found a lovely house in Singleton and everything was arranged’ he told us. ‘Everything was packed – I had a cheque in one hand and my belongings in the other and then at the last minute I was gazumped!’ He then found himself in the position of being homeless and the house he ended up with was the only one in Poulton empty and ready to go.
It just proves that fate plays a hand in deciding what we do, because more than 20 years ago it seemed to be an adequate place with potential and now he’s still in the same house, having extended it and shaping it to be his own. It’s also a house that’s seen a few famous faces pass through – as indeed Poulton has without most people knowing! Among others, Louis Theroux stayed there when he made one of his unique programmes about Keith.
It helps that he’s lived here a long time and is now part of the scenery and can go out without people stopping him continually. Although his wife finds it amusing when people stop and say ‘hello’ and he has no idea at all who they are! Of course most of us don’t have the problem of being famous, but Keith did hit the nail on the head when asked why he liked Poulton, saying ‘It’s so handy for the glitz and glamour of the coast and easily accessible, and at the same time it’s far enough away to be a nice quiet place – which is also really handy for most things’. Perfectly put!
Did you also know that Keith was a trailblazer in the town, and founded The Residence Nightclub? The former Cinema and Bingo Hall was advertised and an ideal size for a club, which he opened as a laid back jazz club with cherubs and red velvet as Club L’Orange (Duck L’Orange – get it?). Eventually Keith managed to get a 2am license, which set the pace for the evening economy of Poulton and meant that the local people could enjoy a night out in the peace and relative safety of their own area rather than having to travel further afield or to Blackpool.
A walk down memory lane, talking to keith Harris and Orville
It was fascinating talking to Keith, and a walk down memory lane too with mention of Val Doonican and Bobby Crush and all the faces I once watched on TV.
One thing I didn’t know, and doesn’t seem to be popular knowledge, is where Orville actually came from. With his own TV series, Cuddles actually came first, or was first into the limelight, amid about 80 characters in the ventriloquists career. Remember the Black and White Minstrels show? It was the biggest show on the TV at its height which Keith hosted for the last two years of the series, and that was the springboard for Orville.
After doing something different every week, the search was on for a softer character which led to the baby bird that everyone calls a duck, with the ‘ah factor’. He’s green simply because there was some green furry fabric on hand! Orville came back from the character makers and Keith wasn’t impressed, ‘I took him out of the box the day before the first performance and really didn’t like him’ he told us ‘but the girls in the dressing room all went ‘aaahhhh’ so I went with their gut instinct! And here’s another famous programme, Orvilles first appearance was on ‘The Good Old Days’ and he went down a storm. Cilla Black asked Orville to appear on her show, then Lulu and Val Doonican, and between them they appeared on 10 major shows within a few months. The strange thing is that his voice has got higher as he has got older!
It’s now thirty years since Bobby Crush wrote Orvilles Song which was actually a skit on Annies Song – better known as ‘I wish I could fly’ and Keith paid £3500 to record the song at Abbey Road – well if it was good enough for the Beetles it was good enough for Orville! None of the record companies had heard of Keith Harris and Orville so the recording languished in a bottom drawer for a few years until the prestigious Christmas Special show – when the BBC suggested a song to go with the show and signed the duo. As they say, the rest is history and the announcement that the record was available to buy at the end of the show shot it up the charts to number four. The number of sales would have held it at number one for weeks by todays standards!
Performing at seven Royal Variety Shows is a big achievement, but Orville does have an even bigger claim to fame. As they can be, the press were critical after a Command Performance for Prince Charles and Lady Diana in the early 80’s. A phone call two days later more than made up for it, with a request to perform at a very special birthday party – for three year old Prince William at Highgrove. To be only equalled a few years later with an invitation to Prince Harry’s third at Kensington Palace!
So what are these two doing now? The long line theatrical family shows no sign of slowing down – recent family research revealed an 1828 ventriloquist relative with an uncanny resemblance! It’s been a long career that’s far from over yet – along with producing and directing pantos and shows with his own production company, Keith hasn’t stopped working for nearly 50 years and still plays to audiences of 3000 people at a time. Last Christmas he performed his 47th year in panto in Plymouth with Julian Clary – a good balance of two different genres that works well for the crowd. As he says, ‘I’ll keep on doing it until I get it right!’
And to finish, a final fascinating fact. Keith Harris and Orville hold the record at The Grand Theatre in Blackpool for playing twice nightly, capacity summer season audiences. Bet you didn’t know that either!
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