Entertainment & Arts

Obituary: I created a monster

Keith Harris, ventriloquist, performing with puppet Orville the Duck during the Royal Variety Performance, at the Victoria Palace Theatre, London, 19th November 1984 Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Keith Harris and Orville made several appearances at the Royal Variety Performance in the 1980s

Keith Harris, the ventriloquist famed for working with his puppet Orville, has died aged 67 after a battle with cancer, his agent has confirmed.

"I obviously created a monster," Keith Harris told Louis Theroux in 2008. "It's very hard to get away from that.

"Everybody knows Orville, not everybody knows Keith Harris."

The children's entertainer insisted he was not bitter - Orville had made him a household name, after all - but he could never escape the nappy-wearing, flightless bird.

"I can't say he's been a burden, but he put me into a pigeon-hole."

Early start

Born in Lyndhurst, Hampshire, Harris was introduced to showbusiness at a young age, when his father, Norman, incorporated him into his stage show, performing in working men's clubs around the UK.

From the age of six, he would sit on his father's knee and pretend to be a puppet called Isaiah - "because one eye's higher than the other".

Theatre became a safe haven from school, where he struggled with reading and was labelled "thick". He later discovered he had dyslexia.

By 14, he had turned professional, becoming a solo act after Norman retired.

Image caption One of Harris's earlier characters was Percy Picktooth, a gregarious rabbit

He appeared in summer seasons at holiday resorts before booking his first TV appearance on Let's Laugh, which aired in the same week he auditioned for Opportunity Knocks.

At the time, his main character was Freddy the Frog, a puppet who said he was going to be Prime Minister "because he was always in deep water and he had a big mouth".

But it was Orville that made him a household name.

The idea for the puppet - which was later insured for £100,000 - came to him while he was starring with the Black and White Minstrels in Bristol.

"I just happened to have this green fur lying about and had this idea for a little bird that was green and ugly and thought he wasn't loved," he told the Independent in 2002.

He sent a rough sketch to his puppet maker, but was disappointed with the result.

"I hated him," he confessed. "But I took him to the girls in the dressing room next door and they said, 'ah, ain't he lovely'.

"The first time I used him he was an instant hit. There were tears in people's eyes."

Image caption Cuddles catch-phrase, "I hate that duck", may have been a vessel for Harris's own feelings

The bird was named after the American aviator Orville Wright, who, with his brother, Wilbur, made the first manned powered flight in 1903.

It was a name laden with irony, as Orville - a shy, under-confident orphan - could not fly.

The success of the puppet and his simian nemesis Cuddles earned Harris a Saturday evening TV show that ran for eight years.

Orville also became an unlikely chart star when Harris released a single in 1982. Orville's Song, popularly known as I Wish I Could Fly, reached number four, selling more than 400,000 copies.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionWatch the Orville Song

But not everyone was a fan. After one Royal Command Performance, a reviewer wrote: "I'm sure Charles and Diana would like to take a gun and blow the duck's head off."

Harris had the last laugh, though, as the day after the performance, he was invited to perform at Prince William's third birthday.

"I arrived there and Charles came out and we had a Pimms," he later recalled. "Diana helped me in with the boxes, she was absolutely lovely. We were asked back to do Prince Harry's third birthday, too.

"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.'"

Depression

But the success didn't last. After The Keith Harris Show ended in 1990, the characters were given a lower-profile series called The Quack Chat Show, after which television work dried up altogether.

Harris did not adjust well. His marriage ended and he started drinking heavily. Convinced his talents were being overlooked, he opened clubs in Blackpool and Portugal, declaring himself bankrupt twice in the process. He later ended up in AA after being arrested for drink driving.

"When your bubble bursts and you're not as popular - you'd been playing to 3,000 people in a theatre and then go out and there are 30 people - it's very deflating,' he told the Daily Mail last year.

The entertainer spiralled into depression and even contemplated drowning himself, ironically, in a local duck pond.

He also suffered from money troubles, blaming his lack of reading ability for having signed unfavourable contracts.

"I've made about £7 million throughout my career, but I've lost it all too," he said. "It's all down to the dyslexia. I can't read or write. Reading contracts? I didn't, I just signed them."

But nostalgia proved to be a lifeline. He began appearing at holiday camps and student unions - reinventing his show for adult audiences under the title "Duck Off".

He also signed up for reality shows including The Farm (which he won) and Celebrity Big Brother.

Image copyright PA
Image caption There was only one Orville puppet, which Harris insured for £100,000

The duo returned to the pop charts in 2005, when he appeared alongside Peter Kay and Tony Christie in the video for (Is This The Way To) Amarillo.

However, Harris refused to appear on Ricky Gervais' Extras in 2006, telling the Independent: "He wanted me to be a racist bigot.

"I read the script and thought, this isn't clever writing, it's pure filth. I turned it down. I'm not desperate."

In one of his final interviews, Harris spoke of his desire to return to television.

"There's nothing for kids to laugh at now," he said. "I thought I could do a TV show with Cuddles and Orville that teaches children manners.

"But the TV people don't like to back an old horse."

Harris announced that he had cancer on stage last April, breaking down in tears while telling his audience he was set to have a bone marrow transplant.

He underwent stem-cell replacement treatment which appeared to be going well, said his agent, Robert C Kelly. But in January 2015, he was told the cancer had spread to his liver and there was nothing more doctors could do.

Paying tribute to his friend, Kelly said: "Keith was not only a technically great ventriloquist, he was also a gifted mimic and an extraordinarily funny man both onstage and off.

"Over the past few months, Keith has enjoyed several holidays to his second home in Portugal, taking walks along the Blackpool sea front and sitting in the park eating ice cream and watching the world go by."

Harris is survived by his fourth wife Sarah and their two children. He also has a daughter, 27, from a previous marriage.

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