‘Keith was an inspiration and Blackpool legend’

Keith Harris and Orville
Keith Harris and Orville
  • Keith Harris died yesterday, aged 67, at Blackpool Victoria Hospital
  • He had been battling an aggressive form of spleen cancer since 2013
  • Keith’s career saw him break box office records in Blackpool, sell out shows in resorts nationwide and record a hit record which sold 400,000 copies

Keith died yesterday, aged 67, at Blackpool Victoria Hospital, after battling an aggressive form of spleen cancer since 2013.

File photo dated 12/04/83 of ventriloquist Keith Harris and his puppet Orville feeding a goose in St James's Park, London, as Keith Harris, famous for his act with his puppet duck Orville, died today aged 67, his agent said. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Tuesday April 28, 2015. See PA story DEATH Harris. Photo credit should read: PA/PA Wire

File photo dated 12/04/83 of ventriloquist Keith Harris and his puppet Orville feeding a goose in St James's Park, London, as Keith Harris, famous for his act with his puppet duck Orville, died today aged 67, his agent said. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Tuesday April 28, 2015. See PA story DEATH Harris. Photo credit should read: PA/PA Wire

Tragically, less than six months ago, Keith was given the all-clear by doctors to return to the stage after chemotherapy and stem cell treatment.

The father-of-three, and grandfather-of-two, enjoyed a career that saw him break box office records in Blackpool, sell out shows in resorts nationwide and record a hit record which sold 400,000 copies.

Today famous names from stage and screen paid tribute to the star who entertained children for four decades.

Syd Little, of Little and Large, said: “Keith’s going to be sadly missed. Showbusiness was his life.”

His death has come as a real shock, he was larger than life’

Comedian Stan Boardman said: “I remember a time when I did a show with him in Blackpool and we had to fly to Torquay.

“Keith was there with Orville and there were two other comedians – one with a horse and another with an ostrich – I remember thinking if we crashed we’d look like we’d crashed into a safari park.

“He was a great man and was showbiz all the time.”

Pal and stand-up comic Mick Miller added: “His death came as a shock to me, even though Keith has been ill for some time now.

“He has fought his cancer with courage and dignity.”

Among those paying tribute to Keith was Culture Secretary Sajid Javid, who said: “Very sad to hear that Keith Harris has died after a battle with cancer. Brought joy to my childhood”

Singer and broadcaster Aled Jones added: “Sad to hear of the death of Keith Harris – sending best wishes to his family and friends.”

Dragon’s Den star Duncan Bannatyne wrote: “So sorry to hear about the death of Keith Harris, a great entertainer who has died so very young. Fly up into the sky Keith. RIP.”

Louis Theroux, who interviewed the entertainer for a 2002 documentary, wrote on Twitter: “RIP ventriloquist Keith Harris. Lovely man. My thoughts are with his family.’

Keith Chegwin said: “So sad. A great entertainer and all round nice man Keith Harris has passed away. Best wishes to his family at this sad time.”

Pal and fellow performer Joe Longthorne said: “Keith was a true legend.”

Keith honed his act as a young teenager, inspired by his late ventriloquist father, Norman, before taking the show out to holiday resorts and onto BBC programme Let’s Laugh at just 17-years-old.

He quickly became one of Britain’s best-loved entertainers as he appeared on TV throughout the 70s and 80s with his luminous green duck sidekick, Orville.

The Keith Harris show ran from 1982 to 1990, featuring both Orville and Cuddles, the monkey.

At the height of their fame Keith and Orville performed private shows for Princess Diana and Prince William and Prince Harry.

He had grown up in Hampshire and Chester but Poulton became his adopted hometown, with his former fashion model wife Sarah and two youngest children, 15-year-old Kitty and Shenton, 13.

He also invested in Club l’Orange, on Vicarage Road (now Uber), the name a tribute to the green duck who brought him success.

In the 90s he brought his show to the Sandcastle Showbar, earning the venue its most successful seasons, according to bosses.

John Child, managing director of the Sandcastle, said the joy of Mr Harris’s shows were how he could translate them to suit any audience.

He said: “Keith was a great entertainer and families loved him – it was an hilarious show.

“He was very polished in what he did so it was the most successful show we ever had in the Showbar.

“His death has come as a shock, he was larger than life.”

The world learned of Keith’s illness when he collapsed on stage in Great Yarmouth in 2013.

He had been diagnosed with spleen cancer earlier that year, having realised his symptoms, of sweating and stomach pains, was more than just the stresses of life on the road performing.

His spleen was removed in a five-hour operation before undergoing months of chemotherapy to prevent the cancer returning.

Keith told The Gazette last year that returning to the stage after being given the all-clear was as great an achievement as his many box-office and TV show successes.

Keith even shaved Orville’s head to match his own when he lost his own trademark curly locks during chemotherapy.

Friends said his resilience and good humour during the illness was an inspiration.

Joe Longthorne said Keith’s battle with cancer helped him through his own fight with throat cancer.

He said: “Keith was a true legend of Blackpool.

“Going through cancer myself, I know how brave he was and I was really proud of the way he fought it. It takes a brave man to do that.

“He was an inspiration to me in my own battle.”

During his recovery. Keith never gave up on his belief that performing was “the best medicine”.

In December Keith played a series of comeback shows at Sands venue in Blackpool. But he took ill again in January.

Friends and family have told of spending happy, poignant last days with Keith in recent weeks, but that in spite of a devastating diagnosis from doctors, they remained optimistic.

Jacqui Scott, a former wife of Keith and mother of his eldest child, Skye, 27, said: “We saw him last week and it was wonderful, we went for dinner and reminisced.

“He still had a great faith and Sarah, his wife, had hope. Miracles do happen and you mustn’t ever give up, you must fight and he did, no-one fought cancer longer and harder.

“He was too young to die. We’ve lost a great talent, a real professional and a great man.

“I will remember Keith with great fondness.”

Keith and Ms Scott were married for eight years from 1983, having met at a summer show in Scarborough in 1981.

Her brother Cameron Scott, a long time friend, said: “I had a lot of laughs with Keith over the years, always full of life with bags of energy.

“He was a true pro and a consummate performer who will be sadly missed by all those who had the pleasure of watching him perform.

“He was certainly very much a family man.

“Sarah, his wife and wonderful mother to their two lovely children, really cemented their family unit.

“It is a great loss to showbusiness.”

In his last interview with the Gazette, in December, Keith looked forward to having a “few good years left making people laugh”.

At the time he was desperate to return to his first love, performing before a live audience.

He said: “Me and Orville have been together for nearly 43 years.

“I would like to think we have a good few years left making people laugh

“We get people of all ages coming to the shows and I hope my return will be a popular one. I can’t wait.

“I don’t think people will have forgotten about Orville and me yet and I feel like I now have a new lease of life after everything I have gone through.

“I feel like anything is possible.”

‘The unique talent of a showbusiness legend will be missed more than we yet realise...’

Former Gazette Entertainment Editor Robin Duke looks back at the life and career of Keith Harris.

It takes a special kind of talent to make a green duck and a manic monkey into showbusiness icons – and keep them there year after year in an ever changing and ever more sophisticated entertainment world.

But Keith Harris was that special kind of talent.

Armed with such inoffensive catchphrases as “I wish I could fly” and “I hate that duck” he honed a unique act which could travel anywhere – often literally in the back of his car.

Showbusiness was in his DNA. For all the show there was also the business and Keith’s business was keeping successive generations of Orville (the duck) and 
Cuddles (the monkey) fans entertained.

“Give them what they want, they’re here to be entertained not educated,” he would say if anyone dared to suggest that his act didn’t seem to change much over the years. “The youngest ones haven’t seen it before and the older ones want to see it again. It’s an act that recycles itself – how many others can say that?”

It was easy to forget that underneath the seeming simplicity of his act Keith was a master of his art – controlling the squeaky clean duck and the irreverent monkey was one of the most skilful ventriloquists the entertainment industry has ever seen.

Offstage – even when clearly ill – he was always optimistic, always planning his next tour, his next pantomime or his next summer season.

He hated missing a show, he hated disappointing an audience, he hated not holding centre stage and hearing the waves of laughter from every generation of his fans.

He lived and breathed entertainment. He was an authority on former and fellow entertainers and an active supporter of up and coming ones. He believed in the future of showbusiness too – and rarely missed an opportunity to flag up Blackpool.

But he was also always forthright in his opinions and at a talent show I once judged with him he started heckling one of the acts.

“It’s tough love,” he said. “If they stay in this business they’ll get far worse from audiences.”

At the time it seemed harsh. In retrospect it was oh so right. He knew he was very good at what he did but rarely thought about extending beyond Orville and Cuddles – though he did create an alter ego adults-only version of his show, attracting a whole new audience along the way.

If being the butt of some undeserved jibes from less talented younger performers and pundits upset him, he certainly never let it show – even opening the briefly successful Club l’Orange in his beloved adopted home town of 
Poulton as a reference to the duck which had financed it.

Above all he was always accessible, loving being recognised because every autograph, every handshake, every bad impression of Orville’s sad little sayings meant another potential ticket sold.

The unique talent of a showbusiness legend will be missed more than we yet realise.

Your tributes

Keith Harris performed many summer seasons during the hey days and will be fondly remembered as part of Blackpool’s rich entertainment heritage. Condolences to his family. R.I.P

Stephen Pierre

Thanks for all the childhood memories

Michelle Rogers

Keith was a lovely man, my thoughts are with his wife and children x

Michelle Hopwood

RIP Keith thanks for all the laughs

Pauline Tunnicliff

RIP Keith Harris I was a big Orville fan as a kid. And I met Keith couple of years ago. A true gentleman going to be sadly missed.

Alison Ambrose

R.I.P Keith Harris – a legend that epitomised variety entertainment in Blackpool and across the entire UK, entertaining millions and becoming a staple of so 
many childhoods.

Our thoughts are with his family and friends.

Winter Gardens Blackpool

He was my childhood. God bless x

Kelly Marie Payne

I wish I could fly.... and you will. Rest well Keith, thanks for the happy childhood memories x

Elaine Glass

Loved that bird – thanks Keith for the happy memories.

Joy Chatters

Really sad news. Local legend who did lots for the community and charities.

A lovely man. He held a door open for me in a chemist’s once with a beaming smile, a true gent.

So sad he lost his battle but won’t be forgotten. Thoughts to his family.

Claire Freeman