Interview: Anita Harris, Actress

FRANK SINATRA, Mae West, Phil Silvers - veteran star of stage, screen and vinyl, Anita Harris has worked with them all. Indeed, as a 16-year-old in Las Vegas, the Carry On favourite learned her trade watching just such legendary performers at work.

"I was an ice-skater as a kid. That's where it all started" she recalls. "There was a little ice rink in Bournemouth where I was brought up, and that's where I skated. Later, I'd go up to London to Queen's Ice Rink. It was there, two weeks before my 16th birthday, that I was offered the choice of either skating in Paris or going to Las Vegas, where I would dance in a line and sing one song. I chose Las Vegas.

"Looking back it's quite amazing that my darling parents let me go, but it was the most wonderful experience. I saw Frank Sinatra live, Vic Damone live, Louis Prima, Keely Smith... Mae West was opposite us. Those stars still stay on my shoulders.

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"Frank Sinatra was such a dear soul. He graciously gave us dancers five minutes and I remember his eyes just came into your soul. What I treasure most, however, was the spirit that he had when on stage. He was magical, a huge power-house but with a sense of humour and a twinkle in his eye. I have taken a part of that and it has stayed within me all my working life.

"That experience not only opened my eyes but taught me the discipline of theatre because we did three shows a night. We started at 7.30pm and finishing at 5am when we would go on a 'breakfast ride' – take a few horses out and watch the sun come up over the dessert. Then we'd have a chuck wagon breakfast, go to bed, get up at 6pm, and start all over again".

Next week, the 67-year-old returns to Edinburgh to star in the 25th anniversary tour of Richard Harris' award-winning comedy, Stepping Out, a play she first appeared in two years ago.

In a dusty church hall, ex-professional dancer Mavis Turner holds her weekly tap class. Every Thursday, in stumbles her well-intentioned but not overly talented troupe, all brought together to dance as if no-one is watching, and hopefully no-one ever will. That's until they're invited to perform at a charity gala, when disbelief is replaced by sheer terror. Can this bunch of amateurs pull together and put on the performance of a lifetime? Directed by Richard Baron, this production finds Harris in the role of 'snooty' Vera, while co-star Brian Capron, known to millions as the sinister Richard Hillman in Coronation Street, plays the bumbling, but loveable pianist, Geoffrey, whose mid-life crisis might just bring with it some mid-life reward.

"Last time around I played Mavis Turner, the part played by Liza Minelli in the film version, and this time I'm playing the part that was played by Julie Walters," reveals Harris.

"Vera is a woman who is leading a slightly false life and so she is terribly, terribly posh, and incredible finicky. So it's a very challenging role for me and I'm loving every moment of it. It is beautifully written."

For Harris, the role is just the latest challenge in a career that now spans more than half a century. After returning home from Las Vegas she joined The Granadiers singing group and by 1961 was performing with The Cliff Adams Singers, yet she admits that she has never had a real career plan.

"Being with Cliff Adams for three years was a wonderful learning curve, but although I was ambitious I never had a strategy," she confesses.

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"I did see Doris Day in Calamity Jane when I was 13, though, and from then on knew that my heart was in the golden age of the musical. It still is."

That said, it was in the Hit Parade of the swinging Sixties that Harris first made a name for herself – the decade that she also met Mike Margolis, her husband of 37 years.

"Meeting my lovely husband was a highlight of my career. He became my record producer and we started growing together in the music industry.

"I remember we were in the Top Of The Pops studio one day and there was dear Dusty Springfield singing (she sings] 'You don't have to say you love me...' Then I was to sing Trains And Boats And Planes.

"She stayed behind to watch my rehearsal. At the end of it she said, 'Anita, you have got to meet my brother Tom, I think he has a song for you.' That song was Just Loving You. As the years have gone by I've treasured that moment because it was such an unselfish thing for Dusty to do."

Just Loving You gave Harris her first Top 10 hit in 1967, the same year the silver screen beckoned with roles in Carry On Doctor and Carry On Follow That Camel. Both won her a whole new fan-base.

"The Carry On films have become such a phenomenon that they still introduce me to new audiences now," she says happily. "At the time I was working with Frankie Howerd in review. The Carry On producers came to see him to talk about the next film and spotted me.

"It was a halcyon time for me; to sit with Phil Silvers and talk while we were waiting for our shots to be done, and then to have my first screen kiss with Jim Dale and to be working with that team who were all so sharp and together. I was in seventh heaven really."

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TV appearances followed including Royal Command Performances and seven years with Seventies magician David Nixon, as well as her own top- rated children's television musical sitcom Jumbleland.

She also carved a niche for herself in the world of pantomime, being described by one critic as 'the finest principal boy of our times.' Indeed she played the title role in the Edinburgh King's Robin Hood And The Babes In The Wood in 1989. She also appeared at the Leven Street theatre in a production of Peter Pan in 1975, although her last visit to the Capital in 1990 was very different – she appeared with then Hearts player Craig Levein, sitting on a large dice, to launch Condom Corner, a new board game aimed at publicising AIDS prevention in Edinburgh.

"Oh my goodness," she laughs, "I don't remember that at all, but I did enjoy playing the beautiful theatre that is The King's. In Robin Hood we had Michael Mackenzie, I'd love to catch up with him when I'm in town, Allan Stewart, Una McLean and the lovely Russell Hunter. When you have a cast of that strength and quality you have a very happy, happy time, which is what we did."

Despite her success, all has not been plain sailing for Harris, reports of financial troubles have followed her down the years but she is philosophical. "Who goes through life with no ups and downs? Not many. I come from a family with a strong inner state, we believe that there is somebody up there looking after us. There's a light that guides us.

"When the show is in Edinburgh, Mike and I celebrate our 37th wedding anniversary. Our love for each other keeps me going. We are still very together, God bless him. He's going to pop up and we are going to have a wee drammy together and share a few with the company."

The publicity for Stepping Out might be able to boast that it has delighted audiences for 25 years now, its star, however, has been delighting them for twice as long.

Stepping Out, Festival Theatre, Nicolson Street, Tuesday-Saturday, 7.30pm (Thursday/ Saturday matinees 2.30pm), 13-27.50, 0131-529 6000

GIRLS 'N' THE HOOD: Anita Harris as Robin with Una McLean at The King's Theatre, Edinburgh in 1989, and below, in Stepping Out