Keith Harris was a ventriloquist and entertainer who found great fame in the UK throughout the 1980s thanks to his popular puppet characters Cuddles the Monkey and particularly Orville the Duck, whose finely honed characters and clever interactions with their creator built Harris a devoted family following. At the height of his fame he hosted The Keith Harris Show on BBC1, performed at the third birthday parties of Princes William and Harry at the request of their mother, Princess Diana, and reached number four in the British charts with his novelty hit Orville’s Song in 1982.
Born Keith Shenton Harris in Lyndhurst, Hampshire, Harris was immersed in show business from a young age, with a mother and father who were both variety performers (the former as a singer and performer, the latter as a dancer).
An undiagnosed dyslexic who recalled a bad educational experience in a class filled with rougher children at school, Harris’s only interest and escape as a youth was with thoughts of the theatre.
His toys were puppet theatres which he made himself, and his weekend job was appearing in his father’s show – something he started at the age of six when he first pretended to be his dad’s ventriloquist’s dummy on stage.
Taking up as a solo artist in his mid-teens following his father’s retirement, Harris paid his dues on the working men’s club circuit around the north of England, with an edgier act in an era when what is now referred to as political correctness was not so prominent in an entertainer’s consciousness.
A ventriloquist even then, his characters included a gay rabbit and a fez-wearing snake with an Indian accent, and one of his most popular pieces was using the biggest guy in the pub as his “dummy” in return for a few pints.
Among his earliest television appearances in the 1970s was as the host of the equally un-PC variety programme The Black and White Minstrel Show, as well as spots on The Dean Martin Comedy World and Ronnie Corbett’s Saturday Special, but it wasn’t until Orville started to appear with him that the nation’s imagination was captured.
Created as an attempt to introduce a more light-hearted and family-friendly element to his work, Harris has admitted to being none too enamoured of the furry green, nappy-wearing duck when the prop first came back from the workshop.
However, the heavy-lidded creature’s lovable appearance and the cooing voice that Harris gave him was a winner with young audiences, and his star rocketed through television variety shows and into his own headline shows – although the pair very much came as a package in the audience’s eyes, with one hardly ever mentioned without the other.
Even as Orville made Harris a very wealthy star, his creator also became irrevocably typecast in the public perception.
Harris would later appear sanguine about this fact in interviews, agreeing that Orville had killed off many career pathways for him as much as the character had made him famous in the first place.
At the height of his fame, Harris shifted 400,000 copies of Orville’s Song to put what was essentially a novelty song into the upper reaches of the charts, while 1981’s record-breaking 22-week run (from late December until early April) in panto with Barbara Windsor in Nottingham demonstrated how comprehensively he’d taken the worlds of variety and popular television by storm, coming on the cusp of his full-time shift from one to the other.
Yet following the cancellation of The Keith Harris Show in 1990 and the fall of both his television career and his style of comedy, Harris took it hard. He struggled with drink and depression.
He found regular re-employment in the holiday camps of his early career, however, and developed a new act featuring Orville and Chuckles aimed at the student union market which remembered him from their youth, a more mature and self-deprecating take on the characters named Duck Off! which led on to one-off television appearances with comedians who also remembered him from their youth.
Still teamed with Orville, naturally, he was a kitsch but game addition to episodes of Harry Hill, Never Mind the Buzzcocks, Little Britain and Al Murray’s Happy Hour throughout the 2000s, also winning the Channel 5 reality show The Farm in 2005 (although he declined to play the part written for him in Ricky Gervais’ Extras).
Suffering from cancer – which he announced to a live audience early in 2014, breaking down in tears when they gave him a standing ovation – Harris died of the disease at home near Blackpool.
He is survived by his fourth wife Sarah, who he married in 1999, and their teenage children Kitty and Shenton, as well as his eldest daughter Skye from an earlier marriage. Of Harris’s diagnosis, Orville “said” to the Daily Mail last year: “It’s sad, in’t it? I’ll have to work on my own. He’s my right-hand man.”