Obituary: Keith Harris
Ventriloquist who entertained millions with his falsetto-voiced duck Orville
Published 03/05/2015 | 02:30
Keith Harris, who died of cancer on Tuesday aged 67, was an entertainer and ventriloquist who performed a long-running double act with a falsetto-voiced incontinent green waterfowl called Orville.
Harris became nationally famous with his Saturday night programme The Keith Harris Show (BBC One, 1982-90), which introduced viewers to the simpering nappy-wearing duck and his bright orange simian friend Cuddles. In 1982 Harris and Orville scored a Top 10 hit with the plaintive 'Orville's Song' (written by Bobby Crush), featuring Orville's catchphrase "I wish I could fly, way up to the sky, but I can't", which sold more than 400,000 copies and was later voted the worst song ever recorded.
The idea for Orville came to Harris when he was appearing with The Black and White Minstrel Show 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 recalled in 2002. He sent a sketch to his puppet maker, but when Orville came back, "I hated him. But I took him to the girls in the dressing room next door and they said, 'Ah, ain't he lovely'. " He called him Orville after the aviator Orville Wright: "A joke because Orville can't fly."
With wisecracks of a similar calibre, Harris and Orville became a variety show and children's television favourite. "People love him," Harris claimed in an interview in 2005. "He's brought children out of comas, and other, more tragic children have been buried with him. He is a real person." Later on, Harris toured with a more adult offering entitled Duck Off, featuring, as Harris explained, a grown-up Orville "fed up of my having my hand up his backside". The show was said to be a great hit with students.
In 2002 for his BBC Two series When Louis Met…, Louis Theroux followed Harris and Orville about as they prepared to open in Cinderella in Crewe and found a darker side. Harris proved to be a nervous, edgy man who kept telling rotten jokes and then saying "That's a joke" afterwards, in case Theroux had not got it.
Harris admitted that after his television career stalled in the early 1990s, he had spiralled into depression and heavy drinking, and had at one point considered drowning himself in the local duck pond near his home in Poulton-le-Fylde, near Blackpool. At school Harris suffered from severe dyslexia and was labelled "thick" (in later life he claimed to have lost £7 million in earnings because he was unable to read his contracts).
The Keith Harris Show was followed by The Quack Chat Show (BBC One, 1990-93). After the show was axed, Harris suffered a low period during which he was arrested for drink driving and his third marriage broke up. But in later life he and Orville became a regular act in clubs, holiday camps and pantomime.
On his website, Harris claimed his "genius" had "given him international stardom for many years", but he had a long memory for slights, recalling how "after one Royal Command Performance, someone wrote: 'I'm sure Charles and Diana would like to take a gun and blow the duck's head off', " before pointing out that he had the last laugh when he got a call to entertain Prince William on his third birthday.
He also took offence when invidious comparisons were made with other performers. Of Rod Hull, who had a famous double act with his puppet Emu (before falling off his roof and dying while trying to fix his television aerial), he observed: "He was never a ventriloquist. Ventriloquism is an art. I've worked at it. I've studied it. I'm the best there is, technically. You can't see my lips move. People don't appreciate the cleverness of it."
Keith Harris is survived by his fourth wife, Sarah, whom he married in 1999, by their son and daughter and by a daughter from an earlier marriage to Jacqui Scott.