Date of Birth: 21 September 1947, Lyndhurst, Hampshire. UK
Birth Name: Keith Shenton Harris
Nicknames: Keith Harris
The ventriloquist Keith Harris, designed and made more than 100 dummies during his career, but was most famous for creating Orville, the green duck who spoke in a high-pitched voice and wore a nappy held on by a gigantic safety pin. Such was his fame at a time when variety acts were the staple diet of many television programmes that he had his own Saturday evening series, The Keith Harris Show (1982-86).
His 1982 Christmas single Orville’s Song, opening with the wistful “I wish I could fly…”, reached No 4 in the charts and sold more than 400,000 copies. Harris’s other memorable character was Cuddles, a blunt-speaking orange monkey with a blue face who shouted: “I hate that duck!”
The ventriloquist once said: “I’m the best there is, technically. You can’t see my lips move. People don’t appreciate the cleverness of it.” But despite his success, Harris claimed last year that being dyslexic had caused him to lose millions of pounds because he was unable to read contracts properly. He said he had been labelled “thick” at school and that friends had read out the lines of scripts that he needed to memorise. With the demise of variety on TV, he became depressed, drank heavily and received a two-year ban for drink-driving but fought back to continue his stage and television career.
Harris was born in Lyndhurst, Hampshire, the son of Norman, a singer, comedian and ventriloquist, and Lilian (nee Simmons), a dancer. Growing up in Chester and attending the city’s secondary modern school, he was taught ventriloquism by his father, with whom he performed a double act in working-men’s clubs. The boy, as a pretend puppet called Isaiah “because one eye’s higher than the other” would sit on his father’s knee as both sang Sonny Boy.
From the age of 14, he developed his own act and began creating characters. Among the first dummies were Percy Picktooth the rabbit and Freddie the frog. A summer season at Rhyl, Denbighshire, in 1964 was followed by further work in variety, cabaret, overseas tours and pantomime, including his own production of Humpty Dumpty. He made his TV debut in Let’s Laugh (1965).
Some green fur left lying around while he was performing with the Black and White Minstrels on stage in Bristol gave Harris the idea for “a little bird that was green and ugly and thought he wasn’t loved”. Orville, named after the pioneering American aviator Orville Wright and insured for £100,000, was born, and appeared on dozens of programmes, alongside stars including Ronnie Corbett and Val Doonican.
Harris’s children’s series The Quack Chat Show (1989-90) finished as television was turning away from variety acts, so Harris switched to performing summer seasons at Butlin’s holiday camps. He also opened, in Blackpool and Portugal, clubs whose failure led him to declare himself bankrupt twice.
Appearances on Harry Hill and Louis Theroux’s TV shows, a 2004 detergent commercial, and a part in Peter Kay’s video of the Tony Christie hit (Is This the Way to) Amarillo (2005), established a new cult status for Harris and Orville and triggered a small comeback. The pair even won the reality show The Farm in 2005 and were cast in the drama series Ashes to Ashes (2009) and Shameless (2011). Harris also found new audiences by performing for the Big Brother housemates in 2012 and touring student union venues with Duck Off, a show whose adult humour contrasted with his previously child-friendly act. However, he refused to play a racist version of himself in the Ricky Gervais sitcom Extras.
Diagnosed with cancer in 2013, Harris returned to the stage after surgery and underwent a bone marrow transplant, but the cancer spread to his liver.