Keith Shenton Harris (21 September 1947 – 28 April 2015) was an English ventriloquist, best known for his television show The Keith Harris Show (1982–1990), audio recordings, and club appearances with his puppets Orville the Duck and Cuddles the Monkey. He had a UK Top 10 hit single in 1982 with “Orville’s Song” which reached number 4 in the charts.
Born in Lyndhurst, Hampshire, Harris grew up in Blacon near Chester, where his father owned a chemist shop, and North Baddesley. His parents were both variety performers and from age nine Harris appeared on his father’s knee as a “dummy”.
Harris was severely dyslexic at school and began creating ventriloquism characters as a teenager. After appearing in summer seasons at holiday resorts, he had spots on the television series Let’s Laugh (1965). Harris became a popular act on television variety shows, and following a spell as the host of The Black and White Minstrel Show, was given his own show called Cuddles and Company. He appeared several times on BBC TV’s long running show, The Good Old Days.
Harris’ best known creation, Orville the duck, came about after he saw some green fur lying around backstage at a performance of The Black and White Minstrel Show in Bristol. Orville, recalled Simon Farquhar in his Independent obituary of Harris, was “a huge, gormless, falsetto-voiced green duckling sporting a nappy fastened by a giant safety pin”. Harris recorded “Orville’s song”, written by Bobby Crush. It made the Top Ten in the UK singles chart in 1982 and sold 400,000 copies, but was later voted the worst song ever recorded.
The Keith Harris Show ran on Saturday evenings on BBC 1 from 1982 to 1990 and a series for children The Quack Chat Show (1989-90) also on BBC1. Harris appeared in several Royal Variety Performances and also performed privately for the Royal Family. At the request of Diana, Princess of Wales he was booked as an act for the birthdays of Princes William and Harry at each of their respective third birthdays at Highgrove and Kensington Palace.
Following the end of his TV show, Harris declared himself bankrupt twice, because clubs he had opened in Blackpool and Portugal had failed, and said in 2014 that his dyslexia had cost him millions of pounds because of his inability to read contracts accurately.
In later years, he appeared as a guest star in a number of TV shows including Harry Hill, Never Mind the Buzzcocks, Trisha, Banzai, and The Weakest Link. This, combined with work entertaining in the clubs, in pantomime and at holiday camps around the country, as well as starring in a commercial for Surf soap powder, enabled him to become solvent again.
In 2002, Harris was the subject of a Louis Theroux documentary called When Louis Met… Keith Harris. Harris later said that they had become friends during the course of filming, although they lost contact when Theroux went back to the US for his next projects. In 2004, Harris and Orville performed at Bolton’s Albert Hall in the pantomime Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
Harris starred in a children’s programme called The Slammer, set in a prison on CBBC, where contestants perform to an audience of children. In 2005, Harris was among the all-star line up in Peter Kay and Tony Christie’s music video, “Is This the Way to Amarillo”. Fellow children’s entertainer Geoffrey Hayes, who also had financial troubles after his own show failed to be re-commissioned, also appeared in the video.
In 2005, he and Orville won the Five reality TV show The Farm. As a result, he became an auctioneer on shopping channel Bid TV until 2006. On 12 January 2007, he made a short cameo appearance with Orville on Al Murray’s Happy Hour on ITV.
From 2005 to 2008, Harris had his own pantomime company, Keith Harris Productions Ltd., from which he wrote and appeared in his own pantomimes. He undertook an annual pantomime at Ferneham Hall, Fareham, Hampshire. Harris’s company was bought out in 2009 by Jordan Productions Ltd. In 2009 Harris joined another production company and appeared in Peter Pan alongside Orville and Cuddles at the New Theatre in Hull.
In May 2006, Harris made a pilot called Judge Orville for Bravo. In a parody of popular shows such as Judge Judy and The People’s Court, Orville was dressed in judge’s garb and made pronouncements on fictional disputes. The show was not made into a series.
In February 2007, Harris refused to appear on the second series of Ricky Gervais’s television series Extras. He said, “[Gervais] wanted me to be a racist bigot … I read the script and thought, this isn’t clever writing, it’s pure filth. I turned it down. I’m not desperate.” When asked about Harris’ refusal on Friday Night with Jonathan Ross, Gervais claimed that Harris simply “didn’t get it”. Keith Chegwin, who assumed the role offered to Harris, said: “The people who didn’t get it probably think Johnny Depp really is a pirate.”
Harris lived with his fourth wife, Sarah, and his two youngest children, Shenton and Kitty, in Poulton-le-Fylde near Blackpool, where he previously owned a nightclub. He was formerly married to singer Jacqui Scott, a winner of a BBC talent show in 1979 who entered the 1980 A Song For Europe contest with her own composition. They had one child.
Harris had his spleen removed and chemotherapy after a cancer diagnosis in 2013. He subsequently returned to work. The cancer returned in 2014 and he died on 28 April 2015, at the age of 67 at Blackpool Victoria Hospital.