Harty appreciation

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Russell Harty leaned forward and earnestly said to Rowan Atkinson, "God had a good day when he gave you your face, didn't he?" before adding with the merest hint of a smile playing across his lips: "But is it your fortune or misfortune?"

Harty's own mother used to complain about this sort of questioning and ask her son why he couldn't be more polite, like that nice Michael Parkinson, but it was this very mischievousness that made people warm to Harty. He's one of us, they thought, able to poke fun at the high and mighty on our behalf.

The celebrated chat-show host died 10 years ago this week, aged just 53. To mark the occasion, BBC2 is showing a tribute documentary with the suitably ornate title, You Are, Are You Not, Russell Harty? In this, Humphrey Burton, the producer who gave him his big break into television on ITV's 1970s arts show, Aquarius, confirms that: "Russell had the ability to talk to everybody... He would put them at their ease, asking them cheeky questions but doing it so charmingly that he'd get away with it."

John Needham, who directed the documentary and knew Harty, reckons that he was so fondly regarded because "he was brought up on a Blackburn market-stall where there was a lot of back-chat, and he never lost that cheeky-chappie charm - or his northern accent. Tom Gutteridge, his producer in the 1980s, said, 'I tried to smarten him up, but I despaired because he'd still always turn up in a navy blue V-neck sweater from Marks and Spencer'. He never lost the common touch. He didn't want to be glamorised. He was warm and welcoming - he came across as an ordinary bloke."

Of course, not everybody appreciated his irreverent attitude. The singer and actress Grace Jones famously belted Harty during an interview. Gutteridge recalls that the presenter was fed-up with the ensuing press hullabaloo, but "on the other hand, he was perfectly well aware that it made his career."

As Harty's rival and friend Parkinson remarks "He'll always be remembered as the man who was attacked by Grace Jones. It's not a fitting epitaph, but it's the one he's got."

It would certainly be more fitting if Harty were remembered for the underrated craft of his interviewing technique. His scattergun approach often felled unsuspecting guests and resulted in what are now seen as classic exchanges with such stars as Dirk Bogarde, Ralph Richardson and Salvador Dali.

"He'd get things out of people that others wouldn't because he had a butterfly mind," says Needham. "People thought he was shallow, so he could take them by surprise. He conducted himself in interviews as he did in real life. He'd get bored very quickly and stand up and start walking around. You'd be talking about something very deep and he'd suddenly ask, "Do you like fish and chips?' That would flummox people."

To prove the point, Richard Whiteley, a former pupil of Harty's from his decade as a teacher at Giggleswick School, remembers one occasion where "We were chatting and he just said in the middle of it, 'I can't decide whether to go impulse-shopping in Leeds or not'."

All of which makes the circumstances surrounding his death in 1988 even sadder. As Harty lay in Intensive Care at St James's Hospital in Leeds seriously ill with a hepatitis B virus he'd picked up abroad, he was besieged by the tabloids. The hospital had to keep the shutters in his room closed to prevent the paparazzi snapping him from the tower-blocks opposite. Porters and nurses were offered substantial sums to photograph Harty in his hospital bed. In the documentary, his partner, Jamie O'Neill, talks for the first time about the stresses of that period.

But even when gravely ill, Harty still had the spirit to tell his old friend Alan Bennett with delight that Princess Margaret had reportedly twice asked how he was.

In making the documentary, Needham was struck by the affection in which Harty is still held. "If you're a reflection of the people you gather around you as friends, then Russell Harty was a good bloke. Of course he could be difficult. He had a habit of letting people down by accepting a 'better offer' for lunch, but he was always forgiven. He never lost touch with his working-class roots, and he never discarded anyone; he kept up with everyone from his chauffeur to Elaine Stritch. Everyone still tells jokes about him - which is a great tribute to him. His friends miss him because when something really funny happens, they still say, 'I can't wait to tell Russell'."

'You Are, Are You Not, Russell Harty?' is on tomorrow at 10pm on BBC2

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