Chris Harris: Doyen of pantomime dames and authority on the genre who took his one-man show 'Kemp's Jig' around the world
Tuesday 22 July 2014
Energy and enthusiasm were two qualities Chris Harris always seemed to possess, in an inexhaustible supply. Actor, writer, director and mime artist, he was also a leading authority on pantomime and was cherished in his native West Country for his Christmas stage treats. Harris always took care to combine rhyming couplets and childrens' torchlight sing-alongs with specific local references, often uttered by his Dames. Described in this paper by the late Miles Kington as "the funniest Dame I ever saw", Harris also found a global audience through historical solo shows, that rendered him, in his own words "a one man mummer – not just a comic turn".
Facially resembling a fusion of Jon Pertwee and Martin Jarvis, he was born in Somerset and educated at Taunton School. While still training at the Rose Bruford College (of which he later became a governor) he had a prophetic credit in a specially written children's play, The Silver Whistle (1964), as a genie. Joining the repertory company at the Theatre Royal, Lincoln later that year, he played Huckleberry Finn in Tom Sawyer, presented over Christmas.
His first proper taste of pantomime was at Salisbury Rep, first as Idle Jack in Dick Whittington (1965 into 1966), and as Jack in Jack And The Beanstalk (1966/67), where the company also included Stephanie Cole and Christopher Biggins. He was among the rude mechanicals in A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre in 1967, and had his first foray into drag in Charley's Aunt (1968) at the Connaught, Worthing.
Fittingly, Harris' West End debut was as Ratty in Toad Of Toad Hall (1971-72), receiving its annual airing at the Duke of York's, with veteran Richard Goolden playing Mole, as he had done since 1930. At the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford in 1972, Harris supported in Coriolanus and Julius Caesar, both part of a cycle by Trevor Nunn of Shakespeare's Roman plays. He and Geoffrey Hutchings then played the Dromio twins in The Comedy Of Errors.
In 1976 Harris premiered his first one-man show, Kemp's Jig, at the Wimbledon School of Art. Publicised as "bawdy, frolicsome, highly acclaimed", it saw him embody Will Kemp, a member of Shakespeare's troupe for whom many of the Bard's comic characters were written; Harris termed Kemp "the top banana of his day". Aided by an extract being shown on LWT's arts programme Aquarius in 1977, he did it at the National Theatre's Cottesloe, and in Australia at the Adelaide Festival in 1978.
Harris estimated that he had performed the show in 55 countries, a feat equal to Kemp's having danced continuously from London to Norwich over five days. Harris's experiences touring it ranged from the Philippines, as the revolution against President Marcos raged outside, to an Australian bush theatre where setting foot on the stage caused it to collapse. He recalled that the only place where it met with an unfriendly reception was India, due to audiences' veneration of Shakespeare, with whom Kemp became at loggerheads – "[they] found it very difficult to accept the idea of a man on stage saying anything bad about him".
Devising seven one-man shows in all, Harris viewed Kemp's Jig as his standard bearer, also using it as the basis for a book, Will Kemp – Shakespeare's Forgotten Clown (1983). After That's The Way To Do It, a three-part BBC TV drama with Harris playing successive generations of seaside Punch and Judy men, was recorded in 1978 but not shown until two years later, Harris enterprisingly turned it into his next one-man show, in 1979.
Hey Look...That's Me! (1978-83) was a children's programme initially shown on BBC South but later networked, in which Harris travelled the south coast in a magic pink caravan. Via colour separation overlay he introduced filmed items and ended by asking viewers "did you see yourself?" He also appeared in drag as his Aunt Lil, a characterisation he only slightly altered to play Mother Goose at Bognor Regis in 1983.
In the third series of Into The Labyrinth (HTV, 1982), a children's fantasy series, Harris played a time-travelling magician called Lazlo, with different roles for each episode. He recalled that when playing Mr Hyde and shouting, he accidentally spat out his specially fitted false teeth. Those inclined to take such programmes seriously generally found Harris inferior to Ron Moody's wizard in the first two series. However, during its run, Harris cajoled HTV into donating towards the costs of a loop system for the hard of hearing at the Theatre Royal, Bristol.
After years of supporting roles in pantomimes, Harris was a distinctly Bristolian Widow Twankey in his co-written Aladdin at the Theatre Royal, Bristol in 1992. With regular collaborator Chris Denys, associate director of the Bristol Old Vic and principal of its Theatre School, Harris wrote the venue's pantomimes for the rest of the decade.
In 2000 Harris's Jack And the Beanstalk became the first Bristol Old Vic production to have been seen by more than 40,000 people, and grossed £60,000 more than the previous box office record. The following year, Harris switched allegiances to the Bath Theatre Royal for another Aladdin, and directed as well as Damed there each Christmas. His last was Peter Pan, as Governess Gertie, until early this year.
Christopher Harris, actor, director and writer: born Bridgwater, Somerset 14 December 1942; twice married (two sons from first marriage); died Portishead 30 April 2014.
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