At home with Orville (and Keith)

When their TV show ended, in 1990, Keith Harris and Orville dropped out of the public gaze. They've been planning their comeback ever since. Now there's a possible TV pilot called Gagging for a Duck, and that nice Louis Theroux has just visited...
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The Independent Online

Keith Harris (and Orville, of course) lives in the unlikely sounding, small village of Poulton-le-Fylde, which is just outside Blackpool. Here, Keith kindly meets me at the station in his white Mercedes, registration: ORV 1L. "Just a bit of fun," explains Keith. Keith is 54 now. Keith no longer has that perm, the one which made Kevin Keegan look as if he'd only had a modest demi-wave. It was a perm, wasn't it, Keith? "It had been permed, but I do have curly hair anyway." Orville, thankfully, is not with him. You know Orville. He's that thing. That monstrous, vivid green thing with the cheeks like spookily enormous Granny Smiths. The thing that had a Top Ten hit in 1982 with "Orville's Song" (agghhh, agghhh and double-agghhh!).

Where is Orville? At home, it turns out, "in a big bag in my garage". Keith only has one Orville, "which is insured for £100,000". Orville may or may not be a duck. "People say he is, but no one really knows for sure who his folks are." I say I worry for Orville, what with that nappy the size of Norway and everything. Shouldn't he be potty trained by now? Shouldn't he at least have graduated to pull-ups? Probably, says Keith, "but he's 36 and I'm not taking the nappy off. I wouldn't like to see what's underneath. Ha!"

We drive to his house, which is just a few streets away. It's a nice modern house in a nice modern cul-de-sac with a big garage (with the thing in it, and maybe Cuddles, the very orange monkey, too) and a built-on granny flat at the side for when Keith's parents, Norman and Lyla, former variety performers, come to stay. Lyla is quite a fan of Keith's. "She's got everything I've ever done on video." His fourth wife, Sarah, is in as are their children, Kitty, two, and Shenton, 10 months. (Keith also has a daughter, Sky, by one of his previous marriages). Sarah is an extravagantly pretty former model with legs that go up to her armpits, although not literally, as that would be hideous. Sarah and Keith first met at L'Orange, the nightclub Keith used to own in Poulton-le-Fylde but which he's since sold on. L'Orange was tasteful. "Over 25s only, with a white piano." Sarah came one night with friends, having been told it was owned by "the fella with the bird". So she thought, initially, "I was Rod Hull and Emu." Poor Rod, I say, who fell off his roof, and died, while trying to fix his TV aerial. Yes, poor Rod, Keith agrees, "but it did annoy me when people said what a good ventriloquist he was. 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. Coffee?" No thanks, I say. How about, instead, a gottle of geer? Yes, it might be quite a bit harder than it looks. You can't not see my lips move.

Appreciation is a big thing with Keith. Keith, according to his own website, is "one of Britain's most inventive and talented performers". Plus: "There is little doubt his genius has given him international stardom for many years," which seems a unique way of putting it. But he's always been horribly teased, and it has always hurt. Badly. "One reviewer said it looked like I was wearing pubic hair on my head. What an awful thing to say about a person." He remembers insults keenly. "An agent for an alternative comedian once told me I was finished, out the window, a has-been. But what's Julian Clary doing now? Pantomime! I love panto. I've done 37." There are, frankly, quite a number of insults to remember keenly. "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.' " He got the last laugh, though, because the very next day Highgrove called asking if he'd care to entertain Prince William on his third birthday. Keith did care to. Very much. He has the letter of thanks from Diana's lady-in-waiting framed on one of his walls. It goes: "The princess apologises for taking out a gun and blowing the duck's head off, but how much of this sort of thing can one be expected to take?" Hey, only teasing. It goes: "The princess hopes that Orville did not suffer from too much bruising after the rather rough patting he received from one or two of the smaller members of the audience." Sweet.

Certainly, I think Keith thinks he should still be on telly, as he was with his own show between 1982 and 1990. "Once you are off TV, people think you're dead, think your talent's disappeared. And you do lose status. You're asked to be fourth on the bill to someone from Gladiators, and that does annoy me. Why? Because they are not as good as me. They can't be. They don't have my experience. Do I sound bitter?" Um. Yes?

Touchingly, he is genuinely perplexed at the way the world has changed. His first big break was as the compere of The Black and White Minstrel Show. "I did five, maybe six, summer seasons with them and we played to capacity, two shows a night. Eddie Murphy whites up, so why can't white people black up? And there were black people in The Black and White Minstrel Show. The make-up they used was actually dark brown, but looked black on television. I once saw a black man take his make-up off and he was actually darker underneath! There is no reason why it couldn't be done again now, only with modern dance routines. Perhaps it wouldn't work with coloured people again. But maybe you could just do 'The Minstrels.' "

Still, pecker up. Or beak up, if we are addressing Orville here. Things do seem to be looking up for the both of them. They've just been Louis Theroux-ed in a programme that goes out on BBC2 tomorrow. "Orville's Song" has just been re-released with the original version of the song, plus a dance and disco version, all on one CD, which may represent value for money in some people's books. I ask him what the difference is between a disco version and a dance one. "The dance one," he explains, "is more rave, but the people who helped me with it now say they don't want to put their names to it." Again, he looks touchingly perplexed. He's also put together a TV pilot, at his own expense. The TV pilot is based on what has been keeping Keith the most busy in recent years, which is his adult show, Duck Off. Duck Off is rather blue. Orville is rather blue in it, which perhaps makes a change from green. Cuddles is rather blue. But, it's a great hit with students. OK, the first time he approached a university with his new act he was more or less told to Duck Off. "They said they only did tribute shows so I said 'I'm a Keith Harris and Orville tribute show'. I got a booking there and then, and a whole new career."

He plays now, he says, to 2,000 students at a go. "And the admiration I get is incredible. It's more than when I was at the top. They won't let me off the stage. I'm a cult figure now." He has high hopes for his TV pilot which, in turn, he hopes will go some way to bringing back variety. "A lot of 18- to 30-year-olds have never seen a variety show, but they love what I do. I've got Las Vegas-style dancers. I've got balancing acts. It's going to blow their minds." The pilot is called – wait for it – Gagging for a Duck. Somehow I can't see it coming on after Blind Date, but there you go.

The stage was, really, always the only option for Keith. His mother was a dancer. His father was a singer/comedian. By the age of nine, Keith was already helping his father out with his act. "Dad would come on stage, in his black tails, singing. I'd be in the audience, and would start making a noise." The act would go:

Keith: "I've lost me friend."

Norman: "Come on stage. What's your name?"

Keith: "Isaiah."

Norman: "Isaiah?"

Keith: "Yes, because one eye's higher than the other."

Norman: "Where you from?"

Keith: "USA."

Norman: "United States of America?"

Keith: "No. Upstairs in the attic."

Norman: "Do you have a sister?"

Keith: "Yes. She's a chiffonier."

Norman: "A chauffeur, you mean?"

Keith: "No, a chiffonier. She's tall with big drawers."

Those were the days, says Keith, "when jokes were jokes". Then, at the end of the act, "I would get on dad's knee and be the ventriloquist doll. We'd sing 'Sonny Boy', and then I got a dummy of my own, called Charlie Chat." Keith could earn £20 a weekend, helping his dad with his act. When, at 15, he left school he could have become "a paint-sprayer and panel-beater for five pounds a week, but what would have been the point?". Keith was rubbish at school. "I was dyslexic, word blind. I was thrown into the class with the idiots in it. I was in the stupid class. Sometimes the headmaster would call me to his office to read this book on knights. 'Read,' he'd say, but I couldn't so he'd hit me. 'Read,' he'd say again, but I couldn't, so he'd hit me again.' " Keith became the "boy ventriloquist" all the time, he says, building up his audience. "I started out at the bottom and kept moving up. There was no Pop Idol then. Do I sound bitter?" Um. Yes? Eventually, he built up an entire troupe of dummies. Cuddles, the monkey. Sidney Ram Jam, the Pakistani snake. Percy Picktooth, the rabbit. And then Orville. Orville, he says, came to him while he was starring with his beloved Black and White Minstrels 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 sent a rough sketch of what he had in mind to his puppet maker, but when Orville came back "and I got him out of the box, I hated him. But I took him to the girls in the dressing room next door and they said, 'ah, ain't he lovely'. The first time I used him he was an instant hit. There were tears in people's eyes." Why "Orville"? "You know, Wilbur and Orville Wright?" Sorry? "A joke, because Orville can't fly." Why not Wilbur? "Orville just doesn't look like a Wilbur, does he?"

And – gulp – "Orville's Song"? Bobby Crush, he says, wrote it for him. They were appearing together in Scarborough, in summer season, when Keith had the idea for it. Keith financed the first recording himself. "I did it at Abbey Road. I thought, if it's good enough for the Beatles, it's good enough for Orville. I then took it to a number of different record companies and said, 'I've got this singing duck...'. They said leave us your number, and we'll file it in the bin. So I put the record in a drawer until I was asked to do a BBC Xmas special, and the BBC asked if I'd thought of ever doing a record. So it came out on BBC records and sold 400,000." He knows that people go aggghhh, aggghhh and double-aggghhh at the mention of it. "It was even recently voted the worst song ever recorded." Oh, dear. "Yes, but I got a house in Portugal out of it, so what do I care." That's the spirit, Keith!

Anyway, time, yes, to meet Orville, so out we traipse to the garage, to get him out of his big bag. I'd remembered Orville as very, very green but, in fact, he is very, very, very, very, very green. Keith and Orville do a bit of "Orville's Song". I'd remembered "Orville's Song" as really, really rubbish, almost thrillingly emetic, but in fact? It's deep and meaningful, part Delius and part Bob Dylan. Only teasing. Here they go:

Orville: "I wish I could fly, way up to the sky but I can't."

Keith: "You can."

Orville: "I can't."

Keith: "You can."

Orville: "I wish I could see what folks see in me."

Keith: "You can."

Orville: "I can't..."

Time to go, methinks. Time to go. Keith kindly drives me back to the station, playing the disco version of "Orville's Song" at full volume, which maybe isn't so kind. Keith could retire, yes, but I doubt he ever will. "I could stop tomorrow and still have a nice lifestyle, but that's not the issue. The issue is I've still got a lot to offer and people still want it."

We part affectionately at the station. I wish him all the very best. "I only want to be taken seriously," he calls out after me. This is true, I suspect. And don't we all? The thing is, though, you and I might be at something of an advantage, not having to go about with one arm stuffed up a gigantic green thing that may or may not be a duck. It's quite a cheering thought.

'When Louis Met Keith Harris and Orville in Panto' is on BBC2 at 9pm tomorrow

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