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.
Date of Birth: 9 January 1920 , Brixton, London, England, UK
Birth Name: Clive Robert Benjamin Dunn
Nicknames: Clive Dunn
Though he was master of all sorts of old-man parts, he will be remembered with most affection as Lance Corporal Jones in the BBC television send-up of life in the wartime Home Guard, Dad's Army (1968-77).
His dithery butcher, slipping a few favoured lady customers some choice cuts from under the counter and then, in his spare time, trying his ineffectual best to keep order for the officious Captain Mainwaring, became such a popular figure that his catchphrase, "Don't panic!", delivered in the agitated tones of a running chicken hanging on with difficulty to the last shreds of its dignity, was repeated with guffaws in homes throughout the land.
The air of good nature with which he imbued the role removed any offence from some of Jones's other catchphrases, such as his constantly reiterated explanation, derived possibly from service in Africa, of why the enemy disliked the bayonet: "They don't like it up 'em, sir!" When in the late 1970s, British sausage manufacturers wanted their first competition, staged at Alexandra Palace, north London, to be opened by someone who suggested both the spirit of Britain and the no-nonsense appeal of the sausage, their choice was Dunn. He also toured for the Egg Marketing Board.
For broad comedy, he was a natural. His father and grandfather had been comics and wanted him to follow the same route, but the young Clive had other ideas. Born in Brixton, London, and educated at Sevenoaks school, Kent, he set his heart on becoming a film cameraman, something which appealed to his visual imagination, he later became an accomplished amateur painter and his sense of security.
In the event, after the Italia Conti acting school, he lined up a job as a teaboy and general dogsbody with British Movietone News just before that company went out of business. His chosen course no longer seemed quite so secure. At the Italia Conti he had drifted towards comedy when he was sent up the road to play a dragon on a high wire and a frog at the Holborn Empire.
Richard Todd, later to become a cinema heart-throb, was in the same acting class. They both appeared before the then queen, the eventual Queen Mother, in a school ballet. This also signalled that Dunn's future might lie in making people laugh. Partnering an especially well-built girl and trying to pick her up, he slipped and dropped her. Despite or perhaps because of this, Dunn was quickly snapped up by talent scouts. He had walk-on parts in Goodbye Mr Chips (1939) and, with Will Hay, in Boys Will Be Boys (1935). When he was still only 17, he toured with British cinema's "bad girl”.
Jean Kent, in a revue called Everybody Cheer. Smitten by her charms, he wrote a song for her, which she sang in Gateshead without being getting booed and in Luton, where she was not so lucky. The infatuation did not prevail, either.
As the patriotic if uncertain lance corporal might well have done, Dunn made several attempts to enlist when the second world war broke out. He eventually joined the 4th Hussars, was captured in Yugoslavia and spent four years as a prisoner of war, held in a room above a barber's shop in Vienna and allowed out at night to do dirty jobs that no one else wanted. It gave him an eye for the oddities of military life.
The television series Bootsie and Snudge (1960-63) first earned him fame as an old-man impersonator. He played Old Johnson, the faithful waiter struggling to preserve order and decorum among those ministering to the gentlemen of the Imperial Club. After the success of this show and Dad's Army, Dunn often sank from public view, though he continued to work in clubs, doing a song and dance routine, he was a trained dancer and ascribed his bandy legs, two of his assets as a comic, to doing too much athletics at school.
Playing elderly men remained his forte. He even made a recording of his song Grandad, which sold 690,000 copies and was in the charts for 28 weeks in 1970-71, three of them at No 1. Using his oldie reputation, Dunn visited many pensioners' clubs and homes to cheer up the occupants, and once spoke at Trafalgar Square in favour of a campaign for better pensions.
However, he was immensely pleased to be chosen, for a change, to play Frosch, the slurred and tipsy but not necessarily aged jailer in a 1978 English National Opera production of Johann Strauss's opera Die Fledermaus. This, he insisted wryly, was at least one step up from his only other experience of being in opera, a quarter of a century previously in a BBC radio performance of a modern work in which he played someone unable to hear or speak, uttering only grunts and groans synchronised with the dissonant music.
Dunn was appointed OBE in 1975, the year he appeared in a Dad's Army sketch at a Royal Variety Performance. A television series took up his Grandad character (1979-84), and he bowed out of the medium as Verges in Much Ado About Nothing (1984).