Interview with the Puppet Master, Keith Harris

By Jeremy Smith

I had the chance to interview the great man before he went on stage. I was ushered into a small room with some sandwiches on the table and Keith sat at the far end of the table with an entourage. I shook his hand and exchanged pleasantries, then I sat down and got out my notepad.

Keith looked pretty much like he does on TV. He had a friendly grin and a strong handshake. Orville was not present during the interview, because he was on stage.

Keith asked if I had a dictaphone, or if I was writing shorthand. He was surprised when I said I was using neither - just making notes to refresh my memory later on.

We had thought of a list of questions beforehand, but my colleague on the newspaper told me that new questions would come naturally as the conversation progressed. He was absolutely right - Keith would send the conversation in long winding directions until I could interrupt him with another question. Below is what transpired in the interview

The first question was career-related, and this took up the bulk of the interview.

Keith's current show on tour, "Duck Off", has been running for around 6 years. He started off as a family entertainer and was in TV for some 30 years, but even then he had to work like anyone else to get a new career and audience.

Back in 1996/7, Sheffield Uni were holding a Student Union "Tribute to Keith Harris" - a lookalike competition. Shaking off the possibility of cliché, Keith decided to enter a tribute to himself, taking the role of a lookalike. He auditioned for the role on their sole condition that he had "A Duck". Not surprisingly, he had a duck, and he played to a filled room - it went down sensationally! He has played to packed Student Unions ever since. He says his new audience is mainly composed of freshers who have never seen a variety performance.

Keith has played clubs of old, discos, etc. He pointed that out the licenses for some discos say that there has to be a live performance every so often, which gives him an opportunity to play those kinds of places. He used to play clubs with his other characters a long time ago, such as the snake Sideney Ramjam who wore a turban, and some kind of gay rabbit.

As a seasoned variety performer, he knows what the audience enjoys. It could be considered a difficult task, entertaining those in age groups that weren't brought up on the variety genre. He found a good way to grab everyone's attention though - swearing. Orville & Cuddles are, almost by name, cute, and national institutions. Making them swear is like stealing the Crown Jewels and throwing them in the Thames. Keith loves to shock the audience with this spectacle of swearing puppets, and the beauty of it is that it works, because they are puppets.

A quick question on whether Keith felt threatened by David Dickinson (of the Bargain Hunt show on daytime TV), had the comeback that David was 'Cheap as chips' (also the name of David's video), with perhaps as much orange makeup as Cuddles, and the observation that he doesn't actually do much on stage when he "plays" Universities. But we all love him really.

Keith had a few more general comments on his recent career. He mentioned the Harry Hill show as an example of one of his favourite variety shows, but also pointed out that TV's changed a lot in 15 years. Butlins is good for variety still, but ultimately, Keith's new act is the "New Alternative". Thus, he wants a new late-night TV show on Channel 4, Las Vegas style, but filmed in University Student Unions. There's a big audience waiting, he points out, For an example of what kind of audience he's expecting, he played Butlins with an audience of 6000 a night for 7 months solid! To cap this success, he is apparently one of the most popular guest stars on shows repeated on U.K. Gold, so he is a well-known face.

He told us a little about Cuddles. Contrary to popular belief, the monkey came before the duck. The latex duck has apparently had more face-lifts than Michael Jackson and is easily replaceable, whereas all Orville needs is a quick fluff-up from time-to-time.

I asked how much Orville is insured for - the answer (which I already knew from some prior research) was £100,000. His main injury was falling off his stool. "Ooh, banged me 'ead". However, Cuddles went through a bad experience a few years ago which Keith recounted…

Cuddles was monkeynapped in London. Keith parked his car in Notting Hill and made his way to a show in Blackpool (with Morecambe & Wise, it says here - unless my notepad is faulty) for a few hours. While he was gone, the windows of the car were broken, and Cuddles and his box were gone! Keith had a new one waiting in Blackpool for his performance, but he got a bizarre call from the police. They were phoning to say they had found a stolen Mercedes, and in the back seat was a stolen "orange monkey". They asked him to identify it. Keith couldn't resist the chance for a little fun, so he asked if they could get Cuddles on the phone to identify him!

The insurance for Cuddles, he told us, is around 2p, because he can be remade from latex. Orville is, and always has been, the one and only truly original.

Finally, we asked if Orville is housetrained. It was entirely predictable that as he's still in a nappy, the point is moot. And it is not a real safety pin.

With that, we wound up the interview with pleasantries, Keith handed us some signed photos, and I departed downstairs to enjoy the show (see review, "I Hate That Ducking Duck").