Keith Harris review

"I Hate That Ducking Duck"

By Jeremy Smith

Being a member of the press has its advantages. I walked from the pub to the Milton Hall, sauntered past to the head of the huge queue that stretched halfway round the building, and walked straight in with a flip of my press card while everyone else waited forever to get in. That's a nice feeling.

The place wasn't packed yet, so I reserved a seat for the evening (it was soon packed so I made a wise move) and bought a pint. Soon I was approached by a member of the Student Union - did I want to interview Keith Harris? I thought someone else was going to do this, but I was told they never turned up.

I agreed to do the interview, and I was ushered upstairs to meet the star of the evening (see Interview With the Puppet Master). I left with a signed photo and made my way back downstairs and into the throng.

Soon the show started. Keith appeared in a shiny suit and pulled Cuddles the monkey out of a box.

Now, being older than the average 3rd year, I grew up on the TV Keith & Orville show on TV, and later on (around 1990) when I was too old to know better, the "Quack Chat Show" - a title I never quite understood. The general idea (though I can't confirm this on the history-challenged Internet or by any of my friends) was to interview celebrities by way of a green duck.

But my memory had faded in those 15 years since I last saw his show. All I remembered was a ventriloquist with a green duck. I completely forgot about the monkey and, yes, the talent! Someone who can instantly transfix a room full of students who aren't yet drunk, with an orange latex monkey, is talented.

It's hard to describe what it was like to someone who wasn't there, but I'll try. Keith Harris is a man with the talent of making an inanimate object (a puppet) come to life. His performance was worth the entry fee - good solid entertainment.

As soon as he got on stage, Keith asked us how many 1st year students there were. Not many (I put my hand up). Most of the audience were 2nd year students. I wondered, briefly, why this was. Maybe the 1st years are just not quite old enough to remember the TV shows?

I noticed that the audience participation was great - Keith knew his stuff. He also knew his audience - he had Cuddles swearing at us, which I thought was genius. He's turned around his career by going from one polar opposite - family variety performer - to the other (doing the Student Union tour). He still does variety shows, sure, but he's at least doubled his audience with this strategy.

The show continued. A quote about Cuddles being "Too old for students", followed by Keith insulting a member of the audience (for being late, perhaps) via Cuddles. As the monkey remarked about this daring act, "It's not me who's gonna get hit" - interesting logic.

Keith knows his ventriloquism. His teeth never moved once, the puppetry was extremely life-like (and he is a genius in that respect), and he throws his voice, into a microphone, very well. Still, with at least 20 years experience as a professional, he should know his stuff. He has the means to handle hecklers too - just insult them with Cuddles.

But we got sick of Cuddles, all of us. Keith's timing must have been excellent, for as we all wanted Orville on, some guy heckled Keith to "Bring on the bloody duck" - more than once. Keith obliged and Orville made his way onto the stage.

If Cuddles is the foul-mouthed yob, Orville is the polar opposite (and truly original). Keith invented a thing that is like a talking pet, but of indeterminate gender and innocent as apple pie - and cute like a puppy.

Still, Keith couldn't resist throwing a spanner in the works. Once he had us awwing at Orville's antics, he had Orville swearing at us. Personally, I felt he'd gone too far. But as Orville himself pointed out, the duck is getting on a bit and deserves to develop the foul language of older age. We also learned to our shock that poor Orville has "no sausage". Still, this is the fate of a lot of pets (cute or otherwise).

To finish off, it was time for a song. Keith got the tape player on and played a song. I wondered if he was miming (his singing voice seemed too good), but I couldn't tell. Apparently there are 400,000 copies of the "I Wish I Could Fly" song floating around in this world, which could be considered a crime against popular music if there weren't bigger pop criminals to go after. This rendition reached new ears this evening , along with those who had already heard it. With Orville singing, it had a certain authenticity, but it was too sugary.

This brings us to the finale. To further enhance the well-maintained illusion that Orville is somehow real - and there is no evidence to the contrary as he fulfills most of the scientific principles of life except perhaps reproduction - he left the duck on a chair to sing while he went backstage (which was seemingly just a small wardrobe behind a curtain). Orville continued to move his mouth, sing to the music and wave his arms - was he motorised or just brought to life by some Pinnochio-like spell?

Whatever the case, it was a great trick and an impressive finale. Once Keith had stopped singing, he finished his show by uttering the words that were on many lips then, and still are.

"Peace, not war!"

If Orville was to entertain the troops in some foreign war, perhaps this living puppet could convince them that if a piece of rag and plastic can talk, breathe, grow old and swear like them, then maybe this makes a real life even more precious.