Showbiz still holds its magic for Anita
Anita Harris is in Essex, which gives her the chance to drop in on some long-time friends for tea and a chat. Steven Russell hears about 50 glorious years in showbusinessSHE'S just put down her case after a long journey to the theatre, in 90 minutes is due on stage for a run-through before opening tonight, and she's battling to kill off the last vestiges of a cold.
Anita Harris is in Essex, which gives her the chance to drop in on some long-time friends for tea and a chat. Steven Russell hears about 50 glorious years in showbusiness
SHE'S just put down her case after a long journey to the theatre, in 90 minutes is due on stage for a run-through before opening tonight, and she's battling to kill off the last vestiges of a cold. More than enough justification, you'd think, to put her feet up rather than answer questions about life in the spotlight.
But Anita Harris, a showbiz luvvie from head to toe, is a trouper. Rest can wait. She'll soon celebrate five decades as an entertainer, having been talent-spotted on the ice at a London rink and whisked off to Las Vegas to dance.
It marked the start of a glittering career that's seen her at the giddy end of the pop charts, grace seven Royal Command Performances, work with legends such as Morecambe and Wise, become a household name on television, and tread the boards to acclaim.
She even joined the Carry On gang for two films in the 1960s - remembered by many as the coquettish and caped Nurse Clarke in Carry On Doctor who had Jim Dale's Dr Kilmore hyperventilating.
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Just recently she was at Pinewood Studios for a Carry On 50th anniversary celebration filmed by ITV.
“The fact (94-year-old) Peter Rogers was there and able to be on stage, looking great and in good health - he being the producer with the vision right from the beginning - was wonderful. And celebrating all those wonderful people who are in heaven but still very much a part of all of our lives. It's such a phenomenon, isn't it?”
Anita sang a song called Our Show, “which was written by my lovely better half Mike Margolis and Kenny Clayton. It was written for a show about the life of showbusiness and the words were very apposite to the event”.
She breaks off for a drink of water to clear the frog in her throat caused by that virus. “Hang on sweetheart. I'm on the last lap of it now.”
Becoming part of the cast in the 1960s was like joining a close-knit family.
“When I was doing Carry on Doctor, I was with Frankie Howerd at the Prince of Wales, doing two shows a night, and then we'd both arrive at Pinewood at six in the morning to do the filming. It was the most incredible, exhilarating time of my life; and he was fabulous to work with. And to arrive and hear dear Barbara say 'Cup of tea, love? You look as if you need one!' She was a fabulous girl.
“I think, as the years go on, I realise even more how special that team of players were - how strong within their own roles. They had got to know each other so well. They had huge strength as, if you like, a film repertory company: an incredible team to work with.
“I shall never forget it. They sit on our shoulder, and always will. I learned a great deal doing those films.”
She was also in Follow That Camel: another offering from the Carry On stable. She was paid £500 - about £6,500 in today's money - for her portrayal of Corktip, the Egyptian belly-dancer who stole Jim Dale and Phil Silver's characters away from cafe owner Joan Sims.
Anita was born in Somerset in June, 1942. Although she won a talent contest at the age of three, played the piano and went to a drama school, what happened next was unexpected.
She shone as an ice dancer in her teens and her skills didn't escape talent scouts visiting the Queens rink in Bayswater, London, looking for fresh talent for the chorus at the El Rancho in Nevada.
“It was the week before my 16th birthday and my parents had to sign for a chaperone. It was all very well done. There were 13 English girls that went over and one of them was the lovely Aimi MacDonald. She and I shared a room in Las Vegas.
“Six months we were there. We did three shows a night as dancers - can you imagine? - and we finished at five o'clock in the morning. Our first show was 7.30, there was one at midnight and one at three-something. I got to sing a little.
“We had a night off every 12 nights. On the night off we were able to see Frank Sinatra at the Desert Inn. We saw Mae West live. It was the most incredible opportunity to open my eyes and to see a band, or hear a wonderful orchestra on stage. As you can probably hear, the spirit of that has never left me. It was magic, and I carry that forward with me, too.”
Some change: one minute a 16-year-old from London, the next a dancer in the neon city.
“A convent girl, love! A convent girl from Bournemouth, hitting the lights on the Vegas Strip!”
It was a little bit of a culture shock, “but it's been a base of discipline that I've carried on. You learn very young, when you're with a good group of people. I consider myself very lucky to have been able to do it, and that my parents let me go”.
They must have been very . . .
“Concerned? Yes.” I was going to say trusting. “Very trusting, yes. I have two wonderful big brothers and had a wonderful family life. An opportunity arises and most parents want only the best for their children and to take the opportunities, so I was very lucky.”
She hadn't single-mindedly set her sights on a showbusiness career, but the wheels were in motion.
“It just came. I wanted to sing - I always sang as a kid - and I fell in love with Doris Day when I was 13; with Calamity Jane and all that. But I wasn't an ambitious young person; I just felt I would like to be a part of it. So, from those early blossoming days came the golden times that I've enjoyed.”
Indeed they did.
Back in Blighty, Anita joined the Cliff Adams Singers, an easy-listening vocal ensemble well known for its appearances on the BBC radio show Sing Something Simple, and sang on TV alongside a young man called Gerry Dorsey. We'd come to know him better as Engelbert Humperdinck.
In 1961 bandleader John Barry offered her a contract. Anita made her recording debut with the double A-sided singles I Haven't Got You and Mr One And Only, backed by the John Barry Seven.
She went solo in the mid-sixties and over the next decade had eight chart singles and four chart albums, working with legends such as Burt Bacharach and Leonard Bernstein. She also became a familiar face and voice on TV and radio and in clubs and theatres, including two seasons at the London Palladium.
A song called Trains and Boats and Planes made an impact and Anita met Dusty Springfield on Top of The Pops. Dusty introduced her to brother Tom, who wrote Just Loving You for Anita.
It went to number one in Australia and New Zealand. In the UK it displayed remarkable stamina, drifting in and out of the top 20 between 1967 and 1968.
Although it peaked at number six, the song was the biggest-selling single of the year, with sales of about 625,000 in 1967 - eclipsing such classics as Procol Harum's A Whiter Shade of Pale, Frank Sinatra's Something Stupid and Sandie Shaw's Eurovision Song Contest-winning Puppet on a String. All told, it would sell more than two-million copies.
“That was an incredible time. It's when all the components come together. I was talking to Cameron Mackintosh about the show Cats; the night before they opened, they had no idea what was going to happen. It's just that all the components came together on the night and it became the phenomenon it is.
“It's like anything good in life: you don't necessarily realise it's going to be that good until it is. That's what happened with Just Loving You. In those days you could take your time with records - now everything has to be instant - but then, luckily, it slowly got into the charts and once it was there it was there for two years.
“It took me on to work with a person I loved dearly, Harry Secombe, and we did many Palladium shows together; and I did the Palladium for eight months with Tommy Cooper, and then eight months with Clive Dunn. It was a magic time.”
One long-running television success was a seven-series partnership with genial magician David Nixon and his magic show.
“What a fabulous man. I don't know whether you know but he was a very creative person. He and his father-in-law, (the band leader) Eric Robinson, invented what was then called the Mellotron: an early keyboard.
“Like a car mechanic, he liked to get down to the nitty gritty of everything. We had many joys, some wonderful times, on that show. And, also, the fact it was live television every Monday . . . oooh! If things went wrong . . !”
Was it hard to keep her feet on the ground?
“Well, again, I think that comes from one's family. When I look at the young ones today, if they've got their family to go back to if it doesn't quite work out - to tell them there's an alternative in life; that they don't have to be stars; that they can enjoy the world of showbusiness by being backstage - then they will be all right.
“Of these dear young ones, only a few make it, but there are other adventures out there. Parents who love their kids have to be ready to take them back into their arms and give them a cuddle and say 'There are other opportunities. You have talent. You have your own special something.'
“I think that's an important message to get out, because so many poor little ones get left by the wayside and think they've lost everything; and it's not true. Life is a gift in itself, and it has to be a big adventure.
“I adapt JM Barrie's words there, from when I do Peter Pan. Life is an adventure; you have to use every moment.”
ANITA Harris is in Essex until April 5 with Come on, Jeeves - the touring production based on PG Wodehouse's work, famous for its verbal sparring and witty one-liners, and adapted by Guy Bolton for the stage.
“It's a play from the early 1950s. A smashing piece.” Fellow stars include Victor Spinetti and Judy Buxton. “The play is very rich with characters, which makes it very exciting. I'm playing this dotty American clairvoyant, Mrs Spottsworth. She's a bit loud, love, but she's great fun. I use the word 'delicious' in the play, and that's what it is: a delicious piece of old England.
“For older people it's nostalgic; for young people it's new language. There is something very heartwarming, I think, in that the English language is not forgotten. In this, you kind of wrap yourself around the words.”
While Bertie Wooster is out of town, his “gentleman's gentleman”, capable valet Jeeves is on loan to the Earl of Towcaster, who has been losing heavily on the horses and decides to become a bookie. Needless to say, it doesn't run smoothly.
The play's at the Chelmsford Civic Theatre, with performances at 7.45pm and a Saturday matinee at 2.30pm. Box office 01245 606505.
Anita's no stranger to the town. She has fond memories of working there for director John Newman, and there are friends not far from Chelmsford she plans to visit for a cup of tea and a chinwag.
The performer has chalked up thousands of hours on stage and screen, so it's slightly surprising to learn she still suffers butterflies before the curtain rises.
“Always, always,” she laughs. “It's a new adventure. We get nervous, but hopefully in an energetic way that makes us focus in on the play and the characters, and tell the story. You get nervous just because you want it to be right.”
She counts her blessings that life continues to be fun. A new record is due out; called You Bring Out The Woman In Me, it's written by Les Reed, the man behind Tom Jones's It's Not Unusual and Delilah.
Anita's also due in the studio in July to put to bed a Christmas album. Les has written some of the songs for that, with other material by Tony Hatch, the man who gave us the themes for Crossroads, Emmerdale and Neighbours, and memorable songs such as Don't Sleep in the Subway.
Anita attribute's her happy and productive life to her partnership with painter, writer and artistic director Mike Margolis - they're now in their 34th year of marriage, having known each other for more than 40 - and a daily diet of optimism, hard work, exercise and Scott's Porridge Oats!
Her open-air concerts at the Cannes Palm Beach Casino brought her the nickname The Flaming Comet!
She appeared not only on shows such as Morecambe & Wise and Benny Hill but on her own BBC show and an ITV programme for children called Anita in Jumbleland that she wrote, produced and starred in
Theatre roles include Rachel Ashley in Du Maurier's My Cousin Rachel, Elizabeth in Ruth Rendell's House of Stairs, and Myra in Deathtrap
Leading roles in musicals include Grizabella in Cats, Florence Nightingale in Nightingale, and Peter Pan in The Millennium Peter Pan
(Lolita Dicks Syndication)