The man who loved a duck more than his wife: That's what four-time-wed Keith Harris joked about his love life. But then much of his humour with Orville drew on his own pain

Bittersweet: Keith Harris, who died yesterday from cancer aged 67, with his duck Orville in 1982

Bittersweet: Keith Harris, who died yesterday from cancer aged 67, with his duck Orville in 1982

Saturday nights were once the showcase of ventriloquist Keith Harris. Whether he and his puppet Orville were duetting with Cilla Black or hosting their own variety show, they were the names on millions of lips because you couldn’t see his moving.

When the work dried up, aside from occasional appearances on quiz games and reality shows, the man with the squeaky green duck vanished from our screens 25 years ago and never managed a comeback.

Keith, who died yesterday from cancer aged 67, had a bitterly witty explanation for why TV rejected him: ‘I’m not a chef!’

Orville was adored by a generation of children and their grannies in the Seventies because he was sweet, sad and soppy.

The lyrics to his hit single, Orville’s Song, which went to No 4 in 1982 and sold 300,000 copies, are so saccharine that children today could be traumatised by listening.

Orville was a huge duckling with long green fur, who wore a nappy with an enormous safety pin. He was orphaned, couldn’t fly and seemed clinically depressed about it: ‘I often pretend my sadness will end, but it won’t,’ he sang.

The heartbreak in those lyrics was rooted in Keith’s childhood. Born into a showbiz family in 1947, he travelled the country as a boy, which greatly affected his schooling. Unable to read or write, he would be treated as a trouble-maker.

‘I was shoved in the class with all the rough and tough children because I was dyslexic, but I wasn’t recognised as anything apart from “being thick”,’ he said.

‘The headmaster used to get me up to his office with a book and say: “Read that.” When I couldn’t, he’d cane me.’

Theatre was his escape. His father Norman was a ventriloquist, and Keith would sit on his knee aged six, being the dummy as they toured working men’s clubs.

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By his teens he had mastered the technique of throwing his voice. Performing gave him confidence: ‘I was a timid boy, but on stage I was king and I was good at my art, which surprised people.’

His first TV appearance came when he was 18, on the BBC stand-up comedy show Let’s Laugh. Keith’s dummy then was Freddy the Frog, who wanted to be prime minister ‘because he was always in deep water and had a big mouth’.

That led to a stint as compere on The Black And White Minstrel Show, where he did a Morecambe and Wise routine: he was Eric, with an Ernie doll (complete with a wonky hairpiece).

His favourite dummies were animals: Dominic the Dog, a fez-wearing Indian snake called Sidney Ram-Jam, Daphne, a shark in a tank of water, and gay rabbit Percy Pickletooth.

The entertainer with his fourth wife Sarah and their two children Kitty and Shenton at their home in Poulton, Gloucestershire. His wife paid tribute to her husband calling him her 'rock'

The entertainer with his fourth wife Sarah and their two children Kitty and Shenton at their home in Poulton, Gloucestershire. His wife paid tribute to her husband calling him her 'rock'

But the most popular was a sarcastic, blue-faced monkey called Cuddles. This menagerie starred in the short-lived TV show Cuddles And Company .

Keith’s routines were too deeply rooted in the rough world of northern clubs to have mass appeal, so he decided to invent a family friendly character and sent a duck design to a prop-maker.

When the dummy was delivered, Keith was unsure: ‘I pulled him out of the box and really didn’t like it at all; it wasn’t what I’d expected.’

The dancing girls adored it though, cooing and kissing it, so Keith gave it his mother Lila’s voice, a nervous Lancashire squeak, and took it on stage to sing a song his dad had taught him: ‘Little man, you’ve had a busy day.’

The audience sobbed and laughed and Keith had his family favourite.

 I created a monster, but I can’t complain. He made me a household name
Keith Harris  

He devised a story for the duck: he was so shy he didn’t hatch out for six months, by which time his parents had gone. Because he couldn’t fly, he was dubbed Orville, after one of the Wright brothers who invented the aeroplane.

Orville’s success was immediate. Every TV presenter from Val Doonican to Lulu wanted the duck on their programmes and by 1982 he was the star of The Keith Harris Show on Saturday evenings.

Old friends from the club circuit queued to appear, as well as The Beverley Sisters, Alvin Stardust and Nana Mouskouri.

After he performed at the Royal Variety Show in 1985, Princess Diana asked him to entertain the guests at Prince William’s third birthday party and Keith realised his dummy was more famous than him.

‘I created a monster, but I can’t complain. He made me a household name. Cuddles complained, though, acquiring the catchphrase ‘I ’ate that duck!’ and joking: ‘Can I rock Orville to sleep? Great, I’ll go and get a rock!’

Orville couldn’t fly, but travelled in comfort. Too big a star to go in a suitcase in the hold, he always had an aeroplane seat to himself.

Fame affected Keith, too. In 1982, dancer Jacqui Scott, 19, appeared on the Christmas show. Weeks later, Keith’s wife Shari, 26, read in the newspapers that her husband was having an affair with Jacqui.

By 1982, Orville was the star of The Keith Harris Show. He is pictured left with Keith in 1982 during the Children's Royal Variety Performance and right in 2005 after being named winners of reality show The Farm

Orville was adored by a generation of children and their grannies in the Seventies because he was sweet, sad and soppy. Pictured: The duo  in 1979

Orville was adored by a generation of children and their grannies in the Seventies because he was sweet, sad and soppy. Pictured: The duo in 1979

When Keith gave an interview headlined ‘Why I love Orville more than my wife’, a bitter court case ensued.

Jacqui and Keith married and had a daughter, Skye, but when his career tailed off in the Nineties they split up. A third marriage followed, though it lasted just a few weeks. ‘I’ve told jokes that lasted longer,’ he said.

By the time Orville and Keith’s TV series was cancelled in 1990, the audience had changed.

They did a druggy version of Orville’s Song, changing the meaning of ‘I wish I could fly’. A new stage show was called Duck Off and Cuddles became so foul-mouthed that some people walked out.

 We were together all the time and had a bond that was unbreakable. He was my rock and together we felt invincible
Keith's wife Sarah 

When one woman complained after a show, Keith apologised. ‘I don’t blame you,’ she said. ‘It’s that horrible monkey.’

As his career waned, he started drinking and in 1987 was banned from driving for 18 months for being twice over the limit. In 1996, he was given a four-year ban.

For the next 20 years, he scraped by at holiday camps and in panto. His earnings during the stardom years were £7million, but his reading difficulties had cost him dear.

Faced with small print, he would sign contracts that left him owing money to promoters and managers. ‘I signed myself away for 14 years to someone, paying them 25 per cent of my earnings. I had no idea,’ he said.

His depression worsened and he considered suicide, but in 1995 he met his fourth wife, Sarah. They married in 1999 and had a daughter, Kitty, and son, Shenton.

Yesterday Sarah paid tribute to her husband, telling the Mail: ‘We were together all the time and had a bond that was unbreakable. He was my rock and together we felt invincible. He never showed the pain he suffered and smiled right to the very end.’

Last year, Keith broke down on stage as he told an audience at a caravan park in Prestatyn, north Wales, that he had been fighting cancer and, at one stage, had been given 12 months to live.

He underwent pioneering treatment that involved higher than normal doses of chemotherapy. While it can be successful in killing cancer cells, it also kills the bone marrow’s vital stem cells. However, by January the disease was terminal.

He spent his last months with his family at their holiday villa in Portugal and their home near Blackpool, where he liked to sit in the park and eat ice-cream, watching the world go by.

It was a sad end, but perhaps it was inevitable that a career built around a duck with a broken heart would always be bittersweet.

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