I heard the news yesterday about the death of Keith Harris, he of Orville fame, with real sadness. Once upon a time, many years ago, our lives crossed just for a short while. I thought readers of the Daily Blog might like
to hear about it.
At the time I was working as an Assistant Public Relations Officer at Kent County Council, majoring on education. My project: to promote the opening of a new building at a special school
for children with learning difficulties, ranging from the moderate to the severe.
The powers that be would undoubtedly have much preferred it had the official opening been performed by a local MP or, failing
that, at the very least a County Councillor. However the head teacher had other ideas. To his enormous credit - in my eyes - he insisted that the ceremony should be performed by someone who would excite the most important people connected with the school,
the pupils. Enter Keith Harris and Orville.
Among the many tasks that fell to me was to commission the official plaque which would be unveiled on the Happy Day. To and fro I went between the Council Staff
responsible for designing and producing the plaque, the school and the Education Department. Controversy raged over whether it was appropriate to name a duck on such an important creation. The Education Department, biting its collective lip, was willing to
go as far as having Mr Keith Harris named on the plaque, but not Orville. The head teacher wanted pride of place to go to Orville, supported by Keith Harris. Back and forwards I went between the warring factions to the intense annoyance of the hapless person
charged with the responsibility of producing the plaque. Design proof followed design proof. Nobody was satisfied.
The designer's final salvo was to send me a proof which read: "This school building was opened
by Keith Harris and his Bloody Duck." Excuse my French.
Orville finally made it onto the plaque, taking equal billing with his master. On the platform at the Opening Ceremony, Man and Duck had the children
in hysterics. At one point the head teacher had to slip away to deal with something Opening Related. Orville watched his exit from the stage in contemplative silence then confided to the assembled children, in a loud whisper: "I expect he needs a wee..." I
didn't dare look at the dignitaries, sitting in the front row. They must have been reckoning that all their worst fears were coming true.
After all the official "stuff" was over, Keith Harris took himself
all round the school to meet and chat to the children and their teachers. And one thing I noticed was that he never let the children see Orville as a lifeless puppet. To them he was always alive - and very, very funny. They simply didn't see the guiding arm,
the ventriloquist's art. They certainly didn't see a "bloody duck." They just saw Orville.
In the room where the most severely disabled children lay on mats, their inspiring teachers encouraging them to follow
with their eyes a ball, a light, a projected picture, Keith Harris knelt down beside them so that they could see and touch Orville or, for some, just sense that he was there. I cannot begin to tell you how much I respected him for that. There would, by agreement,
be no photographs of these poignant moments, so there was no publicity to be gained as a result of all the time spent in the sensory room. Keith Harris did it because he cared.
Possibly his sensitivity to
the needs of the children came, in part, from the fact that he was himself dyslexic, labelled "thick" at school because he couldn't keep up. Orville was named after Orville Wright, the American aviator - ironically, because Orville, devotees will remember,
was a shy, under-confident orphan who couldn't fly. Keith Harris is reported as saying once that he had created "a monster" and commented that "everyone knows Orville but nobody knows Keith Harris."
myself lucky to have gained an insight into the man, as distinct from the ventriloquist. My part in the proceedings was but a small one but I will always remember the day when Keith Harris and Orville the Duck came to school.