Dancing feet

The cast in rehearsal for Stepping Out. (Picture: Tony Bartholomew).The cast in rehearsal for Stepping Out. (Picture: Tony Bartholomew).
The cast in rehearsal for Stepping Out. (Picture: Tony Bartholomew).
Richard Harris is quite the most entertaining writer you can imagine talking to.

At the end of our conversation he says: “You will be nice to me won’t you? I once was interviewed by a... I probably shouldn’t say this.”

He then describes the journalist in question in terms I won’t repeat. “He interviewed me on the phone and then described me as looking at my fingernails. How the heck could he know I was looking at my fingernails while he was talking to me on the phone?. He was the one who described me as a ‘comedy writer’ when I adapted Ibsen. The bounder.”

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Harris didn’t use the word ‘heck’, he used another Anglo-Saxon word. Nor did he use the word ‘bounder’. While I would never doctor an interview, I can’t really proceed to relate exactly what Harris said without either altering the quotes a little or wearing out the asterisk key on my laptop.

Rehearsals for Stepping Out which opens at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough next week. (Picture: Tony Bartholomew).Rehearsals for Stepping Out which opens at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough next week. (Picture: Tony Bartholomew).
Rehearsals for Stepping Out which opens at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough next week. (Picture: Tony Bartholomew).

I don’t really need to tell you how entertaining Harris is – his work has been entertaining his audience of millions for over half a century and he’s set to entertain them all over again when one of his many highly successful plays, Stepping Out, comes to Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre this summer.

It is lovely to hear that Harris is, at 84-years-old, excited for Stepping Out to be remounted.

Harris, whose accent sounds Cockney barrow boy to a Yorkshireman, says: “I think it’s on every night somewhere. Lots of amateur theatre companies like to stage it, but I’m pretty certain this is the first time it’s been done in the round. The people at the theatre are so lovely and Sir Alan Ayckbourn, well, he’s one of my heroes.”

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Sir Alan is the playwright most associated with the Stephen Joseph Theatre, but it is current artistic director Paul Robinson who is responsible for bringing Stepping Out to the stage – he programmed and is directing it.

Veteran writer Richard Harris. (Picture: Tony Bartholomew).Veteran writer Richard Harris. (Picture: Tony Bartholomew).
Veteran writer Richard Harris. (Picture: Tony Bartholomew).

He says: “The play is absolutely bullet-proof. It’s a play that has been written with the audience in mind in that I mean it’s about a community of people coming together and having an experience and it’s very populist. That word has been hijacked in recent years, but it’s populist in the best sense.”

Robinson’s production is firmly set in the North, which has required ‘about five words’ being changed in Harris’s original script, which was set in London.

Programming the piece is, says Robinson, a part of the quest to continue to make the Scarborough theatre appeal not just to the visitors, but to the local community too, something he has been aiming to do since taking over a few years ago.

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Stepping Out fits the brief perfectly. It tells the story of a group of strangers who come together every week for a tap class in the local church hall, gradually forming friendships and revealing secrets. First performed in the West End in 1984, it went on to win the Evening Standard Comedy of the Year Award and went on to Broadway. It later famously became a film starring Liza Minelli, about which Harris is fairly unequivocal.

“I flipping hated it. They changed everything, it wasn’t what I wrote at all,” he says.

But he is credited as the writer?

“I’m not a flipping idiot. I made sure my name stayed on it.”

Harris has one of the most extraordinary CVs you could imagine. He was the first writer of The Avengers, The Saint, A Touch of Frost. He wrote several episodes of The Darling Buds of May and his many plays include Outside Edge, the cricket comedy which he later adapted as a television series.

None of it was supposed to happen.

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“I left school at barely sixteen with absolutely no intention of writing and no idea what I was going to do with my life,” he says.

“It was National Service that sorted me out, I met people by chance and that led to me writing one thing and another. I definitely wouldn’t call what I’ve done a career, it’s just been writing things that I fancy, one after another, since 1959.

“I really have just stumbled from one thing to another. I sold the first thing I wrote to telly and then I wanted to write a play for the stage because that was proper drama. TV was always regarded as the poor relation, not real drama.”

Harris’s introduction to the world of theatre was through his wife, “well, one of my wives, I’ve had three. She was an actress and introduced me to theatre. My mum used to say ‘don’t be bringing your fancy friends round here’ because we definitely didn’t know theatre-type folk when I was growing up. I was suddenly meeting people who wore neckerchiefs and called people ‘darling’.”

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Meeting neckerchief-wearing types gave Harris an idea of the world of actors and, even though he ‘don’t believe in God’ he believes someone was watching over him, because while he was doing National Service, he learned to type. The combination of this skill and these meetings, meant he put pen to paper, wrote a script, sent it to a director whose name he had seen on TV “because I knew the director was someone important”. A day later, he received a phone call and his writing career had begun.

There are, as you can imagine from someone with 50 years in the business, an awful lot more stories to tell. There are also a lot of opinions – on the likes of David Hare and Tom Stoppard who look down on the likes of Harris because they write plays that make people laugh, but if you want a real flavour of Harris, see the stage version of Stepping Out and you’ll witness his funny, cheeky, mischievous sense of fun.