Anita Harris: Still thigh-slapping at 72

Anita Harris is appearing in the York Grand Opera House pantomime, Cinderella.
Anita Harris is appearing in the York Grand Opera House pantomime, Cinderella.
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She’s a veteran of the stage and screen, but as Phil Penfold discovers, age definitely hasn’t wearied Anita Harris.

Auditions can be odd experiences, says Anita Harris and after clocking up more than 50 years in showbusiness, she ought to know.

Anita Harris is appearing in the York Grand Opera House pantomime, Cinderella.

Anita Harris is appearing in the York Grand Opera House pantomime, Cinderella.

Today, everyone recognises her, and her talents, but there was a time when Anita, now 72, had to go out there and prove herself with the rest of them. She settles back into her comfortable chair and recalls the day she went for a role in London.

“It was at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane,” she says, “and there were dozens of us up for the same part. Well, you know how wide that stage is – when my name was called, out I walked. And walked, and walked, and walked. I finally got to the middle of the stage, looked out into that big, black void of an auditorium, and I didn’t even open my mouth, because almost immediately I heard a voice from the stalls, and someone said, ‘Thank you dear’, and that was it. So I went for that long walk back again. I never did hear from them.”

Then she giggles and says: “Mind you, I think I know why I was unlucky. Because I found out later they were casting for a musical called The Flower Drum Song, and it might have helped a little if I was Asian. But no-one bothered to tell me…”

Harris looks horrified when you suggest that she might be thinking of perhaps winding down a little. Far from it. Still one of the nation’s favourite singers and actresses, Anita is carrying on with a punishing schedule of cabaret and concert appearances that will see her appearing all over the UK until well into next year. She’s also starring as The Wicked Baroness in the York Grand Opera House production of Cinderella and has two other projects on the go – her autobiography, and a pilot of a new TV series, a detective thriller produced by her husband, Mike Margolis.

“It’s called The Casebooks of Verity Lake,” says Anita. “I think that it is a brilliant idea – because Verity Lake is the daughter of a music hall double act, but also has uncanny powers as a sleuth, and she ends up as being a private detective for Queen Victoria. It blends some mystery with the music of the day, which I think is a pretty interesting combination”.

Harris has appeared in musicals, plays and concerts in venues across the country, but this return visit to York may well see her achieve a long-standing ambition.

“I would really love to be able to get to one of the Christmas Eve services at The Minster,” she says, “I’m told that it is an experience like no other. I’m just hoping that the pantomime timings on that evening allow me to get across the city in time. And, you know, in all the years that I’ve been coming to Yorkshire, I have never ever been to Fountains Abbey – and we are lucky enough to have a couple of days when Mike and I can grab the opportunity to go and see it for ourselves. Fingers crossed”.

There is a bubbly wide-eyed enthusiasm to Harris that is totally endearing. She is also completely up-front and honest. Does she have a faith? Indeed she does, and she feels that she is blessed by it.

“It has been a strength to me,” she admits quietly. There have been times when both she and Mike have had medical problems – he fought cancer for many years and they were not able to have children, something that you sense she would have adored.

Born in Somerset – she can still pull off a good South West accent – Harris and her family moved to Bournemouth when she was a little and the young Anita discovered the local ice rink. In fact, she became an expert skater, and took further lessons at the celebrated Queen’s rink in London. Where she was spotted by an agent, and, just as she celebrated her 16th birthday, was offered work in Las Vegas.

Looking back, she says: “It must have been a huge decision for mummy and daddy – their only daughter giving up further education to go on the stage. They could so easily have said ‘No’, and put their feet down. But, with the assurance that I would be really properly chaperoned, they allowed me to go – they knew where I wanted to be.”

The teenager arrived in the Nevada desert, and found her troupe playing a venue that was surrounded by the shows with the big name stars of the day – most of whom Anita met. She reels off “Mae West, who was a delightful lady, there was nothing much that got past her. Vic Damone, Louis Prima….and, at the Desert Inn, Mr Frank Sinatra. I only spoke to him very briefly backstage (with a chaperone very much by my side), but he was a charmer.”

Returning to the UK, her career blossomed, and the list of people she starred with is peppered with showbiz legends.

“Morecambe and Wise,” she remembers, “Tommy Cooper, Harry Secombe….Frankie Howerd. It’s when you are working with people of that calibre, that you learn so much, they were all craftsmen.”

It was while she was starring alongside Howerd in the West End show Way Out in Piccadilly, in the mid-Sixties, that her career took another turn.

“One evening the producer and the director of the Carry On films came backstage to see Frankie, to ask if he’d like to do another movie for them. And he very kindly introduced me to them, and at the end of the evening they were enquiring whether I would also like to be in one. “As it happened, it turned out to be two – Carry On, Follow That Camel, and Carry On Nurse. Follow that Camel was set in the blistering heat of the North African desert, and it starred Phil Silvers, among all the other regulars. In truth, however, we filmed it on the rather less blisteringly hot Camber Sands, just outside Rye in Sussex. And I wore next to nothing – and a ruby in my navel! I still watch them when they come on TV – they are still funny and they were made by nearest thing to a film repertory company that we are ever likely to have in this country.

“I have to say that I loved making those films – they were done with love, and an eye for detail. You were expected to turn up on time, to know your lines, and to be ready. No one had an ego, and I was made very, very welcome. And I was given some of the best and most perceptive direction that I’ve ever had.”

Harris has also had chart success, has several Royal Command Performances to her credit and she was even once on the receiving end of the infamous Little Red Book, when surprised in mid-cabaret at the Talk of the Town by Eamonn Andrews.

“I remember all the people that they asked to come on, it was incredible,” she says. “To assemble a cast like that for a real show would have cost a fortune. People were very kind, very generous, and it was all very moving.”

She’s been a memorable Peter Pan on many occasions, for two years she was Grizabella in Cats, singing the hit song Memory and says her career gives her energy.

“I’ll admit that the travelling between dates can be wearing, but then, when you hear the audience, that’s when you get the charge, and it makes it so worthwhile and the adrenalin pumps.”

Would she pass on any advice to those just starting out?

“I always tell them, if I’m asked, that you should always be polishing, polishing, polishing your act, your performance. Whatever you do, you have to have belief in yourself, and be true to yourself, while always giving one hundred per cent. And try not to be devastated when you get the rejections.”

As for that book, well, let’s say that it will “put the record straight”. A few years ago, she and Mike suffered a severe financial set-back when their investments vanished after the collapse of a European bank.

“You find out who your true friends are when something like that happens,” she says, “and you also find out who you can trust. There were some who went straight to the media, and who said things that were totally untrue – they were Judases, and I’ll never forget who they were and what they did. I was badly misquoted in the press, as well, and it all hurt. Bitterly. I don’t want to discuss it now, but it will all be there on publication day. I don’t seek revenge – I’m just going to be completely honest.

“I’m writing it all myself, in longhand, and I can manage a couple of pages every evening, after a show. I’m just about able to make my mobile phone work, so the idea of using a laptop or computer is just laughable.

“There’s no definite title as yet – I’m open to suggestions. Thinking about all the pantomime I’ve done over the years, usually in principal boy roles, someone the other day suggested ‘Slap your thigh – and keep smiling’. I thought that was fun. Whatever happens, it’s been a very very special time. I’ve been blessed. And, believe me, I’m still learning.”

Cinderella, Grand Opera House, York to January 4. 0844 871 3024,