When Louis Met… Keith Harris and Orville

Tuesday, March 19, 2002 by

Another week, another victim. Well, not so much a victim, more of a contented, co-operating dupe rather than the sacrificial lambs we’ve been presented with in the not so distant past.

Nice Guy Louis has adopted the garb and persona of an altruistic angel of mercy, one whose mission is to rehabilitate his ward, and re-enter them into the modern showbiz world all lovingly and carefully put back together again. No matter how broken they were before or how fragile his visits actually leave them, this caring, sharing, Angel of Light beams into their lives like a ray of hope from the present to illuminate their flaws, and help his charges re-evaluate their own past, present and future. It’s all getting a tad too predictable and charmingly comfortable, but for some strange reason, it still remains sufficiently good viewing. As I said when reviewing last week’s encounter with Chris Eubank, it is not quite hitting the benchmark of the Savile or Daniels encounters but the current tranche retains a certain element of interest and delight although, conversely, it doesn’t plumb any great depths – emotionally, spiritually or personally.

Once again Louis introduced us to his subject matter with a nice welcoming preamble. It’s become almost an androgynous, interchangeable opening sequence. Cue Louis in car approaching gravel drive, cue the talent opening front door and so on. Throw in a courteously gracious little speech, et voila – instant Louis Meets …

In truth, Keith Harris came across reasonably well. I expected him to be far more venal, bitter, vitriolic and bilious than he actually was. Clearly embittered at his treatment at his hands of the powers that be, those whom he perceives to dictate the vogues, fripperies and – much more importantly – the schedules, Harris was at least able to articulate his distaste and amplify his assumed angst. Clearly believing himself to be the victim of some form of pseudo-McCarthyist variety witch-hunt, at least he had the subtle grace to refer to himself as a bitter old queen. But his anger does pose a dilemma that refers back to the ephemeral Saturday night debate regarding quality variety shows being scheduled on mainstream television. My own opinion is that there is undoubtedly a place for variety shows and that there is a (potentially massive) viewing audience for the likes of Keith Harris, Paul Daniels et al. I’ve done gone and went all “Bushell” here, haven’t I?

Part of the underlying proof that sustains this argument could be seen in the audience reaction to Keith’s pantomime. Substantiating it further, I would contend that there is an underlying assumption on the part of schedulers that the viewing masses want “sophisticated entertainment”, whatever that may be. Whilst I don’t expect a return overnight to The Black and White Minstrel Show and its consequent mindsets, I am one of what I would regard to be an underclass when it comes to being provided for televisually. I and the overwhelming majority of my peers, family and colleagues are defined not by demographics, by macroeconomics or by profession but simply defy definition. We are not niche viewers, we are not watchers of derivative programming or somesuch spurious, anal retentive, po-faced ideological label. In simple terms we are viewers with an immensely catholic taste when it comes to our watching habits. Dare I raise the variety as a working class tradition argument here? Well, I do. Keith alluded to it when he mentioned to Louis “the look on the audiences’ face” but the bait was not taken nor did Harris wish to pursue it. A fear of further alienation, perhaps?

It’s all to easy to raise the issue of class in this context but, for me, it’s even easier – and far more despicable – to claim that by raising this those such as myself are using it as a red herring. This was the underlying crux of When Louis Met … Keith Harris and Orville, the true heart of the matter. But it was never really explored, nor even skimmed upon. It was as if both parties were aware of opening up a can of worms that would, if uncovered, lead down a path neither group really wished to explore. Yet, for me, this is an issue that rages at the heart of not only this show but at the core of television scheduling. Still, I digress somewhat.

Harris’ malingering, festering despondency served only to further alienate himself and reiterate his sense of isolation. This was underlined wonderfully by Theroux when Harris proudly read out cracking review after cracking review but allowed himself to be personally shattered (almost crucified) by one minor, inconsequential paragraph from the Big Issue. Clearly, Keith was an emotional chap, as was further witnessed by a teary cry over his sandwich whilst talking to Louis about his family. He remained, depending on how you read him, either intensely inscrutable or an entirely open book. I veer to the latter. Harris was readily open when pressed on his ex-wives, though Louis perhaps could have probed a little deeper here and explored the darker reaches of his subject matter. Likewise with Keith’s alcohol “problems”. Was he alcoholic at any point? It was almost as if a trade-off had been agreed – I’ll give you a little on my wives but don’t touch the drink theme. Full marks to Keith for stating the blindingly obvious to his interrogator – how could I perform with a monkey and a duck whilst drunk? Though the concept does have a certain energy to it!

Also top marks to his parents for lovingly recording what I would assume to be every one of their son’s performances on television. A glimpse of Keith and Orville from the Minstrel Show in the early ’80s was quite, quite wonderful. I would pay serious money to rent the videos in that cabinet – what an absolute treasure trove of delights they must hold. In his own small way, you can imagine that, due to his parents’ showbiz roots, he imagines himself the scion of a dynasty of some standing within the upper echelons of the variety world.

Ultimately, the programme was amusing and diverting, and – occasionally – thought-provoking. We learned that Keith loves his mum (bless him), he loves his (fourth) wife and kids (bless him), he loves Orville (God help him) and he doesn’t impersonate Orville when hops onto the good foot to do the bad thing with the missus. We discovered that he’s a trifle bitter, that Jack Douglas has a boozer’s nose par excellence and that Rod, Jane and Freddie had previously shared the digs that Keith was using during his panto run but there were only two rooms. Now, you can’t put a price on television like that.


Comments are closed.