Anita Harris on acting, singing, and continuing to learn throughout your career
Anita Harris is one of the UK’s most successful actors, singers, and dancers, having appeared in everything from Carry On films to Morecambe and Wise, via a number of chart hits. She recently returned to our screens in ITV’s Last Laugh In Vegas, a hugely popular entertainment show that saw a number of UK entertainment legends prepare for and perform in a Las Vegas show. Here, in this exclusive interview for Winterson’s, she talks to us about the show, her passions, and how she got started in the industry.
Please tell us how you got started in the industry…
“Everything started, in my career, from ice skating. When I was a kid I used to ice skate in my hometown of Bournemouth and Southampton, and then I used to come to the Queens Ice rink in London in my holidays and weekends – my beautiful parents would bring me. The manager then introduced my parents to this talent scout who said they needed a skater for a show in Paris, to take over from a skater called Jacqueline Dubiev, who was an incredible champion of ice skating. So of course, I was all excited about that. That fell through in a matter of a week but they asked if I would like to dance in a chorus line.”
“Now, I’m a convent girl, I have never been away from my mum and dad and the first job was Las Vegas! So, they, bless their hearts, said I can always go back to school, back to college, but they let me fly, they let me spread my wings. They signed for a chaperone and I flew away. We went to Las Vegas for 3 months and stayed for 6 months at the El Rancho, Vegas. That was the very first hotel-casino-showroom on the strip, the very first one to be built. Then up sprung the Flamingo, the Sahara which was opposite us on the strip, then a little bit further up The Desert Inn – which was where Sinatra was. It was the most amazing experience for a 16-year-old girl, it was just wonderful.”
As somebody who has had huge success in so many different fields, what is your first love as a performer?
“Music is my first love, music is within me. Especially from my father who absolutely loved music of all kinds, all varieties. So that’s kind of instilled in me. I had piano lessons as a kid, so I was able to read music when I became part of the Cliff Adams Singers later on. So, yes, I came back and joined Cliff Adams singers as a chorus girl – one of 6 girls and 6 boys. One of the boys was a young man called Gerry Dorsey who became Engelbert Humperdinck.”
“From dancing in a line in Vegas to coming back to becoming part of a programme on the radio called Sing Something Simple. Then we were a part of a group on the black and white telly called The Grenadires which was for Grenada television and it was a programme called Song Parade – again six boys, six girls and we sang and danced through that. That’s where I learned about cameras, television make-up – I remember the make-up girls were lovely. It was a huge learning curve of the screen, which has stayed with me right the way through.”
And speaking of Vegas, you recently went back there in ITV’s Last Laugh In Vegas… How did that show come about and what were your experiences of it?
“I had been introduced to them because I had done a programme for them about Tommy Cooper. It was a magical time, they took me back to the Palladium and showed me old footage with Tommy and all of that.”
“When the idea of Last Laugh in Vegas came along, it was like an early bell ringing and then there was a huge 6 month wait, wondering whether it was going to happen or not. But then Niki (Winterson) called me into her office right here and she said she needed to see me. So in we came, my darling Mike and I – her phone rang (it was all set up you know) and they said ‘would you like to go to Las Vegas… again?’ It was only 50 years between the times that I was there!”
“So that was how it all started, it was like a bolt – I kind of thought it had gone to bed, so when I was invited to be one of the team at that time, not knowing who else had been invited or anything – and so I looked at Niki and Niki looked at me and we both said ‘yes please!’”
How did your recent experiences of Las Vegas compare with your memories of the place?
“Flying out there this time, the inner excitement of going, of wanting to do a good job; finding out the team of marvellous performers that I was with, getting there, being in a sort of a big brother type house, which it turned out to be… you never stop learning in this business. You never ever stop learning and it was a real rollercoaster, with emotions and leaving Mike behind, not having my own musicians with me – but superb musicians once we started working with them. And seeing Vegas now, the change, the huge raft of a city within a four-mile area that, when I was there, was a desert with just a few hotels and route 66, the strip.”
“A wonderful reaction, different from everybody but of course I now have a new website called KnickerGate. If I could just explain what happened – I got up early in the morning to wash my knick knacks and I had a balcony, so I thought, the sun’s up so it’ll be hot so I put them out on there. Then I heard a knock on the door and they said ‘Nitty, you’re needed’ – so I went downstairs, everybody was there, people have been called to this assembly room – like the school – and then we were whisked off! I forgot all about my knick knacks on the balcony.”
“So we get back at 6 o’clock to have a half hour break before we were off out again, and so I went up to my room and I thought ‘Ah hang on’ – and they were gone! I looked over the balcony and there was this hacienda thing with three or four pairs on top of that and they’ve blown everywhere! I mean you can’t be in the desert and not have a wind! And Sue’s immediate reaction was GET A BROOM and the darling Bernie Clifton got something else…oh it was great fun.”
“Now how a camera captured that, I don’t know, as the cameras were unloading from the cars so I whooshed down and tried to get hold of them but no, there was a camera!”
How did your relationship with Winterson’s come about?
“Pantomime in Torquay, that lovely Lawrence came to see, somebody said would I like to meet him and that’s then how I also came to know about Niki. Like any good agent, bless her heart, she came to see me perform in Chelsea at the Pheasantryand we met and there was a little chemistry….”
“I’m a great believer that when you meet somebody who is going to be a part of your future, even when you don’t know it’s going to be a part of your future, something happens. I was very proud that she took the trouble to come and see me and from that moment we started to talk. It’s kind of evolving. She knows that I’m over 21, so I’m used to the fact that things don’t tumble into my lap so quickly. However, I think we both know that there is a place for most of us in this world and it’s just finding what’s right for each of us.”
“I’m afraid I still have stars in my eyes. There’s so much wonderful work to do and if I can bring something to the table and keep my music, keep the drama and the creative work that Mike and I have been involved in throughout – we’ve been married 45 years in May – there is so much still to be gifted with and for. Showbusiness has changed so much over the years and it’s no use trying to hark back to how it was, what it was – it is what it is now. There is a huge amount of young talent and it’s lovely to be a part of that, you know. So, Niki and I have a couple of dreams we’re going for.”
As recently reported in The Sun newspaper, Anita Harris will be appearing in BBC One’s Celebrity MasterChef in September.