LESSONS IN SHOWBIZ

Knees Up! hosts The Fabulous Josh and Welsh Aunty BopaRhys meet their public

Cabaret fun for all the family in a right old Knees Up!

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She may not be familiar with the term, but it doesn’t change the fact that Anita Harris is what is known as a ‘triple threat’.

She can sing, she can dance and she can act – and this is why she’s been at the top in showbusiness for more than half a century.

Anita Harris as Baroness Hardup.  ''Picture by:  Malcolm Wells (151006-6683)

Anita Harris as Baroness Hardup. ''Picture by: Malcolm Wells (151006-6683)

‘I’ve never heard it called that before – I’ve been called an all-rounder but not that!’ she says, followed by laughter and a beaming smile.

It seems impossible for Anita to be anything but cheerful. But perhaps she’s saved all her nastiness for her panto role as the Baroness Hardup, wicked stepmother to Cinderella, at the Kings Theatre in Southsea.

Anita played the same part last year in York where she also worked with director and producer of the show Simon Barry, who she says ‘believes in the magic of theatre’.

‘There’s a great weight in the character so that’s really something to grip on to,’ she says.

‘But she’s not this evil, horrible character. She’s naughty and riles up the little ones in the crowd and chivvies Cinderella.

‘It’s just pure pantomime; it’s something that’s so part of the British way of life and I think it’s wonderful that all these families and children come along to see us.’

Anita is looking forward to working in the Kings.

‘This is a beautiful theatre. You just walk in the stage door and you can feel this energy. There’s a lot of history here – some ghosts too I imagine.’

But when Anita was a child, it wasn’t the stage that attracted her – it was the ice.

After her family moved to Bournemouth from Bristol and Bath, she would go down to Westover Ice Rink early in the morning and learn to figure skate.

‘I loved the figures. I would go at seven o’clock in the morning, and it’d be freezing cold – the mist would be rising from the ice. You have what is called a patch, and that’s where you do the actual figures of eight. Then it gets more complicated.

‘I loved the silence and the crisp sound of the blades on the ice. That was great.’

In her early teens, Anita’s ‘sparring partner’ on the ice was a boy called Courtney Jones who later became a four-time ice dancing world champion and designed the outfits for Torvill and Dean’s legendary Bolero routine.

But this wasn’t what the future had in store for Anita.

While skating at Queens Ice Rink in London, she was discovered by a talent scout who offered her a job in Las Vegas as a dancer.

She says: ‘It was two weeks before my 16th birthday. It was crazy. When I look back I think “how did my parents let me go?” especially because they wanted me to go on to do further education. But I guess Las Vegas is an education in itself!’

During the six months that she worked there, she met many stars and even got her driving licence. One night, Anita and her fellow dancers had two minutes with Frank Sinatra.

She says: ‘We did three shows a night in Vegas and got a night off in every 12 when we were able to see the other shows.

‘We were welcomed backstage and I remember him saying “Hi girls...” and wishing us well in our careers.’

Actress Mae West was another brief encounter, but Anita remembers the kindness she was shown by the Hollywood legend.

‘Most artists of that era and performers that have been doing it a long time are usually very kind to younger kids coming up into the business.

‘Vegas was my learning curve. I was soaking it all up, but I didn’t really know what I’d landed in. I was in this enchanted world.

‘But now, looking back, all the people I’ve worked with are sitting on my shoulders and are in my heart. I’m so lucky to have met them and learned from them.’

Anita’s showbiz education was also furthered by entertainers on this side of the pond, including Tommy Cooper, Harry Secombe and Clive Dunn of Dad’s Army fame.

She says: ‘I went on combined services entertainment tours, and visited 12 different places with Harry. I saw how loved he was by the British public and by all the forces. We went to Germany, Cyprus, Borneo, Brize Norton – all over the place. I flew in a huge Beverley aircraft with these very handsome army chaps and landed in the middle of nowhere where they were building the stage for us to perform on that night. These are memories never to be forgotten. I really treasure them.

‘Working with Tommy Cooper, Morecambe and Wise... it’s been a very passionate love affair with the joy of working with these people.’

Another set of acting legends that Anita has worked with is the cast of the Carry On film series, which she joined for Follow That Camel and Carry On Doctor.

‘What a team to join,’ she says.

‘Individually each one of them were very strong actors but when they got together they made a certain magic. The fact that decades have gone by and young ones still love to watch the films – it’s a testament to the cast.’

Anita remembers that while there was a family atmosphere on set, Kenneth Williams – whose brillance, she says, ‘was outstanding’ – was a hard nut to crack.

‘I had to prove myself to Kenneth, and that’s fine because I was young and inexperienced in the film world. I remember the day that he came over, put his arm around me and said “morning chuck!” and I thought “ohh, I’m okay, I’ve been allowed to join.”

‘Because he was so particular, they all were, about getting it right, I quickly realised that you couldn’t go in there without learning your lines.’

It is a mentality that has put her in good stead not just with her acting work but her career as a singer.

After travelling back from Vegas, Anita auditioned for the Cliff Adams Singers, a group which famously included Engelbert Humperdinck, then known as Gerry Dorsey.

She was with them for a couple of years, before breaking away as a solo singer. Her biggest hit in the UK, Just Loving You, peaked at number six in the charts and stayed in the top 40 for several months.

The song was composed by Tom Springfield, brother of blue-eyed soul icon Dusty Springfield.

Anita says: ‘I knew Dusty in her very early days when we were travelling around Great Britain doing the clubs.

‘My husband Mike [Margolis] – who was just my manager then – took me into the world of recording and he produced all my records. It was the days when a British artist could cover an American hit and I was singing Trains and Boats and Planes at the time.

‘I was taken into the Top of the Pops studio because it got in the charts and watching my rehearsal was Dusty, who was performing “you don’t have to say you love me, just be close at hand”,’ Anita sings.

‘She came across after my rehearsal and said “Anita, you and Mike have to meet my brother Tom because I think he’s got a song for you”, and to this day I just look up at heaven and say “thank you Dusty” because it was such a generous thing for another artist to give, a song that she knew could be a hit.’

Anita says it was so exciting seeing the song climb the charts.

‘You had to sell a million to be top of the charts then, so it was a very special time.

‘The publishers would phone you every day and my record company, which was CBS, got excited too. It took a long time to take off because it was a ballad, a love song, and the world of music at that time was The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Tom Jones.

‘It took a while, and then once it started to roll, it was in the charts in and out for two years. It tells me that romance will always be around.’

She adds: ‘It opened so many doors for me, so God bless Dusty and Tom.’

One such door that Anita didn’t hesitate to open came later in her career when she played Grizabella in Cats on the West End, a role she performed for two years from 1986-88.

‘To sing Memory every show... you feel like you’ve been given a gift. I love to sing it still. Cats showed me the dramatic side of theatre – and who wouldn’t want to be with magical Mr Mistoffelees?

‘What [producer] Cameron Mackintosh instills in anybody that works in his shows is that you have a duty to those people that come to see it to perform better every time, to make it new for every matinee and every evening show.’

And while Baroness Hardup and Grizabella don’t have much in common – particularly in the fashion department – Anita has applied Mackintosh’s lesson, and all the others she has learned during her career, to her stint at the Kings. With such a busy schedule, Christmas Day will be an excuse to catch up on some much-needed rest. ‘Having a Christmas nap is very important,’ says Anita.

n Cinderella is at the Kings Theatre, Southsea, until January 3. Tickets: from £8.50, visit kingsportsmouth.co.uk or call (023) 9282 8282.

n To watch a video interview with Anita, visit portsmouth.co.uk/video

JAMES BUTLER