Farewell to a “perfect clown”

THE stage of Bath’s exquisite Theatre Royal was decked in fairy lights and peopled with vibrantly colourful costumes as friends, family and fans gathered to say goodbye to the much-loved actor and pantomime star Chris Harris.

The event was billed as a “Farewell Jollification” – a title chosen by Chris’s 94 year old mother in law Mary, whose malapropisms and spoonerisms were a constant delight to the man who brought so much pleasure to so many people of all ages.

The show – and it was a show, not a memorial in any conventional way – was compered and introduced by the Rev Neville Boundy (known as Rev Nev), a playwright as well as vicar, who arrived at the theatre with family and friends, after conducting Chris’s funeral service in the morning.

Wearing one of his trademark highly coloured pullovers, Rev Nev set the tone for the 80 odd minutes that followed, reading Wendy Cope’s witty and acerbic My Funeral.

There were memories from many people who had worked with Chris, including Patrick Taggart, his first BBC producer back in 1975, when they worked together on Hey Look, That’s Me, friends and colleagues from Bristol Old Vic and Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, and actor Clive Mantle who called his friend a “perfect clown” and read an achingly funny letter from Tim Pigott-Smith, recalling Chris’s wicked humour at play during rehearsals for the Scottish play at Bristol Old Vic in the late 1960s. Who knew that the Macduffs had a regular milk delivery – and a cat?

Danny Moar, director of the Theatre Royal, gave a heartfelt tribute to the man who starred in Bath’s spectacular pantomimes for 15 years, directing them for 12 consecutive years, and said Chris would be “a hard act to follow.”

Chris’s daughter-in-law Holly, sister Sue and sons Matt and Sam all gave their own touching and funny tributes – including an escapology routine by Matt (who is a professional stuntman) that had the audience roaring with laughter.

There was dancing – tap from Jessica Punch and an uproarious Gangnam Style routine from the Dorothy Colborn Dancers – and one of Chris’s best loved routines, “Busy bee,” re-created by his friends actors Howard Coggins and Marcus Knibbs and comedian Jon Monie who so often played Chris’s son in the Bath pantomimes.

Finally, Chris’s widow Vicky, glamorous in vivid pink (everyone had been asked to come in bright colours – this was not a solemn mourning affair) shared some hilarious anecdotes from their 21 happy years, “a laugh from beginning to end,” she said, and introduced little Ferrari, a tiny rescued Boxer puppy, who is helping to fill the unfillable void in her life.

Chris Harris was only 71 years old when he died, from cancer, and he leaves an enormous hole in the West Country’s entertainment scene and in the lives of all who knew and loved him. This was a wonderful, joyful tribute to a man who was, his widow said, “without ego.”

An ability to make people laugh is a wonderful skill – an ability to spread happiness through laughter, to leave so many delicious, ridiculous, hilarious memories and stories is something very special.

Chris Harris was a star in a theatre where the great Grimaldi performed in 1815 – 200 years on, we salute and say farewell to a man who was one of his greatest successors.

Fanny Charles