Harry Secombe Welsh Greats


Harry Secombe

Aled Jones presents the funny, warm and moving life story of comedian and singer Harry Secombe, a down-to-earth Swansea lad who became one of the nation's best-loved entertainers.


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Transcript


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of one of the most loveable fools in showbusiness.

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What separates him from the rest of his profession

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is that he is beloved while the rest are merely beliked.

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Ladies and gentlemen, Mr Harry Secombe!

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# Take me to your heart again

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# Let's make a start again

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# Forgiving and forgetting... #

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This is the story of a man I was lucky enough to call a friend

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and mentor. As a comic, he was one of a small group of performers

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who changed the face of British comedy.

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As a singer, he captivated audiences worldwide,

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but it was as a man Harry Secombe touched the hearts of millions.

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Harry was born in Swansea in 1921,

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the son of a travelling salesman.

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His parents, Fred and Gladys Secombe,

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lived with their three children in rented rooms in the St Thomas area.

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Harry was a shy child but he still got up to his fair share of mischief

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What I want to know is was he a bit of a handful?

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Not really a handful. He was always larking about.

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He certainly was a problem child,

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but he was the best and loveliest problem I've ever had.

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Thank you, Mr and Mrs Secombe.

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When Harry was four, the Secombes moved to a brand new council house

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here on St Ledger Crescent.

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It seemed immense to the young Harry,

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who couldn't believe that a whole house could possible by theirs.

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The new house was just up the road from the parish church

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that gave the area of St Thomas its name.

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It was a solid working class neighbourhood.

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The church was at the centre of community life.

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Harry, who sang in the choir, used to go four times every Sunday.

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When he was singing in church, Harry used to lean forward

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so that he'd catch the sunbeams coming in through those windows.

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He liked to think of them as his personal spotlight.

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When it came to performing outside church, he was far shyer.

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Sometimes after school, they'd have a bit of a little party.

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Everybody did something.

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When they wanted me to sing, I was too embarrassed

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to sing in the room, in the house.

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So I used to go to the outside toilet,

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where I sat on the wooden throne

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with the cut out squares of the News of the World on a nail

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and I'd sit there and sing with the door open

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and they'd listen inside.

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Ridiculous really. I'd be... # Bless this house... #

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All the dogs and cats would set off.

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They'd applaud inside.

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A lunatic with trousers around my ankles!

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I didn't sit there with my trousers on. I thought I'd do it properly!

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What a... What a twit!

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Harry went to St Thomas Boys Elementary School.

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There, he did well in English and Art,

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if not in other subjects.

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I wasn't very bright, you know!

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LAUGHTER A bit of an idiot!

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I remember when the results of the triculation, a filthy habit...

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LAUGHTER

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When the results of the board examination came out,

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we were all sitting in class and Teddy Test Tube,

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who was the Maths master, also the Chemistry master, hence the name...

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Anyway... LAUGHTER

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He was reading out the results and he hadn't got to my name.

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He picked up a piece of paper off the desk and said...

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He waved it like this. "We are in the presence of history," he said.

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"History. There is a paper here, no marks out of a hundred for geometry.

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"Secombe, stand up." I stood up, took a call. "Thank you!"

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Everybody clapped. "We've got a clown," he said.

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Clowning was something Harry did take seriously.

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He was a wireless fanatic

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and a keen admirer of comics like Max Miller and Tommy Handley.

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He and his sister Carol used to do a a double act

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at local social nights, and when Harry left school

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and started work as a junior pay clerk,

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his impersonation of his boss almost cost him his job.

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AIR RAID SIREN

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But in 1939, life was about to get far more series

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for him and everyone else in the country.

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With war looming, Harry decided to join the Territorials in Swansea.

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The only problem was that he was chronically short-sighted.

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He got a friend to copy out the army eye chart for him

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and Harry learned it all off by heart.

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In the army, Harry continued to play the clown.

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During his training as a gunner, he almost shot a postman

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on Margam dunes, but he survived that incident

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and was soon sailing for Africa with the Operation Torch invasion force.

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Once they'd landed at the port of Algiers,

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all that stood between them and their objective, Tunis,

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was 500 miles of desert and the German 10th Panzer Division.

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We went there in November 1942.

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And we had quite a touch time. 132 Field Regiment.

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Swansea Territorial regiment.

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We had a lot of... Lost a lot of lads out there.

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You can't share your experience with anybody else.

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You can't tell people what war is like.

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You can't tell them about what it is to see your pal dying,

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that sort of thing, but those people who'd been through it with you

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understand, even if they don't say anything.

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You hold hands now and again and shake hands and share memories.

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Harry wrote, "132 Field Regiment was home to me for four years

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"and I could not have grown up with a better bunch of lads."

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You realise that you just walk about with a sort of...

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frail...covering of flesh and the rest is all pretty vulnerable.

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And your mental attitude changes, I think.

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I remember thinking - I'm not going to call anyone "sir" again after this

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Harry was one of a generation of young men

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whose attitude to authority was fundamentally changed by war.

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In the deserts of North Africa,

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he had a fateful meeting with the biggest anti-authoritarian

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in the British army.

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-Did you meet any of the generals, or...?

-I met a very famous person.

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His name escapes me... Wait a minute. Milligan. Spike Milligan.

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-No!

-Yes, indeed. That's where we met.

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-When did you meet Spike?

-He was washing his white flag for surrender.

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LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE

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There he is!

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APPLAUSE

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Can you enlighten us? Harry was telling us where you met. He said...

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-We were alive when we met.

-LAUGHTER

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-He's got a point there!

-Did you threw a large gun at him?

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Tell him the story.

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We were on a cliff and this huge gun of 7.4,

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and...we fired the gun and it rolled backwards over the cliff.

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When we looked back, it was gone.

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LAUGHTER

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The captain said, "Somebody must go down and look for it."

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"I'll go, sir. Anything to get out of the war!"

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LAUGHTER

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This regiment were parked out in tents.

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I went round and opened the tents and said,

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"Have you seen a gun?" This bloke said, "What colour?"

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LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE

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After they'd taken Tunis, 132 Field Regiment were sent to Italy.

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There, Harry joined the divisional concert party.

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Performing sketches alongside female impersonators and comedy vicars,

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he realised he'd found his calling.

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In April 1946, Harry found himself back on Civvy Street

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with a one way ticket to Swansea in his hand.

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A few days after he'd been demobbed, Harry went for a night out

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at Mumbles Pier Dancehall. He was going through a Canadian phase,

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wearing a lumberjack shirt, putting an accent

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and pretending to chew gum.

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He must have been doing something right.

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He asked a pretty girl called Myra for a dance and she said yes.

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Do you remember the dancehall at the Mumbles near Swansea?

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Of course. I met my wife.

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Yes, that's where you met your wife to be. Come in, Mrs Myra Secombe.

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Myra! You didn't tell me!

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APPLAUSE

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-Right there, beside your husband.

-There's lovely!

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I was at the Mumbles with a few of my girlfriends

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and I was just about to get my last bus home

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when this fellow comes up to me and says, "Can I have this dance?"

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It was Harry.

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I made a date to meet her the following day outside the Plaza.

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The following morning, I'd had a few more drinks than I should have had

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and I couldn't remember what she looked like.

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I thought, "I know what I'll do." LAUGHTER

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I got there early and there were pillars outside the Plaza,

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so I got behind one of the pillars

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and said, "I'll wait now till 6.00pm

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"and if I don't like her, I won't step out from behind the pillar."

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-A bit of a gentleman!

-So I got there at five to six,

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got behind the pillar, didn't see her.

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When I stepped out from behind my pillar, she stepped out from hers.

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LAUGHTER That's true!

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Mutual mistrust!

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While they were courting, Harry took Myra to Swansea Empire every week.

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Watching the acts on stage, he found himself filled with a desire

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to get up and show them what he could do.

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He decided to take the plunge. He got in touch with a theatre critic

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he'd met in the army who suggested he tried the Windmill Theatre.

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The Windmill was famous as the only theatre in London

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with a live nude revue.

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The thing was I found I had more friends...

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'Harry Secombe joined in 1946.'

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..than I've had before or since.

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People would come and say, "Hello, Harry. Remember me?"

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You'd take them up the canteen for a cup of tea and a sandwich

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and all the girls would come up there between shows

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in very wispy negligees and things.

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Anyone from outside would sit there and go, "Cor! Look at...!"

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You couldn't have a conversation. They weren't listening.

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My brother's a vicar

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and four of his clerical friends came along to see me,

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they came about four times a week!

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With six shows a day and an audience that didn't come for the comedy,

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the Windmill was a tough training ground for a young comic.

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Harry got through it with a routine he'd dreamt up in Italy,

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the shaving act.

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First of all, a young boy shaving for the first time.

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LAUGHTER

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And then he finds there's no blade!

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LAUGHTER

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Those early years as a variety turn weren't glamorous.

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Harry often found himself kipping on friends' floors.

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But appearances on radio shows like Variety Band Box

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began to win him more live bookings.

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Harry learned his trade working in musichalls up and down the country.

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It was a tough apprenticeship for any young performer,

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as Harry found out one night in Bolton.

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I was in the bar having a drink, a large rum.

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The bar had cleared except for one fella with his back to me

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and a group of people around him, a big fat guy.

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He said, "I've seen 'owt like it in me life. By 'eavens!"

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I tapped him on the shoulder, emboldened by the rum.

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I said, "Excuse me," in a polite manner, cos I was drunk...

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LAUGHTER

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I said...

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I said, "Excuse me, but I'm the fella you're talking about."

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He said, "That's him! You should ashamed of yourself!"

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I said, "I haven't adjusted myself. I've been playing in the West End.

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"I haven't had time to adjust."

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He said, "You couldn't adjust your braces!"

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"Who do you think you're talking to?"

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He said, "Who do you think you're talking to? I own this theatre."

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I said, "Oh, do you...?"

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I said, "It's very draughty backstage."

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He took out his wallet and he said, "'Ere you are. 'Ere's your money.

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"Get 'train in 'morning. You're not shaving in my bloody time."

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In 1948, Harry and Myra got married.

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Their first child a year later.

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When he wasn't being a family man,

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Harry liked to hang out in Graftons, a pub owned by ex-serviceman

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and comedy writer Jimmy Grafton.

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There he'd meet up with his old mate Spike

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and a comic he knew from the Windmill called Michael Bentine.

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But it was when Harry met a comedian called Peter Sellers

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that the final piece of the puzzle fell into place.

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Together, these four men would revolutionise British comedy.

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We did a trial recording for Pat Dixon. It was pretty incoherent,

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but he thought there was something in it.

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The BBC, God bless 'em, gave us a trial - six or thirteen or something

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shows to start with and that's how it began.

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We did these first six and we began to get a bit clearer, you know.

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It was all... (VARIOUS SILLY NOISES) ..and all this terrible...

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But eventually, they settled to a sort of storyline.

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And it was discovered fairly early on the voices I did sounded like me.

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So I was told rather quietly that I should stick to one voice.

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They got me to do Neddie and everything happened round Neddie.

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Bloodnok and the other characters.

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-Who are you?

-Me? I'm Lance Private Eccles.

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-Most people call me by nickname.

-What's that?

-Nick!

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That's a joke. I made a joke about...

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I inspected the man closely.

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He was the nearest thing I'd seen to a human being

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without actually being one. LAUGHTER

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I say, Seagoon, surely you don't suspect this man?

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Why, we were together in the same company during that disaster.

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-What company was that?

-Desert Song 1933.

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LAUGHTER

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-Were you both in the doily cart?

-Right in the doily cart!

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LAUGHTER

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For an audience that had grown up on traditional musichall humour,

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this was mind-blowing stuff.

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The show was a smash hit.

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Every Sunday, no matter where he was performing,

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Harry would rush back to London for the Goon Show.

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In fact, for all the Goons, Sunday was the highlight of the week.

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After rehearsal, they'd nip into the pub nextdoor

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for a bottle of brandy and a pint of milk,

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then back on the stage, they'd let rip.

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Thank you.

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LAUGHTER

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Hello, folks of the world. I am speaking to you

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using the new aluminium voice cone projector.

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I will start my comeback with a new trick

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taught to me by a one-legged sailor

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who did toffee-apple impressions for Noel Coward.

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LAUGHTER

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Pop!

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LAUGHTER Did you hear that?

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The show ran for nine years and made Harry a household name.

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During that time, he also continued his successful solo career

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as both a comedian and a gifted singer.

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For many years, he hadn't dared take his singing seriously,

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using it mainly for comic effect.

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# ..Everywhere, everywhere, everywhere, everywhere

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# Where e'er you walk

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# Cool gale shall fan the glen

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# Trees where you sit

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# In an English country garden

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-# Hear my song

-# I've got a handful of songs to sing

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-# Your letter

-# Sit right down and write myself a letter

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-# Hear my song

-# I feel a song coming on

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# Give me the moonlight, give me the girl

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# In an English country garden. #

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It was singing teacher Manlio di Veroli

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who turned Harry into a serious singer.

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Harry said that Di Veroli took his voice apart

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the way a skilled mechanic dismantles an engine.

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When he put it back together, it was a thing of beauty.

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HARRY SINGS OPERA STYLE

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Harry's talent as a singer was to take him to the top of the charts.

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It was while he was holidaying in Barbados with Wolf Mankowitz

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that Harry mentioned an idea he had for a musical

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based on the Dickens novel The Pickwick Papers.

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Mankowitz liked it.

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He set about writing Pickwick and in the process,

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created a star role for Harry.

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Pickwick was a big challenge for Harry.

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For the first time, he had to step out of his musichall persona

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and really act.

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When the first night of the show's American tour

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was met with rapturous applause, Harry cried more than ever before.

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# If I ruled the world

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# Every day would be the first day of spring

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# Every heart would have a new song to sing

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# And we'd sing of the joy every morning would bring

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# If I ruled the world

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# Every man would be as free as a bird

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# Every voice would be a voice to be heard

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# Take my word, we would treasure each day that occurred... #

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If I Ruled The World was a number one hit for Harry.

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During the 1970s, he enjoyed one success after another,

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blending music and comedy in TV shows that attracted millions.

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MIMED SINGING DROWNED OUT BY LAUGHTER

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MIMES TO A WOMAN SINGING

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MIMES TO A DEEP MAN'S VOICE

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MIMES TO A DEEP MAN'S VOICE BY MISTAKE

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MIMES TO A HIGH WOMAN'S VOICE

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While his solo career went from strength to strength,

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Harry still found time for the odd reunion with old friends.

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..And in the year of 1883 that the monster whale

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came to Dundee,

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for a few days to sport and play.

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And devour the small wee fishes in the silvery Tay!

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ALL: Woooooaaaaah!

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LAUGHTER

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-So the monster... Thank you!

-Slightly under-rehearsed!

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So the monster whale did sport and play...

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LAUGHTER

0:20:460:20:48

-Amongst the decent...

-Go on, keep going.

0:20:490:20:52

..innocent little fishes in the beautiful Tay

0:20:520:20:55

until he was seen by some men one day

0:20:550:20:57

and they resolved to catch him without delay. Oooooohhhhhh!

0:20:570:21:02

Camera Two!

0:21:020:21:04

Aye, you're next!

0:21:040:21:06

Oh, yes.

0:21:070:21:09

Then the water did descend on the men in the boats...

0:21:090:21:13

Hard night tonight. LAUGHTER

0:21:130:21:15

In 1981, having entertained the nation for four decades,

0:21:160:21:20

Harry was awarded a knighthood.

0:21:200:21:22

I was practising yesterday and I split my trousers!

0:21:220:21:26

So I thought...

0:21:260:21:28

If it happens today... I had my trousers reinforced.

0:21:280:21:31

Fortunately, it was a high stool and no bother.

0:21:310:21:34

-You didn't need the...?

-No. Thank Heavens, no.

0:21:340:21:39

-Can you give us a...?

-Show you? Yes, there we are.

0:21:390:21:42

Harry and his friends had always joked about his weight.

0:21:420:21:46

I'm sorry, sir, you cannot park that huge Welsh body there.

0:21:460:21:51

LAUGHTER

0:21:510:21:53

-Watch it, rozzer!

-I have been watching it, sir.

0:21:530:21:57

And it gives me no pleasure.

0:21:570:21:59

But by the 1980s, it was no longer a laughing matter.

0:21:590:22:02

Now weighing in around the 20 stone mark,

0:22:030:22:06

Harry was experiencing problems with his health.

0:22:060:22:10

Even after a near fatal bout of peritonitis,

0:22:100:22:12

he didn't heed doctors' advice to change his behaviour.

0:22:120:22:16

A couple of years later, the consequences caught up with him.

0:22:160:22:20

In 1982, Harry was performing at Sydney Opera House

0:22:200:22:23

when he almost passed out on stage.

0:22:230:22:26

The doctor that examined him the next day

0:22:260:22:29

told him if he didn't change his lifestyle,

0:22:290:22:31

he'd be dead within two years.

0:22:310:22:34

-I went on a diet and I haven't had a drink since that day.

-Do you miss it?

0:22:340:22:38

I'm thirsty! LAUGHTER

0:22:380:22:41

No. I don't miss it. I missed it at the beginning.

0:22:430:22:47

-Do you miss the drink?

-No, I don't! LAUGHTER

0:22:470:22:50

No, I don't miss it. APPLAUSE

0:22:510:22:54

We do have, thanks to your permission,

0:22:550:22:59

-your current passport photograph.

-Have you seen it?

0:22:590:23:02

Have a look at this. Harry Secombe's current passport photo.

0:23:020:23:06

LAUGHTER

0:23:060:23:08

How did you get back into the country?

0:23:080:23:11

Honestly, they take a second look.

0:23:110:23:13

It took a chorus of If I Ruled The World to get in!

0:23:130:23:16

Then they kept me out!

0:23:160:23:18

At the age of 62, when others might have been winding down their careers

0:23:180:23:23

Harry was about to embark on a new one.

0:23:230:23:26

In 1983, he was invited to present a new Sunday night show

0:23:260:23:30

featuring hymns and real life stories from believers

0:23:300:23:33

all over Britain. Though Harry claimed he wasn't heavily religious,

0:23:330:23:38

his natural warmth made him the perfect presenter for Highway.

0:23:380:23:42

When I was a teenager, I was lucky enough to sing with Harry in Rome

0:23:420:23:47

for a special edition of Highway.

0:23:470:23:49

It would have been very easy for him to treat me like a "little kid",

0:23:490:23:53

but he actually took me under his wing.

0:23:530:23:55

I have very fond memories of tasting my first glass of red wine

0:23:550:23:58

sat next to Harry Secombe at the piano.

0:23:580:24:01

As he used to say - it's nice to be big,

0:24:010:24:04

you don't have to be big to be nice.

0:24:040:24:06

Highway ran for ten years

0:24:060:24:09

and when it ended, Harry was quickly headhunted

0:24:090:24:11

by the producers of Songs of Praise.

0:24:110:24:14

But in 1999, Harry suffered a double blow.

0:24:230:24:28

Just weeks after he'd been diagnosed with prostate cancer,

0:24:280:24:31

he had a serious stroke.

0:24:310:24:34

In order to improve public awareness of the challenges

0:24:340:24:37

faced by stroke sufferers, Harry and Myra allowed documentary makers

0:24:370:24:42

to follow them through the long, slow process of recovery.

0:24:420:24:46

'Myra has been at Harry's side throughout,

0:24:480:24:52

'giving her encouragement and support

0:24:520:24:54

'as she's done through the 52 years of their marriage.'

0:24:540:24:58

They are wonderful, these two. They're really wonderful.

0:25:000:25:04

Every flicker of a finger excites us, you know.

0:25:040:25:09

But that is wonderful. That takes some determination

0:25:090:25:13

cos he'd got to sort of... set himself up to do it.

0:25:130:25:17

Yeah. It's sad on times.

0:25:170:25:20

Good. Well done. Into a rhythm. Lovely. That's it. There we are.

0:25:200:25:25

Well done!

0:25:300:25:31

That's the first time.

0:25:310:25:34

Yes, it is. Yes. It's a better...feeling, yes.

0:25:340:25:37

It's worth the hard work, innit?

0:25:380:25:40

-Yes.

-But you've worked really hard.

0:25:400:25:44

It's tissue time in the gym!

0:25:440:25:48

Yes, Myra. You and I together.

0:25:480:25:50

By the time Harry appeared as a guest on Songs of Praise in 2000,

0:25:530:25:58

he was once again back on form.

0:25:580:26:00

I've got...prostate cancer, diabetes and a stroke.

0:26:020:26:06

The one thing to do...to forget about prostate cancer

0:26:060:26:10

is to have a stroke!

0:26:100:26:12

LAUGHTER

0:26:120:26:14

APPLAUSE

0:26:160:26:18

-It concentrates the mind!

-I'm sure it does!

0:26:230:26:26

There are things that are never going to be the same again.

0:26:280:26:31

No. Once, I think, you get a stroke you say, "Well, that's it.

0:26:310:26:35

"For now. That's the end of the Harry Secombe that was."

0:26:350:26:39

-There's a new life opening up.

-Do you grieve for what you've lost?

0:26:390:26:43

Not really. If you wallow in self-pity, then...

0:26:430:26:47

you don't get anywhere.

0:26:480:26:50

You've got to accept what's happened and get on with life.

0:26:500:26:53

Harry's positive attitude, his sense of humour

0:26:530:26:57

and the love of family and friends all helped pull him through.

0:26:570:27:01

LAUGHS HYSTERICALLY

0:27:010:27:03

-There's no such thing as a horse called Doris!

-One ran away.

0:27:060:27:10

They were great days, Harry.

0:27:100:27:12

-We actually saw the last days of...

-The best of variety.

0:27:120:27:18

-You must be one of my oldest friends.

-Yeah.

0:27:180:27:22

I'm 81,

0:27:220:27:24

and I don't seem to be anywhere nearer death than if I was 100.

0:27:240:27:28

I was actually wondering what my deathbed seemed to be like.

0:27:280:27:33

I'd like to be there and all my children round me.

0:27:330:27:36

I think you... When you've passed on, whatever,

0:27:360:27:40

there's something in a poem...

0:27:400:27:43

"And think this heart all evil shed away,

0:27:440:27:47

"A pulse in the eternal mind,

0:27:470:27:49

"No less gives somewhere back those thoughts by England given."

0:27:490:27:53

The pulse in the eternal mind, to me, represents what happens to us

0:27:530:27:57

after we die.

0:27:570:27:59

Oh, I'll have to wait for that then!

0:27:590:28:01

LAUGHS LOUDLY

0:28:020:28:04

Harry passed away on the eleventh of April 2001.

0:28:070:28:11

Harry's death didn't really sink in for me

0:28:140:28:17

until his memorial service at Westminster Abbey.

0:28:170:28:20

Sat there with friends and family, royalty,

0:28:200:28:24

and some of the best broadcasters and comedians in the world,

0:28:240:28:27

you got a real sense of the man's character.

0:28:270:28:30

Yes, he rubbed shoulders with princes,

0:28:300:28:33

but he was just as happy passing the time of day with people in Swansea.

0:28:330:28:37

That's what made him great.

0:28:370:28:39

Harry Secombe, This Is Your Life.

0:28:390:28:41

Oh, thank you. APPLAUSE

0:28:410:28:44

LAUGHTER

0:28:590:29:01

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:29:170:29:20

Aled Jones presents the funny, warm and moving life story of comedian and singer Harry Secombe, a down-to-earth Swansea lad who became one of the nation's best-loved entertainers.

From The Goons to Highway, from Pickwick to Songs of Praise, he 'ruled the world' with a giggle and a song. But Harry's good humour gave no hint of the serious challenges he had faced, from the brutality of war to life-threatening illness.

Featuring Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan, the programme reminds us of Harry's natural warmth, his faith, and his infectious humour.


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