Although largely forgotten today, Harry Worth was a major television star of the sixties and seventies. His rise to the top was neither straightforward or quick though – born Harry Bourlan Illingsworth in 1917, he left school at 14 and went straight to work down the local mine (he stuck it out for eight years, despite hating every minute of it).
As with so many entertainers of his generation, World War II was to prove defining. Even when he’d been a miner, Worth had continued to hone his showbiz skills (practising his ventriloquism act whilst hewing coal for example). Prior to WW2 he’d begun to ply his trade by working as a ventriloquist in the numerous working men’s clubs dotted around Yorkshire, but appearing in RAF shows gave the young Worth further valuable experience.
Following his demob, and still attempting to make it big with his wooden friends (at this point he was dubbed ‘The Versatile Vent’), Worth began his slow ascent to the top. Like many of his contemporaries he played the notorious Windmill Theatre (“we never clothed”) as well as just about every variety theatre in the country. During the forties and fifties the variety circuit was still thriving (although the rise of television would eventually kill it off) and Worth was able to make a living, just.
Frequently bottom of the bill, Worth’s career seemed to be heading nowhere, although a tour with Laurel and Hardy in 1952 would prove to be crucial. After watching him from the wings, Oliver Hardy persuaded Worth that he should abandon his vent act and concentrate on becoming a comedian instead. This was valuable advice and within a few years Worth would make his television debut, which in time would lead to his own series.
John Ammonds, forever associated with the classic BBC Morecambe & Wise shows, would produce Worth’s debut series The Trouble With Harry (1960) and the bulk of the follow-up, Here’s Harry (1960 – 1965). His next series, simply titled Harry Worth, would enjoy four successful runs between 1966 and 1970, at which point he decided to jump ship and join Thames (Morecambe & Wise and Mike Yarwood would later do exactly the same thing).
Like many other series of this era, Here’s Harry has a rather patchy survival rate. Out of sixty episodes made, only eleven now exist (although it’s pleasing to note The Musician, recently recovered by Kaleidoscope, is included in this release). Here’s what’s contained on the two DVDs –
The Bicycle – 4th May 1961. Featuring Wensley Pithy, Sam Kyd, Ivor Salter and Anthony Sharp.
The Holiday – 11th May 1961. Featuring Ballard Berkeley, Ronnie Stevens, Meg Johnson and Reginald Marsh.
The Request – 18th May 1961. Featuring Jack Woolgar and John Snagge.
The Medals – 1st June 1961. Featuring Anthony Sharp and Totti Truman Taylor.
The Voice – 8th June 1961. Featuring Jack Woolgar, George Tovey, Sydney Tafler, Joe Gladwin and Meg Johnson.
The Dance – 14th November 1961. Featuring Ronnie Stevens, Reginald Marsh, Colin Douglas, Vi Stevens and Harold Goodwin.
The Plant – 21st November 1961. Featuring Vi Stevens and Patrick Newell.
The Birthday – 5th December 1961. Featuring Jack Woolgar, Vi Stevens and Ivor Salter.
The Overdraft – 12th December 1961. Featuring Gwendolyn Watts, Joe Gladwyn and Jack Woolgar.
The Last Train – 26th December 1961. Featuring Harold Goodwin, Tony Melody, Jack Woolgar and Reginald Marsh.
The Musician – 22nd November 1963. Featuring Geoffrey Hibbert, Jack Woolgar and Max Jaffa.
What’s interesting about the surviving episodes is that – apart from the recently recovered The Musician – everything we have either comes from the second or third series. Series two is virtually complete (only one episode missing) whilst the survival rate for the third series is also pretty good (five out of eight).
The various opening titles help to set the tone for the show. The iconic shop window sequence doesn’t debut until later (it’s only featured in this set on The Musician) so in series two and three we observe Harry strolling down the street, politely raising his hat to unseen passers by and almost colliding with a lampost. That he raises his hat to the lampost is a characteristic touch.
Worth, who lives in the fictional town of Woodbridge (at 52 Acacia Avenue with his cat, Tiddles, and his never seen aunt, Mrs Amelia Prendergast) is a familiar comic creation. Buffeted by events, he rarely seems to be in control of his own destiny – instead he’s at the mercy of officialdom which is sometimes friendly and sometimes not. But this never concerns Harry as he treats everybody with kindness and always remains totally oblivious to the fact that his presence serves as the catalyst for terrible disasters.
Other similar character types – Tony Hancock, Frank Spencer, Victor Meldrew – can easily be brought to mind but Worth’s style is quite different as there’s a warmth about his befuddled comic persona that’s very appealing.
Vince Powell and Harry Driver were the most prolific writers across the seven series, which should allow you to gauge the general level of scripting (both were competent scribes, although hardly in the same league as Galton & Simpson or Clement & Le Frenais). Not that this really matters as the scripts are simply the starting point – Here’s Harry stands or falls on Worth’s ability to make his shtick work (and when he’s placed in opposition to a decent performer then things chug along very merrily).
The Bicycle serves as a perfect example of the way the show operates. Harry is more than upset when a total stranger regularly decides to leave his bicycle outside his house and decides to seek legal advice, although the solicitor (played by Anthony Sharp) is naturally nonplussed about exactly how he can help. Over the course of about ten minutes Harry’s amiable idiocy is enough to reduce Sharp’s solicitor to a gibbering wreck. But when Harry learns that the bike belongs to Ivor Salter’s police constable, Harry (who’s hidden the bike in his shed) becomes frantic with worry ….
Later tangles with Sam Kyd’s postman and Wensley Pithy’s chief constable are further examples of the way Harry so often leaves a trail of devastation in his wake. The “sit” part of this comedy is remarkably slight (a missing bicycle) but it’s plain that each situation is simply the excuse for Worth to move from one authority figure to the next, each time causing mayhem.
Harry’s child-like nature and undeveloped view of the world is further evidenced in The Holiday (he believes that it’s perfectly possible to catch a bus straight from London to Monte Carlo). A long-suffering travel agent is the latest person to suffer from Harry’s presence, although he gets off relatively lightly (Ronnie Stevens’ remarkably camp photographer – tasked with the job of taking Harry’s passport photos – doesn’t fare so well). Ballard Berkeley and Reginald Marsh – both wonderful performers – are also lined up to take their dose of punishment from Mr Worth.
There’s a touch of gentle satire at play in The Request as Harry turns up at the BBC, keen to ensure that a request for his Auntie gets played on Housewives Choice. Due to a barely credible misunderstanding he gets mistaken for a singer (Worth does croon a little bit of Are You Lonesome Tonight quite well though) and then decides to roam the corridors of the BBC, causing chaos wherever he goes (such as interrupting the iconic newsreader John Snagge mid broadcast). His face may not be familiar, but Snagge’s voice is unmistakable and it’s lovely to see him end up as Harry’s latest victim.
The remaining surviving episodes of series one – The Medals and The Choice – maintain the high standard, with Anthony Sharp, this time as a Brigadier, returning in The Medals to once again cross swords with Harry.
Amongst the surviving shows from series three, both The Overdraft and The Last Train are highlights. A visit by Harry to the bank in The Overdraft has plenty of obvious comic potential. He informs the long-suffering assistant that he wishes to deposit three pounds ten shillings (to enable him to draw out precisely the same amount!) This is so he can extract his money in a bewildering and precise series of coins, all the better for then depositing them in a plethora of tins (for the gas bill, newspapers, etc, etc).
The Last Train finds a festive Harry patiently waiting for his train home. It seems a bit odd for trains to be running on Christmas Day but it helps to explain why some of the staff are rather downcast. Harry’s not of course, he’s a regular ray of Christmas sunshine – although his well-meaning efforts to entertain and help don’t always have the results he’d hoped for. Not that this concerns Harry who – as always – breezes through each and every situation, totally oblivious to the havoc he’s causing.
The final existing show – the recently returned The Musician – features a guest appearance from Max Jaffa. Like John Snagge, Jaffa’s a good sport (the typically dense Harry knows that Jaffa is someone famous, he just can’t remember who). The moment when Jaffa tells him who he is and Harry removes his hat in respect is a delight as is the way that Harry initially mistakes him for the music hall comedian Jimmy Wheeler (for good measure Harry throws in Wheeler’s famous catchphrase – “Aye, aye, that’s your lot!” – to increasingly befuddle his famous companion).
Whilst it’s undeniably formulaic, the surviving episodes of Here’s Harry are also undeniably entertaining. The combustible combination of the well-meaning but inadvertent loose cannon that is Harry and the range of authority figures he finds himself encountering (some pleasant, some not) is the reason why the show works as well as it does. The situations may often be slight, but the way that Harry and his co-stars interact is always a joy. Something of a neglected comic treat it’s a pleasure to see it available on DVD and comes warmly recommended.
Here’s Harry is released by Simply Media on the 11th of September. The RRP is £19.99 and it can be ordered directly from Simply here.