That you were an endlessly joyous, supportive, encouraging, rallying, and loving father-in-law to Gabe and I is gravely missed.
This letter is not only a meditation on how we love and mourn you; those deeply running rivers are a given.I’m writing this letter as a testament to how you have inspired me as an artist.Stories of your acting career belong in a heavy tome with thick, fragrant pages and gilded lettering on a leather-bound spine.2013 saw you perform in your thirteenth pantomime at the Theatre Royal Bath, and your twelfth consecutive year as director, during which time you played all of the legendary pantomime Dame roles.The West’s best-loved Dame, you last performed as Governess Gertie in Peter Pan, the pantomime at Theatre Royal Bath in December 2013 and January 2014, which you also directed. Your rapport with audiences and expert knowledge of pantomime is what made your reputation as one of the UK’s favourite Dames.Your loveable, affable sidekick Jon Monie recently quoted your panto creed which, as he aptly pointed out, also describes you perfectly (the same could be said for your nickname-inducing coiffure):
LARGER THAN LIFE, AND TWICE AS REAL.
You were a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company and worked with theatre companies in Lincoln, Salisbury, Worthing, The New Shakespeare Company in London, and the Bristol Old Vic.
Since 1976, you toured the world extensively with your six one-man shows, the flagship of which was Kemp’s Jig directed by John David. Already performed in fifty-eight countries it was seen on ITV and shown at the RSC and National Theatre. Your most recent shows included Ally Sloper’s Half-Holiday, Beemaster, A Night At The Pantomime and ’Arris Music ’All.
Your television credits included an RTS Award for the BBC TV series Hey Look That’s Me, produced by Patrick Taggart, which ran for eight years and also five programmes you co-wrote and performed in, including the trilogy That’s The Way To Do It!, which received a Royal Command Performance for The Queen in 1979.
You performed and directed all over the world – in the USA; with the National Theatres of Turkey (four Awards) and Namibia; in Hong Kong, the Philippines and Singapore, and throughout the Middle and Far East. You devised and directed Fool’s Island with Darren Gilshenan of Bell Shakespeare, Sydney. Fool’s Island received its world premiere in Sydney in 2011.
You toured the USA for Sam Wanamaker raising money with others for The Globe Theatre on London’s South Bank. You also toured with members of Welsh National Opera with shows based on the works of Banchieri, Monteverdi, Charles Ives, and Thomas Weelkes. You wrote and directed A Knife at the Opera and, Shakespeare pa Afveje, written and directed for a company in Copenhagen.
You presented your own programme The Chris Harris Road Show for BBC Radio Bristol and performed numerous BBC radio plays including The Birds, Boy Fathers and Harvey Angel.
You were a recipient of scholarships from The Rose Bruford College, the French Government and the British Council. Your training ranged from The Jacques Lecoq Mime School in Paris to the Moscow State Circus School and Ladislav Fialka’s pantomime company in Prague.
Oh, how I wish we’d drunk more wine, and I’d heard more of your stories.
You held a number of posts including being a governor for The Rose Bruford College, a member of the board of directors for Salisbury Playhouse, a panel member for Southern Arts and past president of Bridgwater Theatre Trust. You were British delegate for the International Theatre Institute XVIII Congress in Sofia and also for the World Shakespeare Congress in Japan. You were a patron of Circomedia in Bristol and Highbridge Arts Festival.
You were also much sought after as a lecturer and teacher, notably a regular visiting lecturer and director for Bristol Old Vic Theatre School for twenty-five years. You lectured at universities in London, Manila, Bangkok, Cambridge and Exeter.
Your workshop How to make a fool of yourself and get away with it was used by many educational authorities, the probation service, theological colleges, the social services and BBC TV News Department. You were course director for two specialist British Council Summer Schools at UWE.
Your books included Will Kemp, Shakespeare’s Forgotten Clown, published by Kylin Press, Alphabet Of Pantomime and his pantomime scripts, written with former Principal of the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, Chris Denys.
You were all of this, and more, to many thousands of people. To me you were my second dad, and of my humble artistic pursuits, you were one of my biggest champions.
After you were gone I wanted to cancel my trip to Lisbon to speak on the opening day of the global storytelling conference that you and I had brainstormed for together. I also wanted to pull out of the literary festival in London I’d committed to.
I have wanted to burrow away and live less, not more.
You, however, wouldn’t let me get away with that.
You taught me better, as a person, and as an artist.
So I didn’t cancel. I dug deep for grit, put on many-a-frock, and fulfilled my commitments.
I remembered what happens when you show up. When you say yes.
And, wouldn’t you just be winking smugly at me as I tell you that for doing so I was rewarded with experience and opportunity, and gifted with new friendships, richer and more nourishing than I could have imagined.
This is what you did. You inspired people around you to be their creative best.
Even as we had to farewell you.
During one of our last conversations – somehow, absurdly, only mere weeks ago – you said, “if you’re worth anything at all, you must do this, you must tell your story, if not for you, then for all of us who believe in you.”There’s a new mantra pinned to the cork board in my office.
I will carry that fire, and use it to the best of my ability.As ever,