With BBC4 showing an episode of THE RUSSELL HARTY SHOW on Tuesday 20 March, and then ITV1 screening The Unforgettable… Russell Harty on Wednesday, we’re declaring next week A HARTY PARTY!
It’s been 24 years since Russ passed away, and until this Russ scheduling stampede, it had seemed as if everyone had forgotten about him, apart from that bit where Grace Jones smacked him about the head a bit. And that’s a real shame, because Russell Harty was a man who produced some of the most entertaining, amusing and, you would have to say, demented television ever made. He always seemed to give over the impression that he had no idea why he’d suddenly found himself on television but since he was here he may as well have a go at it, and his camp bemusement was a familiar sight on our screens throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
So let’s remember the TV icon that was Mister Rissole Hartley…
In the beginning
Russ was born in Blackburn, and one of his most famous encounters was with the Mayor of his home town, who informed him, “You may be big in London, but you’re bugger all in Blackburn!”. His first proper job was as English teacher at Giggleswick School in Yorkshire, where one of his pupils was a young Richard Whiteley. Twice Nightly later said that Russell was his hero while he was in school, because he seemed so cool and intelligent, taking Richard to see CAMBRIDGE CIRCUS and then inviting him for dinner with his mate Alan Bennett. Although Richard thought he was a great teacher, his ambitions always lay in the media, with his first ever telly appearance coming in an appearance on CRISS CROSS QUIZ in 1958.
However it took him a while to make it back on screen. Whiteley next met him in the mid-sixties when both ended up as neighbours in Notting Hill, with Richard working as a sub-editor at ITN and Russ producing shows for Radio Four, and Russ was apparently most disturbed to learn that Rich was earning far more money than he was. No wonder he decided to make the move to television, joining the new LWT to produce arts show AQUARIUS.
It wasn’t long before Russ was in front of, as well as behind, the camera, presenting as well as producing the show. His camp and arch manner helped him stand out, while already he was enjoying something of a reputation as a man as interested in so-called downmarket pop culture as he was in the high arts, notably bringing Gracie Fields and Sir William Walton together at last.
He then graduated to hosting his own chat show, initially called ELEVEN PLUS – possibly in a nod to his previous career – and then RUSSELL HARTY PLUS. The most memorable moment from this series was a demented interview with The Who, who clearly terrified Russ, especially when Keith Moon elected to strip off down to his pants. Nevertheless Russ was happy to interview absolutely anyone, to some success, and next time he met up with his protege Whiteley, he was thrilled to find that he was now earning at least four times as much as Richard. Russ was also all for uncovering new talent and giving them a big break. Our favourite, from 1974: “Tonight, in the nature of an experiment we’re going to give someone such a break…”
One of the most remarkable shows of Russell’s time was a Christmas special in 1975 to mark the final episode of UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS. After opening with an outrageously pompous monologue to camera (“There’s scant Christmas cheer here, good friends…”), Russ then proceeded to spend the first half of the programme exchanging stiff pleasantries with the “upstairs” characters sipping drinks in the morning room and cooing, “Pray, what future for Master Richard Bellamy?”. He then moved below stairs for part two to appear alternately flummoxed at being addressed repeatedly as “Rissole Hartley” and bemused by Gordon Jackson’s knowledge of etiquette. Nobody knew whether they were supposed to be in character or not, Russ repeatedly asking “And what about you… the real you?”, and the whole thing was topped off by the final few moments, when the action suddenly switched to a TV set, and the camera pulled back to find Russ sat in the studio watching it, turning to camera and announcing, “London Weekend will be repeating 26 specially selected episodes of Upstairs Downstairs in the New Year!”
At the end of the decade, however, Russ got a bit pissed off with life at LWT, not helped by his final job, hosting SATURDAY NIGHT PEOPLE. After spending most of the decade as the sole host of a show with his name in the title, Russ considered it a massive demotion to become a co-host alongside Janet Street-Porter and Clive James. Ostensibly a “gossip column of the air”, with our trio of hosts bitching about famous people, the best rumours all came about backstage, when it was revealed that all three – each hosting from behind their own individual hexagonal desk – demanded the camera to be in a certain position to get their best side, while Russ was pissed off with Clive never learning his lines and Janet was pissed off with Russ always interrupting her. This massive clash of egos rages for one series before Russ decided the time was right to move on, and defected to the Beeb.
The BBC years
Russell arrived at the BBC in 1980 and was immediately given a twice-weekly show on BBC2. Known, simply, as RUSSELL HARTY, the series ran on Tuesdays at 8.30pm from the Greenwood Theatre in London and on Thursdays at 8.30pm from the Palace of Glittering Delights in Manchester. This was the definitive Harty series and it’s from here we get most of his memorable moments.
The show was always billed in the Radio Times as “television’s most unpredictable half-hour”, and this was certainly the case as Russ interspersed the chat – including that encounter with Grace Jones – with all sorts of silly bits of business, whether this was watchingThe Great Blondini blow himself up outside the studio or being taught a raunchy dance routine by Hot Gossip.
Occasionally there would be a jaunt outside the studio, with entire shows being broadcast from Diana Dors’ swimming pool at home, or from Crufts, or from an oil rig where Russ had a nose around the catering facilities and then watched Bucks Fizz perform The Land Of Make Believe in a force 10 gale. These were the days when television programmes were happy to do outside broadcasts just because they could, regardless of whether there was actually any point to them, so one show came in its entirety from the Goodyear Blimp circling over Rome, where Russ looked out over the Vatican in the company of his special guest… er, Trevor Francis. (“You know who that gentleman in white is, don’t you, Trevor?” “Yes, it’s Michael Parkinson, isn’t it!”).
Another outing saw Russ journey across the Atlantic and co-present THE GOOD DAY SHOW in Boston (“with B.B.C Talk Show Star RUSSELL HARTY”), forecasting the weather for Massachusetts (“And up there it’s going to be forty degrees, dunno if that’s centigrade or farenheit…”). One show was devoted to an interview with Rod Stewart, with Russ introducing the show from the stage just before one of Rod’s concerts, and went to leg it off stage when the curtain came up only for Rod to get him in a headlock and keep him there. Imagine going to see Rod Stewart in concert and the first thing you see being Rod throttling Russell Harty.
In the safety of the studio, Russ didn’t seem to mind what his guests did as long as it was amusing, hence Kenny Everett arrived in a cassock and spent most of his interview inhaling helium, much to the distress of fellow guest Penelope Keith (“No more, Kenny, it’s bad for you!”), while Jan Leeming got the chance to croon a song.
Possibly the quintessential Harty clip is this (jump to 6 mins, 5 secs) with Russ consoling Noele Gordon on being kicked off Crossroads and her singing a terrible song.
Russ was always happy to muck in, watching on as eighties chat show staple Hercules The Bear ran amok around the audience and lying on a snooker table so Steve Davis could play a shot off his nose. Almost everyone who was anyone in the early eighties appeared, although Russ had a particular fondness for very old women – such as Catherine Bramwell-Booth – who he could fuss over and children who he could encourage to say silly things. He also seemed to have a fondness for very ill people, such as Barry Sheene appearing minutes after a cycle crash and Billy Fury after a million heart attacks.
Around this time Russ also joined the board of the newly launched Red Rose Radio in Preston and hosted a show every day at 9am… for the first week, anyway.
Into the evenings
After three years on BBC2, Russ was promoted to BBC1, and in September 1983 moved to the proto-WOGAN timeslot of Tuesdays and Wednesdays at seven o’clock. Along the way he lost his first name, with the show called simply HARTY, abandoned Manchester for London full-time and gained a self-drawing pastel title sequence and a lovely theme tune, which Frida out of ABBA certainly liked… (note also Russ fussing over another ancient old woman).
This kept much of the old format of wit and whimsy, but was even more frivolous, with Russ promising a show that “lifts you up after the disasters of the news and the depression of the weather forecast”. This meant such items as Dog Of The Week (“If it only has three legs, so much the better”) and regular jaunts to the homes of The Great British Public for a natter, with the punters getting a “I made tea for Russell Harty” teapot for putting him up. There was also a team of regulars including a proto- Mr Motivator called Mr A, cooking from John Tovey and Peter Cook as EL Wisty, although the latter only made a handful of appearances before being replaced by former MR AND MRS hostess Susan Cuff, with Cuff’s Stuff, whatever that was.
As before there was always the chance to get out and about if the chance arose, with Russ hosting a Glamorous Grandmothers contest, while on Valentine’s Day 1984, the gang went to a pub in Liverpool, for features including a yard-of-ale drinking competition. Who says romance is dead? Anyway, the series lasted six months but, given it was lumbered with the dreadful SIXTY MINUTES as a lead-in, it didn’t pull in massive audiences. A second series followed in the autumn of 1984, once a week on Mondays, but with WOGAN on the horizon, there was the worry of a mass whimsy pile-up, so Russ took his leave of teatimes and gave up the chat show after over a decade.
Harty goes… into new territory
Happily, that wasn’t the end for Russ, who launched HARTY GOES TO…, originally broadcast over an entire weekend on BBC2, with Russ visiting a city and exploring it on Friday, interviewing a celebrity who came from there on Saturday and presenting variety from a local venue on Sunday. Later instalments were just the one show, normally the former, and were all good fun – like the recent repeat on BBC4 where he played HOLD YOUR PLUMS in Liverpool with Billy Butler – because Russ was crazy about meeting normal people, and later this became his standard TV format, and he could almost always be found on telly having a nose around some town or other.
In 1987, Russ expanded his horizons and set off on a Grand Tour of Europe, but sadly he was never to complete this as he contracted hepatitis and, after a long illness and some horrible rumours in the papers, he died in July 1988. A sad loss to British telly, Russell was always very much down to earth, saying he knew his presentation style was something of an acquired taste and he was never going to be a big star, but he hoped some people enjoyed it. TVC certainly did, and for overseeing one of the silliest shows of the eighties, he deserves to be remembered for more than being Grace Jones’ punchbag. If she’d waited another six minutes, she’d have had another little bit!