Harry Secombe: A Wonderful Tenor, Comedian, Actor, and Author
A Versatile Performer
Harry Secombe was a versatile, jovial, and well known entertainer from Wales who had a beautiful singing voice. When I was living in Britain as a child, I often saw Harry on television or heard him on the radio or a record. I loved the richness and power of his voice then and I still do today. He sang many types of songs, from opera arias to more popular works.
For some people, Harry may be best remembered for his comedy acting. He was a cast member of The Goon Show, a humorous and very popular radio program of the 1950s. He also sang in musicals, acted in movies, and wrote books. He is known internationally for his role as the singing beadle named Mr. Bumble in the 1968 film Oliver! Harry died in 2001, but his performances can still be heard and seen thanks to recording media.
In the video below, Harry Secombe sings "Nessun Dorma". The famous tenor aria comes from Turandot, an opera by Giacomo Puccini.
Harry Donald Secombe was born on September 8th, 1921, in the city of Swansea, Wales. Despite being born in Wales, he couldn't speak Welsh. Frederick Secombe, Harry's father, was a commercial traveller for a grocery firm. Harry had an older brother and a younger sister. A second sister died while she was still a young child. Although Harry's family weren't well off, his childhood was happy.
Harry attended church regularly. He was a member of his church choir and remained a Christian throughout his life. His brother Fred became an Anglican minister.
Even from a young age, Harry had a flair for comedy and performing. He told a BBC interviewer that when he was a boy he had poor vision and wore glasses, so he acted as a clown when around other boys to avoid being bullied. This strategy worked very well for him.
In the map above, the green areas represent national parks and the pink ones land above 600 feet. Harry Secombe was born and grew up in the city of Swansea in South Wales.
The Goon Show
Harry left school in 1937 to become a pay clerk in a store. As World War II approached, he decided to join the army. His eyesight was still poor, so he memorized the eyesight chart and convinced the tester that he could see it, allowing him to become a soldier.
The army took Harry to both North Africa and Italy. While in North Africa he met Spike Milligan, who was also a soldier and eventually become a member of The Goon Show. In the army, Harry entertained the troops. He became famous for his high-pitched laugh and for blowing raspberries.
After the war, Harry became a member of the cast at the Windmill Theatre, where he met Michael Bentine. Bentine joined Harry and Spike Milligan in The Goon Show, although Bentine stayed for only the first year.
The fourth person involved in the show was Peter Sellers. Harry was introduced to Sellers by Jimmy Grafton. Grafton was the manager at Grafton's Pub and also acted as a theatrical agent. The pub was a traditional meeting place for comedians, including Harry, Spike Milligan, Michael Bentine, and Peter Sellers.
The four comedians wrote a script for a radio show called Crazy People. Spike Milligan seems to have been the main writer of the series that followed. The series was soon transformed into The Goon Show. Harry played the role of Neddie Seagoon in the show, which ran from 1951 to 1960. Its surreal humour and strange sound effects are believed to have been one of the inspirations for Monty Python.
In 1948, Harry married Myra Atherton. The couple remained together until Harry's death. They had four children—two girls and two boys—who all went into writing, performance-related, or acting careers.
The Hancock's Half Hour Incident
In 1955, Harry appeared in Hancock's Half Hour under unusual circumstances. The BBC radio and later TV show was a situation comedy about a character and his life. The leading actor was Tony Hancock. He became immensely popular but frequently experienced stresses in his life that he found hard to deal with.
The day before Hancock was due to record a new episode of the radio show in front of an audience, he went to Europe without telling anyone. In a panic, the producers asked Harry to play the leading character, which he did. After three episodes, Hancock returned, apparently because he realized how well the show was going without him. Both actors appeared in the fourth show and then Harry's time on the series was over.
Harry Secombe the Singer
At first, Harry used his singing voice as part of his comedy acts. Eventually he took singing lessons from Manlio di Veroli and developed the full beauty of his voice. He was classified as a Bel Canto tenor. In typical Harry fashion, he said that this really meant that he had a can belto voice.
It's often been said that Harry could have had an operatic career. He was too fond of comedy to train as an opera singer, however. According to the obituary in The Guardian referenced below, his teacher said that Harry could have become the finest medium tenor in England and even in the world "with a little concentration". The singer had other plans.
Harry's career soon involved films and stage musicals, including Pickwick, which was based on The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens. In this musical Harry sang "If I Ruled the World", which became an audience favourite.
Oliver! was released in 1968 and was based on the stage musical of the same name. It was directed by Carol Reed (who was a man, despite his name). The movie won six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. Harry was praised for his performance as the beadle.
On Christmas Day in 1968, The Harry Secombe Show debuted on BBC television. The show was a mix of comedy and music and ran until 1973.
"If I Ruled the World" was arguably the song that was most strongly associated with Harry Secombe. He was also known for his singing and acting in Oliver! In the video below, he sings "Boy for Sale", a song from the movie.
In both 1968 and 1990, Harry's life was reviewed and celebrated on This is Your Life. This was a popular television show that invited people from the subject's past to appear on the show as the subject's life was discussed. Not many people had their life celebrated twice on the show.
Harry was an author as well as an entertainer. He wrote both fiction (comic novels and children's fantasies) and two volumes of an autobiography. His first novel was published in 1974 and was called Twice Brightly. The book contains a fictionalized account of his efforts to get work as a performer after he left the army.
Harry was also involved in charity work for the Army Benevolent Fund and the Stars Organization for Spastics (which is now known as the Stars Organization for Cerebral Palsy).
Harry entertained the troops involved in the Falkland Islands conflict. As a result, his old regiment promoted him to sergeant, even though it was almost forty years since he had left the army when he was promoted.
Harry was awarded two honours in his life. In 1963 he received a CBE (Commander of the British Empire). In 1981 he was knighted and became Sir Harry, or Sir Cumference, as he joked. Harry did develop a rotund figure, although he eventually lost a lot of this weight.
"He suffered fools gladly because he was one of them" was a joke obituary that Harry wrote for himself. His life shows that he was far from being a fool.
Highway and Songs of Praise
Harry continued to remain popular as the years passed. Religion remained important to him and in later life he took part in religious shows.
In ITV's Highway, Harry explored the United Kingdom, interviewed people, discussed subjects with a spiritual or religious theme, and sang hymns. The show emphasized interviewing people with problems who had experienced help from their religious faith. It ran from 1983 to 1993 and was very popular with viewers. Making the series became a way of life for Harry.
After Highway ended, Harry became the presenter in another popular TV show for the BBC called Songs of Praise. In this show, choirs, choral groups, and individuals sang hymns. The series still runs today, although the format has changed over the years. Harry retired from performing in 1999.
Unfortunately, Harry developed several health problems in later life. He suffered from diabetes. In 1980, he experienced peritonitis, which caused him to lose a dramatic amount of weight. In 1997, he experienced a stroke. In 1998, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. In 1999, he experienced a second stroke. He died on April 11th 2001 at the age of 79. The cause of death was prostate cancer.
Harry's public funeral included a version of the clown's prayer and a performance by a large choir. A private funeral was held after the public one and a memorial service was held later on. The writer of the clown's prayer is unknown. The first verse is shown below.
As I stumble through this life,
help me to create more laughter than tears,
dispense more happiness than gloom,
spread more cheer than despair.
Without seeing behind the scenes we can never know what a celebrity is really like, but Harry Secombe seems to have been a genuinely nice person. His memorial service was attended by family, friends, many entertainers, and members of the royal family, who were his fans. Prince Charles was a long-time acquaintance and visited Harry in hospital during his final illness. Sir Harry is greatly missed by many people.
He was one of the great life-enhancers of our age and gave pleasure and constant happy laughter to so many of us throughout his life, most particularly when he was part of the never-to-be-forgotten Goon Show.— Prince Charles
© 2012 Linda Crampton