Words: Jeremy Miles Picture: Hattie Miles
She’s an iconic figure in the history of 20th century British light entertainment. Singer and actress Anita Harris cut a swathe through the sixties... but in steadfastly middle-of-the-road fashion.
Anita - may be the girl from Bournemouth who landed a job in Vegas before her sixteenth birthday - but she is probably best remembered by a generation of red-blooded men as the flighty (and flirty) Nurse Clarke in Carry On Doctor.
Her big singles like Just Loving You and The Anniversary Waltz were certainly chart hits but they were easy listening-fare and Anita still tells interviewers how mortified she was when, back in the swinging sixties, she heard Paul McCartney describe her as ‘Miss Saccharine.’
Not that she’s worried now. At the age of 67 she can look back on a career that has included hugely successful theatre and concert tours, a record-breaking cabaret season at the Talk of the Town and no fewer than seven Royal Variety performances.
“I’ve been so lucky, so blessed,” she says. This might sound strange coming from a woman who dominated the pages of several national newspapers last year under headlines like ‘Anita Harris: Penniless and Homeless’ and ‘I’ve Lost it All and Feel Such a Failure’. At the time she gave interviews to a number of publications revealing that she and her husband the TV director Mike Margolis had fallen victim to fraudsters. They had been forced to sell their £1 million home in West London to clear debts running into tens of thousands of pounds.
However, returning to her old stamping ground in Bournemouth and Poole recently as a member of the cast of the Francis Durbridge theatre thriller Fatal Encounter, Anita made it clear that this is an episode she wants to put behind her.
“I’m just not going to talk about it,” she told me. “What happened was so horrible, absolutely appalling but now I’m writing an autobiography and that will make very clear what actually happened.”
What she is happy to talk about is her “wonderful childhood” in Bournemouth in the 1950s. Her family moved to the town when she was seven-years-old. She remembers idyllic days playing on the beach at Southbourne with her two older brothers, picnics in the Purbecks and, later, her first tentative steps into showbusiness via the Boscombe School of Speech and Drama and a lucky encounter at the old ice rink in Westover Road.
Speaking at the Lighthouse Theatre in Poole as she prepared for a matinee of Fatal Encounter, she told me: “It’s so good to be back. All my life I’ve had the warmest of memories of this area. It has the sea, beautiful countryside and, without getting too sentimental, those memories just seem to get more powerful the longer I leave them.
“It feels like” - she searches for an appropriate word. “Terra Firma” - she finally announces - “getting your feet into the sand. I just remember all those summer days, coming home from school and going down to the beach or the skating rink.”
The rink in Westover Road, which Anita says “I half lived in”, was a Bournemouth landmark in its day and would play a crucial role in her future. For it was there she met Courtney Jones, a young skating star who would go on to become World Ice Dance Champion for five years running. Years later he would also be instrumental in helping shape the careers of a young Torville and Dean.
Back in 1950s Bournemouth though his practice partner of choice was Anita.
She learnt fast and when Courtney took her to the famed Queens ice rink in London, she was in the right place at the right time. A talent scout for the Bluebell Girls came calling and Anita, still only 15, was asked if she would like to audition for a show in Las Vegas.
“Oh the innocence of youth.” she laughs. “ I remember doing the audition in my little skating frock. I didn’t even know who the Bluebells were and, as for Vegas, I didn’t really know what that was either.”
She got the job, and two weeks before her sixteenth birthday, was signed up for a season at the El Rancho on the Vegas Strip. It was a rapid learning curve.
“Vegas was amazing in those days,” recalls Anita. “Nothing like the place it has now become. It was really just a strip of land with a few hotels in the most wonderful, wonderful desert... but you know incredible things were happening.”
She sighs at the memory of looking across the Strip and realising that Mae West was appearing just over the road “All our boys went out with all her boys,” she laughs.
“Then there was Sinatra playing The Desert Inn. “There was I straight out of the convent and sitting watching him on stage with this huge orchestra.
The memory, she says, has always stayed with her. “It was truly amazing. Just talking to you about it now I can remember how I felt. It was as though I was in heaven.” She was even introduced to the great man. She chuckles at the memory. “Oh I was just a shy young girl. All I can remember is him shaking my hand and those incredible blue eyes that just bored right through you.”
Quite what the nuns at the Convent of the Cross in Boscombe - now the Chiropractic College - would have made of her new lifestyle, Anita shudders to think. “They were terribly strict,” she recalls.
However she believes the sense of discipline instilled by her education helped prepare her for a showbusiness regime that involved working three shows a night, from 7.30 in the evening to 4.00 in the morning. Working 11 nights on and one off she would catch as many shows as she could.
After six months on the Vegas Strip, Anita flew home having experienced the equivalent of a international master class in show-business technique.
It gave her a head start when she joined The Cliff Adams Singers and then went on to work with everyone from Tommy Cooper and Harry Secombe to Morcambe and Wise.
“The sixties were such a special time,” she recalls. “So many hugely talented people and so many great opportunities. There was a kind of energy and somehow the feeling that we could achieve almost anything.”
Her fondest memories however are of her Bournemouth childhood. “What makes me really happy is remembering going down in the lift to the beach at Southbourne and spending hours on the beach. Of all the things I have done those memories are the most precious. I really did have a lovely, lovely childhood.”