Certain names are synonymous with children's television in the UK and Fred Harris is one of them. Starring in almost endless run of shows through the 1970s, 80s and beyond, Harris has managed to entertain generation after generation. And it's a rare presenter who can claim such longevity and plaudits.
Last year, I managed to talk to him about his work on Ragtime for one of my books on lesser known children's television. However, as I've already set out, there's a lot more to Harris' career than one or two shows. And there's even more to his career than just children's television. Seeing as his was a story that deserved to be told, I decided to get back in touch with Fred for a deeper look at his career.
Hello, Fred! Many thanks for agreeing to chat and, without further ado, let's get started. Going way, way back to the start, when did you first get bitten by the performing bug? And how did this lead into making it your profession?
At school I only had a couple of tiny parts in the school plays; third soldier – that sort of thing. I mostly ended up doing sound effects and backstage stuff. But, performance-wise, I did enjoy playing music. In particular, drums, which I thought would be easy. Nobody had told me it’s like juggling and tap-dancing at the same time! It didn't take long until I was in a Shadows-style band, which was obligatory in the early 60s.
At university I auditioned for a play (partly because I fancied one of the girls in the drama group). The producer handed me the script and said “Here’s the scene. You’re facing your boss – you’re in deep trouble, so I want you to speak the lines as if you are terrified.” The thing is, I was terrified, so I just let myself shake. Afterwards, the producer told me that I was really convincing, and I had a great acting talent! The only real acting I did that day was when I casually replied, “Oh, you’re very kind” I then went on to do many more plays and even ended up running that drama group.
You went, in the early 1970s, from working in the theatre to appearing on children’s TV, so what drove this transition and how did it happen?
I’ll go back a bit on that one. After university I taught maths for a year, and was also playing drums and flute with a local folk-rock band. They were really rather good. One of them was PJ Wright who became a pro – Google him. We were offered a recording contract so I quit my teaching job and was all set to become a muso. Sadly, the group literally disbanded before we could go professional, and I was out of a job. Some college friends wanted to start a little touring theatre group and asked me to join them. I had nothing to lose, so I said yes. Previously, I’d had no intention of becoming an actor – it just happened.
The group set up in Southampton. We worked like stink, but we weren’t making enough money to live on. I started doing odd jobs at Radio Solent, often unpaid, and wrote and acted in a dramatised adventure story for their weekly children's show. One of the deejays there suggested I’d be good on telly (I don’t know if he still feels that way!) He’d seen me working with kids, and said “Why not write to Play School?” So once again, my life ricocheted in another direction.
It’s a little easier to appear on television these days due to the vast number of channels, but what did it feel like to be a performer back in the days of three channels? And how often were you stopped in the street?
Is it easier? There are more channels, but there are many more people who want to do it. There’s more competition and, because of Skype and Youtube, there are lots more people who aren’t intimidated by the camera the way we used to be. In the 70s it felt very unusual to have a camera on you. Trying to be natural in front of a monster the size of a Dalek (actually, four monsters in a typical studio) was a bit of a challenge. The secret is always not to think “there are 5 million people watching this” (Play School regularly got 5 million) but to think about one individual in his/her living room. It’s very intimate.
As for being stopped in the street, the great thing about little kids is they don’t think about you being a “celebrity” or whatever. As far as they’re concerned, you’re a chum. You were in their living room this morning. Here you are in Tesco this afternoon. No big deal. They’d just come up and chat as if you were old buddies. I can remember one lad swearing that we had worked together in the Play School studio “We sang that song – Once I Caught a Fish Alive – don’t you remember?” He’d obviously been at home watching but in his head he was “at” Play School.
Bigger kids would ask how you got into television, and I’d always reply “Through the little holes at the back”. (Groan) Doesn’t work any more, because tellies don’t have those vent holes. Lots of them (and their parents) would say “you look much smaller on television!” which always made me laugh, because most tellies then were about 14 inches high. If I hadn’t been smaller on TV it would have been problematic in lots of ways.
Your first television role was in the legendary Play School, so what can you remember about these early steps into television?
At my Play School camera audition, I was really nervous. I’d messed up a lot in the run-through. The director (lovely lady called Carole Ward, who had been a presenter) took me to one side and murmured, “Don’t let me down, Fred. My money’s on you!” It was a wonderful thing to say. It gave me enough confidence to throw in some ad-libs, on the “take”. I was making a sock puppet and said “all you need is an old sock”, then dipped into a box of odd socks to pull one out. Unfortunately I pulled out the wrong one – it was the wrong colour to match the ‘one I’d made earlier’. Realising I’d have to find an excuse to pull out another one, I just sniffed it and said “preferably a clean one” and threw it away. One of the sound technicians laughed and fell off his chair. It probably helped get me the job.
I soon got to work with some wonderfully experienced presenters and learned a lot from them. I was never afraid to ask, and they were kind enough to share techniques with me. (e.g. Julie Stevens – great presenter – showed me that if you need to change eyeline from, say, camera 1 to camera 3, try to find some reason to look down – at a book – or a prop, say - and then up again to the new camera. The vision mixer will have time to make the cut, and will appreciate your helping them)
What was the children’s department like at the BBC when you first joined? And how exciting was it to be hanging out at Television Centre?
I didn’t do a lot of ‘hanging out’ at TV Centre – I was only ever there when there was work to be done, and time was always tight. The thing I liked about children’s TV was that people were there because they wanted to be there. Nobody saw it as a stepping stone to (ahem) “greater things”. All of the presenters would get a bit annoyed – and try not to show it – when members of the public or friends would say “Who knows where this might lead to?” None of us thought of children’s TV as second best. Children are a very discriminating and demanding audience. If they’re bored, they’ll wander away. An adult might watch a show and think “I’ll stick with it, it might improve in a minute”, but not a child! Keep ‘em engaged or you’ve lost ‘em.
You appeared on children’s television for a long, long time, so what do you think it was that helped to establish you as a firm favourite with children?
No idea. Was I a firm favourite? Not compared with Brian and some of the others! People often said to me “You’re just the same off-screen as you are on.” (Of course, that might have been an insult, now I think about it.) If the kids liked me – and I’m sure some of them didn’t – it might be because I didn’t try to “put on an act”. I tried to be myself. Plus, I always made sure there was a bit of energy. Advice to aspiring presenters: TV has a flattening effect which surprises most people at first. You soon learn to heighten the energy level by 30% to put back the bit that gets squashed. I ran some courses for new BBC presenters, years later, and that was the first message. Well, the second actually. The first was the intimacy thing I mentioned before.
Who were the people you worked with in children’s television that you admired the most? And what was it that made them stand out?
So many! I’ve already mentioned Julie Stevens. Derek Griffiths was a phenomenal talent, and still is. Chloe Ashcroft and I always made each other laugh (sometimes with a rude aside off-camera). The production team was also very inspiring. Michael Cole (Ragtime) was a genius. Albert Barber (producer) and I enjoyed working with each other so much he suggested that we try not to show it, in case the powers-that-be broke up the partnership. When he was told he’d been assigned me as the male presenter on his forthcoming week he’d just say “Yeah, fine, okay…” instead of “Yippee!” And I’d do the same.
We also had some wonderful guests on the show, well-known actors, comedians, even orchestral performers. James Blades (the percussion guru) used to let me play all the drums and other kit he would bring in. And the talent in the off-screen musician’s area was incredible. People who could sightread and transpose instantly, and improvise incidental music off the top of their heads. Some jazz legends. Bill le Sage, Spike Heatley, John Horler. (I’m a jazz lover, and I couldn’t believe I was working with my heroes!) Plus brilliant composers like Anne Dudley and William Blezard. They were all superb. Because I’ve always been a frustrated muso, I’d hang around the band area as much as I could.
For me, with my mid-1980s memories, Fred Harris has always meant one thing: Chock-a-Block! What was it like being the Chockabloke and how much fun was driving the Chockatruck?
I’m glad so many people remember Chockablock fondly. I’m afraid I was recovering from a slipped disk and I was rattling with painkillers for most of the time, so my memory of it is a little blemished. Getting out of the Chockatruck was agonising, especially challenging with a welcoming smile on your face! It was also extremely hard work. There was always a tricky chromakey segment at the end of each show, with a double-pass overlay (two recordings) or something equally challenging. We had always over-run on the main part of the show, and these tricky bits had to be done in a hurry without much rehearsal before the whole crew went onto overtime rates. As I’m a bit of a technogeek these were the parts I always wanted to get as close to perfection as we could, but it was never possible.
The Chockatruck was a devil to drive (“Fun,” you ask!?!) It had only one drive wheel (rear right) so when you pressed the “on” button (there was no smooth accelerator like a car) it would lurch to the left at full speed. I’m told that when Carol Leader first got into it she demolished half the set! She’s a good driver, too. But I’m glad to have done the show, and I’m really pleased that the children liked it. That’s what it’s all about. Never mind the hassles and thwarted aspirations! Nobody ever comes out of a TV studio thinking “That was perfect!” Except maybe Trump.
How do you feel that children’s television changed over the course of your career?
Things got much faster in the 90’s, louder and more colourful, to the extent that child psychologists were wondering whether it might induce attention deficit disorders in children. If you look at a Play School from the mid-70s it’s got a variety of paces. Some bits are upbeat and zany, but you might then have a quiet three or four minutes looking at a spider’s web. Those quiet moments disappeared from a lot of children’s programmes from about the mid–80s. Not Play School, I’m glad to say. There’s now been a move back to the gentler pace for the tots, I think.
You didn’t, of course, work exclusively in children’s TV. There were also stints in comedy with End of Part One and, later, Micro Live put you at the forefront of Britain’s computer revolution. How important was it for you, as a performer, to work in other genres?
Really important. I get bored very easily, so the best time I ever had was juggling children's TV, radio comedy and the mathsy-sciency stuff. I also did loads of scriptwriting, which filled in any gaps in the performing work.
The big downside was that my agent used to moan that she never knew how to market me. She’d have liked to tell clients “he does funny voices” or “he’s a bit of a boffin”. I can see her point – I suppose a boffin who also does funny voices isn’t in huge demand. But I loved the variety. She reckoned I was losing work because I refused to specialise. She may be right. One producer from Tomorrow’s World told me I wouldn’t ever get shortlisted for the programme because of my association with Play School. (It didn’t stop them asking me to train the person who did get the job!) Do you detect a raw wound? Possibly...
If there was one thing you could change about your career, what would it be and why?
I wanted to be a drummer! Seriously, I wouldn’t change much. I’ve been incredibly lucky. I’ve had a lot of fun doing all kinds of shows, even if not everybody in the business has been easy to work with (Don’t ask, 'cos I ain’t gonna tell!) My big drawback is that I’ve never been a go-getter. I’ve not chased work the way I probably should have done: I always waited (and hoped) for stuff to come to me. I’ve never had an ambition or real goal in my work.
I always considered “schmoozing” to be a bit tacky. That’s one thing I would change, in hindsight. I now realise it’s a vital part of the job. I’ve loved doing what I’ve done, but I might have done more if I’d been pro-active. Other more enterprising presenters set up production companies or transferred their skills into directing when the presenter jobs started thinning out. I drifted into media training: how to come out of a Paxman-style interview with a smile on your face.
My son Ed is a writer of stage and radio drama, and he’s really good at his job. Won awards and things. Fortunately he has learned from my lack of business acumen, and knows how to network and forge links with other creative people. I left a lot to chance. But for all that, I’ve had a great time. I’m not pretending there haven’t been frustrations, disappointments, and some people and organisations I’d never willingly work with again. But you’ll get that in any job. Nonetheless, I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve done, and I was able to work with some really gifted, inspiring and fun people. I reckon being an entertainer is a real privilege. I’m certainly not sorry I quit teaching!
It's been an absolute pleasure, Fred, and thanks for the memories!