Sir Harry Donald Secombe entertained the public with his Goon humour and Welsh tenor voice for over half a century before his death from prostate cancer on April 11th 2001.
He made his debut as a professional performer at London’s Windmill Theatre in 1946, went on to become the immortal Neddy Seagoon in The Goon Show, a singing Pickwick, and latterly a presenter of religious television programmes.
To Richard Burton he was “instant joy”; to Prince Charles (in his Investiture speech as Prince of Wales) he was “a most memorable Goon”; to Spike Milligan he was “that well-known danger to shipping”, and to his family, friends and legion of fans he remains irreplaceable.
Born in Swansea, South Wales on September 8, 1921, he was the third child of commercial traveller Frederick and his wife Gladys, and had an elder brother, Fred (now a retired Vicar and novelist), an elder sister, Joan (who died aged four) and a younger sister, Carol (widow of Josh Williams, who now lives in Sheffield). It was at church socials that he first proved his potential as an entertainer at the age of 12, when he would perform a little sketch entitled The Welsh Courtship, acting as “feed” to the comedienne of the family, Carol. He attended Dynevor School, Swansea and then became a pay clerk for a colliery. He joined the Territorial Army in 1938 and served as a Lance Bombardier in the Royal Artillery in North Africa, Sicily and Italy in World War II. After the war he and fellow soldier Spike Milligan became part of the Central Pool of Artistes and toured together entertaining the troops in a concert party. After his demobilisation he met his future wife, Myra, at a dance on the Mumbles Pier in 1946 and later that year he took the big step of auditioning for the Windmill Theatre in London.
He made his professional theatre debut at London’s famous Windmill Theatre, the spawning ground for numerous young comedians of the day, on October 17th 1946, and soon he was touring variety theatres all over the country with his innovative shaving act. It was a natural progression for him to move on to star at the London Palladium – Rocking The Town (1956), Large As Life (1958) Humpty Dumpty (1959), Let Yourself Go (1961) and London Laughs (1966) – and his talent for singing made him an ideal candidate for the musical comedy genre. His first excursion was in Pickwick , a musical based on Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers and written by Wolf Mankowitz with music and lyrics by Cyril Ornadel and Leslie Bricusse, which opened at London’s Garrick Theatre in 1963. The show won him huge personal acclaim and provided him with the hit song If I Ruled The World. In 1965 the show was produced on tour in America, and on Broadway garnered Harry a nomination for the coveted Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical. His role as D’Artagnan in the spectacular musical The Four Musketeers at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 1967 was another hit, as was his first foray into the “legitimate” theatre with the role of Schippel in the satirical comedy The Plumber’s Progress at the Prince Of Wales Theatre in 1975. July, 1993 saw Pickwick remounted at the Chichester Festival Theatre, followed by a short season at Sadlers Wells and on a national tour. Harry went on to play Samuel Pickwick over the Christmas seasons of 1994 and 1995 at Bristol and Birmingham respectively, and the role was to be his final stage appearance at Christmas, 1996 in Oxford. The stage was always his natural habitat – and throughout his career he continued to perform concerts at prestigious venues at home and abroad, especially in Australia – where he took part in the inaugural performance at the Sydney Opera House. He also featured in nine Royal Command Performances spanning the years 1951-1993.
His first major break came in radio when he was chosen as resident comedian for the Welsh series Welsh Rarebit, followed by appearances on Variety Bandbox and a regular role in Educating Archie. His friendship with three other struggling young comedians of that era – Peter Sellers, Michael Bentine, and his old army comrade, Spike Milligan, led in 1951 to the phenomenally successful BBC Radio comedy series The Goon Show which ran until 1960 and became a national institution. The cult show established its stars as household names and gave Harry a springboard to success on stage, television, films and as a recording artist. In 1972 there was a final radio farewell with The Last Goon Show Of All, attended by HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, HRH Princess Margaret, Lord Snowdon and HRH Princess Anne. Harry also starred in two episodes of Hancock’s Half Hour on BBC Radio. Tony Hancock had gone awol at the time and Harry was drafted in to take over the role of Hancock, with great success.
At the beginning of his career as an entertainer, his act would end with a joke version of the duet Sweethearts, in which he sang both the baritone and falsetto parts. However, behind the clowning lurked a powerful tenor voice which was duly trained under the guidance of the late Italian Maestro Manlio di Veroli. He emerged from his singing lessons as one of the few bel canto tenors in Britain and has a long list of best-selling record albums to his credit. He had considerable success with his recording of If I Ruled The World from the musical Pickwick and also reached the charts with This Is My Song. In his stage act he would always sing Nessun Dorma and We’ll Keep A Welcome (a Welsh anthem), but his favourite songs were hymns.
On television he starred in numerous spectaculars, series and “specials”. He was first seen in Rooftop Rendezvous for the BBC in 1946 and subsequently spent most of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s starring in programmes such as Secombe Here!, The Harry Secombe Show, The Secombe Saga, Secombe And Friends, Secombe At Large, Who Is Secombe?, Sing A Song Of Secombe and Secombe with Music. He also reprised his Samuel Pickwick role for a BBC-tv version of Pickwick, and played diarist Samuel Pepys in the musical Pepys for Yorkshire Television. For over ten years – between 1983 to 1993 – he presented the top-rating ITV series Highway, which saw him interviewing hundreds of interesting guests on his travels around Britain and overseas as well as singing solos of religious songs. It was an assignment that he felt brought his career full circle – from singing as a choirboy in St Thomas’ Church, Swansea to performing sacred music in churches and cathedrals on television. He subsequently presented a live Sunday morning STV programme Sunday With Secombe, before being invited to become a regular presenter in 1995 for BBC ONE’s Sunday evening programme Songs Of Praise. He is also one of the few celebrities to have had two This Is Your Life programmes devoted to him, one in 1958 and the second one in 1990. In January, 1999, he suffered a stroke, which followed the diagnosis of prostate cancer the previous summer. However, with his typical determination and desire to help others in similar circumstances Harry agreed to film an Everyman documentary, The Trouble With Harry for BBC ONE which charted his progress from February (just three weeks after he had the stroke) until September 8th – his 78th birthday. The inspirational programme saw him bravely struggling to overcome the paralysing effect of the stroke through intensive physiotherapy, lots of determination and the help of his strong Christian faith.
Without doubt, his most famous film role is that of Bumble the Beadle in Lionel Bart’s award-winning musical Oliver! His earliest forays into cinema were forgettable productions like Down Among The Z Men (co-starring Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Michael Bentine), Penny Points To Paradise, Forces Sweetheart and Svengali (as an unlikely rebellious art student). Later he appeared opposite Dame Sybil Thorndike in Jet Storm, starring Richard Attenborough; starred in the title role of Davy (the last feature film made at Ealing Studios); played a golf-mad vicar in Eric Sykes’ Rhubarb; put in a fine performance as The Shelter Man in Dick Lester’s The Bedsitting Room, and played a pools winner in Doctor In Trouble. He also fulfilled a childhood dream when he won the role of playwright Bjornsterne Bjornson and met and played opposite his film hero Edward G Robinson in Andrew and Virginia Stone’s musical about the life of Edward Grieg, Song Of Norway.
Not content with the success he had achieved as an entertainer – at the age of 53, Secombe went into print. His first novel, Twice Brightly, published by Robson Books in 1974, was given a rave review by HRH The Prince of Wales in Punch and became an immediate best seller. Two collections of short stories and essays followed – Goon For Lunch and Goon Abroad – along with a second novel, Welsh Fargo, and two books for children Katy And The Nurgla and The Nurgla’s Magic Tear. In 1983 following his dramatic weight loss after suffering major abdominal surgery and being diagnosed diabetic, he published The Harry Secombe Diet Book which gave details of his successful regime. The television series Highway was the inspiration for the volumes Harry Secombe’s Highway and The Highway Companion. He also contributed regularly to Punch. The first volume of his autobiography Arias And Raspberries was published in 1989 and the second volume, Strawberries And Cheam, in 1996. Both volumes were published in paperback the following year, and following his death, Robson Books published a special double volume, Harry Secombe, An Entertaining Life, in October, 2001, with additional material from his close family. His final book, The Zoo Loo Book (Robson Books, November 1999) a collection of weird and wonderful limericks about an exotic range of creatures, wittily illustrated by cartoonist Bill Tidy, was written at the time he was recovering from a stroke.
The pinnacle of Harry’s career was reached in 1981 when he was created a Knight Bachelor for his services to entertainment and charity in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List. This followed the award in 1963 of the CBE for his services to the Army Benevolent Fund and the receipt of the Silver Jubilee Medal in 1977, a personal award from HM The Queen. Other highlights from his distinguished public life include taking part in eleven Royal Command Performances – spanning the years 1951-93; opening the Secombe Centre, a theatre named in his honour in 1983 in Sutton, Surrey, where he lived for over 30 years; a visit to the Falkland Islands to entertain the troops that culminated in his promotion – after 37 years – from the rank of Lance Bombardier to Sergeant by his old regiment, the Royal Artillery; being created a Doctor of Music, an honorary degree from the University of Wales, at a ceremony in Swansea in 1986 attended by the University’s Chancellor, HRH The Prince Of Wales; leading the community singing outside Buckingham Palace alongside Dame Vera Lynn and Sir Cliff Richard on the 50th anniversary of VE Day, but best of all, sharing over 51 years of happy marriage with Myra.
He married Myra Atherton in Swansea on February 19th, 1948, and they had four children. Jennifer, born April 11, 1949, a former publicist who headed up BBC Television’s Entertainment Publicity department until 2001, and now lives on the West Sussex coast with her husband, actor Alex Giannini. Andrew, born April 26 1953, had a successful acting career before becoming a full-time writer. His novels include Limbo, Limbo II, The Last House In The Galaxy, End Game and Looking For Mr Piggy Wig. He lives with his wife, actress Caroline Bliss, and their two sons in Devon. David, born February 8th 1962, is a photographer and writer, whose adaptation of his father’s novel, Twice Brightly was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at Christmas, 2007. Katy, born December 12, 1967, is an actress whose West End appearances have included ‘Les Miserables’ and ‘Mama Mia’. Harry and Myra have seven grandchildren: Harriet, Emily and Sam Stock (Jennifer’s children from her first marriage), David’s children, Florence and James Secombe (who was born the year after his grandfather’s death), and Andrew’s sons, Matthew and Charles Secombe.
Sir Harry Secombe is buried in a country churchyard in Shamley Green, Surrey, near the home he shared with his wife, Myra for the last twenty years of his life. A memorial service to celebrate his life, held at Westminster Abbey on October 26th, 2001, was full of laughter and song. As well as family members, close friends, show business celebrities and hundreds of fans, the service was also attended by HRH The Prince of Wales and representatives of HRH The Duke Of Edinburgh, HRH The Princess Royal, HRH Princess Margaret and HRH The Duke of Kent. On his tombstone is the very apt inscription: “To know him was to love him.”
Sir Harry Secombe was asked to write his own mock obituary by the Daily Mail in January, 2001. This is what he wrote:
Born Swansea, 1921. Left school 1936. Colliery clerk 1937-8. Soldier 1938-46 (North Africa, Sicily, Italy, concert party). Met Spike Milligan 1944 when his howitzer fell over a cliff. Met girl by pretending to be Canadian, 1946; married 1948. Professional debut Windmill Theatre, 1946; followed by touring variety, pantomime and radio. Met Tony Hancock, Mike Bentine, Peter Sellers. Goon Show, 1951-60 and forever thereafter. Singing lessons, four kids, Palladium, Pickwick, Broadway, Oliver!, records, books, telly, West End, hymns, peritonitis, diabetes, Knighthood, Songs of Praise, Pickwick again, six grandchildren, devoted wife, prostate cancer, stroke, malaria expected soon, wind slight to variable.