She has mixed with showbiz legends such as Frank Sinatra, performed with Britain’s comedy greats and enjoyed success in the charts. Still working hard at the age of 71, Anita Harris will be looking back at her unique career in an intimate evening of theatre this week. She spoke to Kathryn Tye ahead of a one-off Kent show.
Anita Harris’s teenage years were anything but ordinary.
While her schoolfriends were sat at home in the 1950s listening to records of stars like Frank Sinatra, 16-year-old Anita was working as a dancer in Las Vegas, spending her spare time watching his show from the front row and even meeting him backstage.
Her early introduction into the world of showbusiness resulted from an unlikely hobby - ice skating - which she began aged seven when her family moved from Somerset to Bournemouth.
She said: “I half lived in the rink, skating every day after school. When I was older my parents took me to London to train at Queens Ice Rink, and it was there that a talent scout picked me up and signed me to dance at a hotel in Las Vegas.”
Her decision to travel to America alone at the age of 16, let alone work on the Las Vegas Strip, raised eyebrows among her peers, but Anita doesn’t remember feeling apprehensive. “I was always ambitious. I loved to sing and I was not an academic. Luckily my parents did not hold me back once they knew I was going to be chaperoned.”
It was anything but easy work. Anita and the rest of the troupe performed three shows a night at the El Rancho, from 7.30pm to 5.30am, and only had one night in 12 off. But they made the time off count, watching the famous acts at other hotels along the Strip.
Anita Harris with Phil Silvers in Carry On Follow That Camel
Anita said: “There were so many amazing stars performing. Mae West was across from us at the Flamingo, Vic Damone was at the Dunes, and of course Sinatra was at the Desert Inn. We were given wonderful seats to shows, and often taken backstage to meet the stars. My meeting with Sinatra was brief but powerful. I will never forget it. I had just watched him on stage, and then to be able to shake his hand and look into those incredible blue eyes was amazing, a young girl’s heaven.”
After completing her season in the desert, Anita returned home and used her new performance skills to continue pursuing a career in showbusiness.
She joined the Cliff Adams Singers, a renowned vocal group, before going on to release her own solo records, gaining particular chart success in 1967 with hit single Just Loving You.
Anita said: “I was so lucky to have that song, but I also was lucky to have had an apprenticeship in the business before I became famous. With the Cliff Adams Singers I learned harmonies and vocalisation, and also learned about TV and radio. I was able to make mistakes. That is why I feel for the kids on reality shows today trying to become famous. In some ways they give young people a focus, and show them what they have to aim for, but the Simon Cowell school also makes them a bit samey. It is important to develop your own style.”
Her profile boosted by her music success, Anita was offered parts in a variety of TV shows and films, including flirty Nurse Clarke in 1967’s Carry on Doctor, a role which set many male pulses racing.
Anita Harris as Nurse Clarke in Carry On Doctor
She said: “Who would have known when we made the Carry On films that they would still be so popular all these years later. They were all filmed in six weeks, with a real military style-approach, and also lots of cost cutting! In Carry on Follow That Camel, Camber Sands near Rye doubled as the Sahara desert! I found it quite daunting to begin with, as I was acting alongside so many well known names.”
The Carry On cast are just some of the legendary names in the world of entertainment that Anita has worked with in her long career on stage and screen, with others including Sir Harry Secombe, Phil Silvers, Morecambe and Wise, Tommy Cooper and Andrew Lloyd Webber.
And it is this illustrious past which has prompted Anita to embark upon her current solo cabaret tour around the UK, which arrives in Kent this week.
She said: “Having shared the stage with such brilliant people, I will be opening a few pages of my life in this show and talking about my experiences. I will also be showing video clips of my work and stills from the archives. I hope that people will feel that they can ask me questions.”
But it won’t just be chat on offer - Anita will be joined by a jazz trio for a performance of her classic hits and some other favourite standards during the intimate evening.
After more than 50 years in showbusiness, and at the age of 71, many stars would want to put their feet up instead of going on the road, but Anita has no intention of stepping out of the limelight anytime soon.
She said: “I think the key to having a long career is being willing to diversify, which I have always done. But most important is to enjoy it. If you love what you do, it isn’t work.”
Anita Harris will be at Deal’s Astor Theatre on Saturday, August 24. Doors open at 7pm and the show starts at 8pm. Tickets are £12 in advance, £14 on the door. Call 01304 370220.