Almost a life sentence in a dumb role, but Harris had talents that would never be explored
Bob Harris, a leading man of British musical theatre? The name doesn’t switch on light bulbs above the marquee, but in his minor way Harris played his part. Oddly, it was in silence that he is best remembered. He was born in Monmouthshire, at Newport, and went to school in Cardiff. He didn’t plan on becoming an actor, and worked variously as a shop counter assistant, labouring on building sites, and as a painter. He also spent some time as an architectural student, and (perhaps storing up atmosphere for a future role) he joined a fun-fair. When he eventually joined the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School it was not to be an actor, but to be a technical student. He subsequently claimed that he became an actor by accident, and it was almost entirely due to Julian Slade and Dorothy Reynolds that his career blossomed as it did. His first professional appearance was with the Bristol Old Vic in their 1951 production of The Taming of the Shrew, and he soon established himself as a worthy member of that company, playing in Two Gentlemen of Verona (which transferred to the London Old Vic) and Henry V, also seen in London, and later in Zurich. Hw ew as one of that treasured company of players at Bristol who started off with Julian Slade and Dorothy Reynolds, playing in their first musical (co-written with another Bristolian actor James Cairncross) Christmas in King Street for the Christmas season of 1952. Harris played P.C. Harry Boy.
The following Christmas he was cast in the second Slade-Reynolds concoction The Merry Gentleman, this time playing Abel and Reindeer. However, it was in the summer of 1954 that his association with Slade and Reynolds became so significant, for he was cast in the non-speaking role of Troppo, the innocent little tramp, and (in Act Two) played the slave, in their summer show Salad Days, meant to fill a gap at the end of the season’s run of ‘straight’ plays at the Bristol Old Vic. Instead, the play was transferred to London and a tremendous run at the Vaudeville Theatre, and Harris stayed with the role, never missing a single one of the 2,283 performances (is this a record?). With his skills as a mime, and a naturally endearing presence on stage, he brought a touching quality to the show that was one of its most engaging features. He had a face that somehow radiated tragedy, and a genuine niceness. When Salad Days eventually closed to make way for the next Slade-Reynolds show Follow That Girl at the Vaudeville Theatre, Harris wasn’t involved, but he reappeared in a revival of Salad Days, directed by Slade, at the Princes Theatre in December 1961, playing his old fond role yet again. He also played in the first countrywide tour of the show. In 1962 he took on duties as a director of Farnham Repertory Company. 1963 looked promising too. In February he was cast in the supporting but important role of Jacquot in the grand British production of the hit American musical Carnival, which opened at the Lyric Theatre to dim reviews. Carnival limped to a total of 34 performances, but Harris gave a magical account of his character, and his superb performance is thankfully preserved on the original London cast recording. True, he only has one number to himself, ‘Grand Imperial Cirque de Paris’, and it isn’t one of the best, but he does have some marvellously affecting dialogue. This is acting wrenched from the heart. After Carnival, so far as we can tell, Harris simply disappeared from British and American musicals, although for the Christmas of 1963 he made a very interesting final effort. He adapted H J Byron’s play Our Boys into a musical, writing its songs, and the show was presented at the Castle Theatre, Farnham, with Harris himself cast as Kempster. One longs to hear this score. After the show was done with, Harris’s name slips away from theatrical records, but we suspect that his talents were much more considerable than they were ever believed to be.