Sir Harry Secombe
Singer, actor, author and comedian, Harry Donald Secombe was born at mid-day on 8th September 1921 and grew up at 7 St. Leger Crescent, St. Thomas, Swansea. Aged 8, he joined St. Thomas Church choir which he continued to participate in until his voice broke. Although spending the second half of his life with his wife Myra and four children in Cheame, Surrey, Harry admitted in his later years that his heart still belonged in Swansea. Sir Harry's favourite childhood haunt was Swansea Market, which he described as "an Aladdin's Cave" and used to travel there each Saturday with his mother on a tram from his home.
On his way to school (Dynevor Secondary School, Swansea) each day, he walked past Weaver's Flour Mill. This building contained a notice board which displayed who would be appearing next at Swansea's Empire Theatre. This fuelled Harry's desire to tread the boards himself. He discovered the joy of applause for himself when he sang the 'Blue Danube' with his friend at The Brangwyn Hall's inaugoral concert. At that point, he knew he wanted to be a star.
His first job was as a pay clerk at Baldwins Limited on Wind Street. He made extra money on his tea round by also taking refreshments to a neighbouring office. Six months before the outbreak of World War II, he joined the Swansea Territorial Army and at the age of 21 he was posted overseas to Africa and Italy, where he spent much of the World War II serving as a Lance Bombardier in the Royal Artillery. It was during the war that he met and formed a lasting friendship with fellow 'Goon', Spike Milligan.
Demobbed from the army at the close of World War II, Sir Harry joined London's West End Windmill Theatre where he met his wife-to-be, Myra Atherton. February 9th 1948, Sir Harry married Myra at St. Barnabus Church, Sketty, Swansea and, finding more and more of his time being spent on the Swansea to London train, he and his wife decided to relocate closer to the English Capital. Together they had four children, Jennifer (who is married to actor Alex Giannini), Andrew (a writer and producer), David (a photographer and writer) and Katy (an actress).
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. In 1951, he teamed up with Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Michael Bentine to form the phenomenally successful radio troupe 'The Goons', which ran for nine years and established certain fame for the funny trio.
However, since boyhood, singing still played an important part in Harry's performances and his powerful tenor voice was duly trained under the instruction of the late Italian Maestro Manlio di Veroli. With the guidance of his singing lessons he became one of the few bel canto tenors in Britain and has a long list of best-selling record albums to his credit.
Through the years 1950-80, Sir Harry was a regular at the London Palladium, where he performed at several Royal Commands. His first UK solo musical hit came in 1955 with 'On with the Motley', whilst in 1967, he reached number two in the UK Charts performing Charlie Chaplin's 'This is my Song'. He was beaten from the top spot by Petula Clarke's rendition of the very same song!
Harry appeared in many stage musicals, including Pickwick in 1963 and The Four Musketeers in 1967. He also appeared as Mr. Bumble in Lionel Bart's film Oliver! in 1968. Actively involved with charities and fundraising, he was awarded the C.B.E. in 1963 and was knighted in 1981.
Later in his life Harry wrote a number of books; his first novel, Twice Brightly was published in 1979 and was an immediate best-seller. He went on to write two collections of short stories and essays along with a second novel, Welsh Fargo, and two books for children. When Harry lost a dramatic amount of weight after major abdominal surgery and being diagnosed as diabetic he published The Harry Secombe Diet Book which gave details of his new way of eating. It was during this time (aroung 1983) that he made the first series of Highway, a programme with a religious theme for television, which gave him inspiration for two more books entitled Harry Secombe's Highway and The Highway Companion. The first volume of his autobiography Arias And Raspberries was published in 1989 and the second volume, Strawberries And Cheam in 1996.
In January 1999, Sir Harry suffered a stroke which followed the diagnosis of prostrate cancer the previous summer. Sir Harry agreed to film an Everyman documentary for BBC ONE which charted his progress until his 78th birthday (the 7 months following his stroke). The inspirational programme saw Sir Harry bravely struggling to overcome the paralysing effect of the stroke through intensive physiotherapy, lots of determination and the help of his religious faith. During this time he relearned how to walk again and wrote another book called The Zoo Loo Book.
Sir Harry Secombe died in a Guildford Hospital of prostrate cancer on April 11th 2001, aged 79. His wife, Myra was by his bedside.
Sir Harry Secombe is buried near the home he shared with Myra near Guildford, Surrey. A memorial service to celebrate his life was held at Westminster Abbey on October 26th, 2001. The service was attended by family members, close friends, show business celebrities and hundreds of fans as well as HRH The Prince of Wales, 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."
The pinnacle of Sir 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; and in 1986 he was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Wales and created a Doctor of Music at a ceremony in Swansea attended by the University's Chancellor, HRH The Prince Of Wales, a fervent fan of the Goons.
- quoted from an email from Jenny Secombe, Sir Harry's daughter.
Special thanks goes to Jenny Secombe for her contributions to this biography.