Sir Harry Donald Secombe, CBE 8 September 1921 – 11 April 2001 was a Welsh comedian and singer. He played Neddie Seagoon, a central character in the BBC radio comedy series The Goon Show 1951–60. He also appeared in musicals and films and, in his later years, was a presenter of television shows incorporating hymns and other devotional songs.Secombe joined the cast of the Windmill Theatre in 1946, using a routine he had developed in Italy about how people shaved. Secombe always claimed that his ability to sing could always be counted on to save him when he bombed. Both Milligan and Sellers credited him with keeping the act on the bill when club owners had wanted to sack them.
After a regional touring career, his first 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.Secombe met Michael Bentine at the Windmill Theatre, and was introduced to Peter Sellers by his agent Jimmy Grafton. Together with Spike Milligan, the four wrote a comedy radio script, and Those Crazy People was commissioned
With the success of The Goon Show, Secombe developed a dual career as both a comedy actor and a singer. 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. Trained under Italian maestro Manlio di Veroli, he emerged as a bel canto tenor characteristically, he insisted that in his case this meant “can belto” and had a long list of best-selling record albums to his credit.In 1958 he appeared in the film Jet Storm, which starred Dame Sybil Thorndike and Richard Attenborough and in the same year Secombe starred in the title role in Davy, one of Ealing Studios’ last films. The power of his voice allowed Secombe to appear in many stage musicals. This included 1963’s Pickwick, based on Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers, which gave him the number eighteen hit single “If I Ruled the World” his later signature tune. In 1965 the show was produced on tour in the United States, where on Broadway he garnered a nomination for a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical.
He also appeared in the musical The Four Musketeers , as Mr. Bumble in Carol Reed’s film of Oliver! and in the Envy segment of The Magnificent Seven Deadly Sins. He would go on to star in his own television show, The Harry Secombe Show, which debuted on Christmas Day 1968 on BBC 1 and ran for thirty one episodes until 1973. A sketch comedy show featuring Julian Orchard as Secombe’s regular sidekick, the series also featured guest appearances by fellow Goon Spike Milligan as well as leading performers such as Ronnie Barker and Arthur Lowe. Secombe later starred in similar vehicles such as Sing a Song of Secombe and ITV’s Secombe with Music during the 1970s.
Secombe suffered from peritonitis in. He had a stroke from which he made a slow recovery. He was then diagnosed with prostate cancer in September. After suffering a second stroke in he was forced to abandon his television career, but made a documentary about his condition in the hope of giving encouragement to other sufferers. Secombe had diabetes in the latter part of his life.
Secombe died on 11 April 2001 at the age of 79, in hospital in Guildford, Surrey. As well as family members and friends, the service was also attended by Charles, Prince of Wales and representatives of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, Anne, Princess Royal, Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon and Prince Edward, Duke of Kent. On his tombstone is the inscription: “To know him was to love him.”
The Secombe Theatre at Sutton, London bears his name in memory of this former local personality. He is also fondly remembered at the London Welsh Centre, where he opened the bar on St Patrick’s Day 7 March 1971.
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