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Harry Korris

Manxland’s best-loved comedian

‘ee . . . if ever a man suffered’.

Corris, Henry Leonard Lowe, born 1891, Douglas; died 1971, Blackpool.

Father: John Corris, born c 1853, Manchester, a joiner.

Mother: Sarah née Whitham, born c 1859, Warrington.

Siblings: John, Ben, Edward, Fred.

Wife: Constance (Connie) May née Emerson, born 1897.

Son: Victor.

Harry Korris – he was always known by his professional name – was born at number 11, Victoria Road, Onchan, on 6th October, 1891, but little more is known about his childhood except for an ambiguous, probably tongue-in-cheek, reference in an interview in the Isle of Man Examiner in 1940,1 during which he claimed that until the age of three he was ‘engaged in the milk trade’. He made his inauspicious debut in the Manx newspapers in January 1896, when his Belgian hare was awarded a ‘highly commended’ at a local small animal and pet fair, and Arthur Q. Moore2 recalled that the young Harry won a singing contest at the Grand Theatre in Douglas. In his teens he worked as a legal clerk in the office of Mr R. D. Farrant – later Deemster Farrant – in Athol Street, Douglas, but from an early age was engaged in amateur theatrical productions of various kinds. After an appearance on stage as a Roman soldier caused much amusement in the audience, he put aside all thoughts of ‘serious’ acting and pursued his natural flair for comedy.

The Costume Comedy Entertainers.

Harry’s career as a popular Manx entertainer began in 1910 when he joined Fred Buxton’s concert parties at the Pierrot Village on Douglas Promenade.3 In 1911 Buxton appointed him manager of his Cosy Corner amusement resort in Ramsey, and Harry soon became established as the ‘Manx comedian’ and ‘the Manx Harry Lauder’. The following year the Mona’s Herald recorded that ‘Harry Korris delights his audience with his amusing patter, facial expressions and his songs are well received’, and likened his style of comedy to the great Wilkie Bard.  Harry and his co-stars, who included Norman Langford, billed as the ‘curious comedian, born funny, no other excuse’, appeared at the Pierrot Village Pavilion and the Picturedrome in Douglas, and Dyson’s Picturedrome, the Queen’s Hotel and the Cosy Corner in Ramsey during the summer seasons. During the long winters he appeared in shows and revues in Yorkshire and gradually began to develop his later familiar stage persona, that of a typical Northern comic.4

     In 1913 he married the singer Connie Emerson who sometimes appeared with him in revues, and that year Buxton released him from his contract at the Cosy Corner so that he could accept a thirty-week engagement in Bradford with the Leeds comic Leslie Howard, who later became a film star. In March 1914 he was briefly back on the Island and engaged at the Strand Cinema to provided entertainment during the intervals between films, but did not appear again in Douglas until 1919, when he starred in the revue A Trip to Paris at the Grand Theatre, and was hailed as ‘a young actor who is of Manx birth . . . and is recognised across the water as a versatile comedian in revue, pantomime and on the stage . . . his humour is infectious’.

     During the 1920s he frequently appeared in revues and pantomimes at the Villa Marina and was once again the manager of the Cosy Corner in Ramsey together with Tom Goode, the lessee and tenor vocalist, and Harry Vardon, ‘the little fellow’, a ventriloquist and comedian he had met in the Midlands in 1913. The Cosy Corner was back in business after the Buxton era. At the end of his benefit night in 1923, Harry, who delighted the audience with Florrie Forde’s latest hit song Yes, We Have No Bananas, gave a speech of thanks to all concerned, apologised for the insufficient seating in the theatre, and donated the sum of £11 3s 8d to the Ramsey Lifeboat weekend. Harry and Harry Vardon enjoyed good reviews in Whitehaven, Newcastle and Birkenhead during 1924, and that year Harry became the lessee of the Happy Valley entertainment resort in Llandudno, and enjoyed an excellent first season.

‘I’m eight stone Manx and nine stone English’

Harry was back in Ramsey in 1926 at the Queen’s Hall for Gordon Langford’s Big Show of 1926 when he was described as ‘built more for comfort than speed’, a reference to his seventeen stone, larger-than-life, beaming, burly, avuncular appearance. The Ramsey Courier5 wrote: ‘If there was one person in the audience who did not laugh until his or her sides were sore at the antics and gags, that same person better see the ‘‘medico’’ very quickly’. Harry’s songs A Banana’s Father, Twistles Ness Milk and Song Writing, during which he portrayed different kinds of songs and different singers, brought forth the greatest applause. After his end-of-season benefit night the Ramsey Courier paid him the following tribute ‘. . . he won the affections of the people of Ramsey . . . as an entertainer, he holds a position in the town which has never been achieved by any artiste in the past’. In December Harry brought his 1921 revue Don’t Worry back to the Villa Marina, described as ‘an evening of music and mirth, genial wit and drollery’, and, as his old employer R. D. - now Deemster - Farrant was present, peppered with jokes and asides about honest lawyers.

    In January 1929 the two Harrys were back once again at the Villa Marina for a six-night run of a new musical Chin Chin, together with the Twelve Sen-sen Girls and the Melroyd Sisters dance troupe, described as ‘a delightfully unforced hotchpotch of panto, musical comedy, revue and farce’.

‘Blackpool’s other tower’.

From 1931 until 1939 Harry was associated with Ernest Binn’s famous Arcadian Follies at the Blackpool’s South Pier, where he was known affectionately as ‘the Falstaff of the South Pier’. The revue toured during the winter and excerpts were broadcast on the BBC’s Northern Regional Programme. Harry was fast becoming a national figure, but for 1200 impoverished children in Peterborough he was ‘Uncle Harry’, when for three years he organised a Christmas treat and raised the sum of £150.

Some of his wisecracks have survived:

‘A gentleman farmer is a farmer who milks his cows with his gloves on!’

‘I have a cousin in the Isle of Man with three legs and he has just written to tell me he had grown another foot’.

The Isle of Man Times6 congratulated him on his Blackpool success: ‘Well done Harry; the Island is - or should be - proud of you . . . but probably he will continue to be honoured in every country but his own’.

     Harry was unable to return to Douglas in 1940 due to ‘Hitleritis’ and stayed in Blackpool, his home town for many years and considered a safe-haven from German bombs, and starred in Tom Arnold’s revue Blackpool One with Tessie O’Shea, piano duettists Rawicz and Landauer and the Tiller Girls. In September he was chosen to be the first guest on Wilfred Pickle’s new radio show King Pins of Comedy, broadcast on the BBC Forces Programme.7 He was in sparkling form throughout although the last five minutes of the broadcast were ‘lost’ in transmission. Harry returned to Douglas briefly in June 1941 for a five-night appearance in the Arcadian Follies, then showing at the Gaiety Theatre. When asked what inducement he required to come to Douglas, he quipped: ‘Two battleships and six destroyers’. He also starred in his first film Somewhere in England in which he played an old-time sergeant major trying to smooth the path of love for a luckless corporal, aided by comedian Frank Randle. Described as ‘a barrage of fun’ and ‘a real gloom chaser’, it was shown at the Plaza cinema, Douglas and other local cinemas during November. In 1942 the film sprouted two sequels, Somewhere in Camp and Somewhere on Leave.

Three Northern twerps’.

Hitherto a hard-working and popular Northern comedian, Harry Korris was about to become a nationally known and loved household name and radio comedian. In 1941 he became the star of the hugely successful BBC Radio comedy Happidrome, one of the most popular radio shows during the war years and just afterwards, where he played the hapless Mr Lovejoy, a struggling actor-manager and proprietor of the imaginary Happidrome Variety Theatre. He was partnered by Robby ‘Enoch’ Vincent, a gormless call boy, and Cecil ‘Ramsbottom’ Frederick, the stage manager and ‘straight man’. Enoch’s squeaky ‘let me tell you’ became one of radios best-known catchphrases, as did Mr Lovejoy’s weary ‘ee . . . if ever a man suffered’, usually followed by ‘take him away, Ramsbottom’. This trio of resident stars were joined each week by a series of guests who included Betty Driver, remembered now for her Coronation Street role as Betty Turpin, Wee Georgie Wood, Charles ‘the laughing policeman’ Penrose, Hetty King, Jack Warner - aka Dixon of Dock Green - Sandy Powell, Beryl Reid, Terry-Thomas, Vic Oliver and dozens of others. Together with George Formby and Gracie Fields, the stars of Happidrome helped to warm the cockles of the British heart during some very bleak years.

Their opening song closed with the lines:

We three in HAPPIDROME

Working for the BBC -

Ramsbottom, and Enoch and me.8

In 1941 Harry returned to the Gaiety Theatre, Douglas with the Arcadian Follies, and, assured of a warm welcome, he greeted his local crowd with a cheery ‘How are yer doin’, yissa?’ to someone in the stalls. The local lad had made good.

     In September 1944, Harry, his wife and Tom Arnold were once again in Douglas to explore the possible opportunities for post-war entertainments in Douglas, and the following year he left England for Burma with an ENSA concert party to entertain the troops there.

‘Two tons of Manx fun’.

On 8th June 1946, Harry once again appeared in Douglas, at the Gaiety Theatre, in Tom Arnold’s stage version of Happidrome, and again for a final summer season in 1947, with a new Isle of Man edition of the show. There were frequent ‘House Full’ signs at the door as people rushed to see the Gaiety’s latest family entertainment with its ‘bright music and homely comedy’. Harry, ‘the pillar of the show’, wrote many of the sketches. The supporting cast included Betty Hobbs’ Superb Eight ‘Happidrome’ Girls, MacKenzie Reid and Dorothy, Scotland’s ace accordionists,9 and the Four Charladies. In March 1949, Harry was one of the guest entertainers when the ‘Spiv’s Brain Trust’, an all-Manx charitable ‘Trust’, visited the Fylde District Manx Society and presented their light-hearted take on BBC Radio’s Brains Trust.10

    Harry retired from the stage at the age of sixty in 1950, and settled into a long, well-deserved retirement in Blackpool. Connie Korris appeared in a number of local plays with Blackpool’s Green Room Players, and became a town councillor. Harry, a life-long Rotarian, continued to raise money for Rotarian charities and, for a year, was President of the Blackpool South Shore Rotary Club. In 1952 he appeared with singers Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth in the BBC variety show Music Hall!; in 1960 he appeared in five episodes of Granada TV’s sit-com Our House, and in 1997, was featured briefly in Thames Television’s documentary series Heroes of Comedy in an episode devoted to Les Dawson. Two years after his death in 1971 two tea chests full of memorabilia, scripts, photographs, programmes and so forth, were found in his house and subsequently found their way into various private show business collections.

     The credo of Harry Korris: ‘I have found interest and joy in my career, and had I my life over again, I would choose the same job. It has its joys and heartbreaks, but it has a lure that never fails’.

Maurice Powell

Notes

1.       IoME 6.9.40.

2.       Fifty years of Manx Amusements, the Mona’s Herald, 19.4.32.

3.       Frederick John Buxton, c. 1869 - 1920, Nottinghamshire-born entertainer and entrepreneur, originally and the lessee of the old bandstand on Harris Promenade, and later the lessee and manager of Buxton’s Pierrot Village on the Central Promenade, the Cosy Corner amusement resort on Ramsey’s South Promenade and the Grand Theatre in Douglas. During the First World War he organised the entertainments at the Villa Marina. Buxton had a fine tenor voice and was the composer of two popular Manx songs: Come Back to Mona and Mona, I am Coming Back.

4.       Harry Korris appears in the 1901 Isle of Man census, but is absent from the 1911 census, suggesting that by that time he was living in Blackpool.

5.       Ramsey Courier 26.7.26.

6.       Isle of Man Times 7.10.32.

7.       In 1942 he was the 104th and last King Pin of Comedy.

8.       There were 200 episodes of Happidrome between 1941 and 1947 which attracted an audience of some 20,000,000 radio listeners. The show’s introductory tune was taken from the Ink Spots 1941 hit song My Echo, My Shadow and Me.

9.       Harry’s son Victor appeared at the Gaiety Theatre in 1948 in the revue Let’s Get On With It.

10.   Formed in 1946 the ‘Spivs’ visited many Manx Societies in the UK. The ‘expert’ panellists – Jimmy Kewley, Harry Cowin, George Brown, Alex Davidson and Arthur Cain - paid their own expenses, and that of their wives, the ‘Spivettes’, and donated the money raised from their appearances to local and national charities.

An extract from the 1943 feature film Happidrome can be viewed on YouTube, and gives a fair idea of the patter and comic antics of Mr Lovejoy, Ramsbottom and Enoch.

by Maurice Powell 2016