Russell Harty - The Chat-Show King

Russell Harty in the 1970’s and into the early 1980’s was regarded as one of the most popular chat show hosts of his era, eclipsed only by ‘Parky’ himself, Michael Parkinson. His unique style of interviewing and no-nonsense questions made Russell unmissable viewing for the millions of viewers in the days of television when there were only three channels, not the hundreds in which we choose from today. He interviewed some of the most famous people of the time including David Bowie and Frankie Howerd and people still speak of his television interviews today, most famously an altercation with singer and actress Grace Jones.
Frederick Russell Harty was born in Blackburn on 5th September 1934, his father, also called Frederick, ran a fruit & vegetable stall on the local market. His mother’s name was Myrtle (maiden name Rishton). They used to live at 24 Freme Street before moving to 2 Ribblesdale Place, otherwise known as ‘Claremont’. At one time Russell used to live next door to ex-Coronation Street star Madge Hindle.
Russell first attended St Silas’ Church of England School in the Infant’s Department and on 18th August 1941, aged 6, joined the main school and he left St Silas’ on 18th July 1946 in order to take up a scholarship at Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School on West Park Road [QEGS].

After leaving QEGS he went to University at Exeter College, Oxford where he obtained a first-class degree in English Literature as well as meeting future playwright Alan Bennett who became a lifelong friend. On leaving University, Russell became an English & Drama teacher in Giggleswick, North Yorkshire, where one of his pupils was future Countdown presenter Richard Whiteley. He ended up buying a home in Giggleswick, ‘Rose Cottage’.
He began lecturing at the City University of New York in 1964 in English Literature. A few years later he became a radio producer for the BBC Third Programme which reviewed Arts & Literature.
His first big break came along in 1970 when he began to present the London Weekend Television [LWT] culture programme ‘Aquarius’, the forerunner to ‘The South Bank Show’ which was created to compete with the BBC rival programme ‘Omnibus’. The programme allowed Russell to travel the world, including interviewing Salvador Dali, a programme for which he was awarded an ‘Emmy’
ITV gave Russell his own chat show in 1973 called ‘Russell Harty Plus’ and put him up against the legendary ‘Parkinson’ on the BBC. He was to conduct lengthy celebrity interviews from all areas of public life, some of which have become part of TV legend. His relaxed and unique style contributed to some memorable responses. His Northern accent and his distinctive delivery was a godsend to the famous impressionists of the time with particularly Mike Yarwood who picked up on Russell’s catchphrase ‘You are, are you not?’ He also won a Pye Award for Outstanding New Personality of the Year.
One of his notorious interviews was his 1973 interview with the rock band The Who, parts of which were included in the 1979 film ‘The Kids Are Alright’ where Pete Townshend & Keith Moon rip off each other’s shirts. Russell recalled the interview in 1988 ‘"I used to believe that unless you had each question written on a clipboard, and unless you followed a rigorous sequence of inquiry, all would not be well. My clipboard was an anchor and I had full need of it. The Who blasted their way through the opening number, and then came to sit down and around. Question 1 (and I blush even as I write): 'When did you first come together to form the group?' Question 2: 'Who writes the words and who the music?' Question 3: 'Are you big in America?' and so on. I hope you will spare me the embarrassment of rehearsing the fretful litany. The Who were clearly thinking to themselves that there must be better ways of spending an evening. So they did what any high spirited, rich, young band would do. They tried to make it more interesting. They ripped off each other's designed shirts and shredded them in front of a delighted audience. Droning on in the background was this still small voice: Question 10: 'What are your plans for the future?' Their plans were to liven things up a little. When they had reduced each other to bare essentials and high laughter, they turned their attention to me, pulled me to the floor and started to divest me of my chaste Jaeger. The clock, which is often an enemy, developed a friendly aspect and put a timely stop to this madness. Time also put a stop to The Who. Keith Moon died. Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend were encouraged to explore other paths to salvation, via entertainment. I learnt two things - The first was to jettison the clipboard if the ship appeared to be sinking. Such an object lacks buoyancy. The second was that if your body should become a battleground, it is better to lie back and pretend to enjoy it. You may lose the sympathy vote, but you might get a new suit from it."
When ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ the classic Edwardian TV Series ended on 21st December 1975 Russell visited the set to present a one-off special of the show which aired on Boxing Day 1975. Regular cast members such as Jean Marsh, Gordon Jackson and Lesley Anne Down appeared along with Simon Williams and Gareth Hunt.
On 17th December 1980 Russell was ‘captured’ on the This Is Your Life show by Eamon Andrews, guests who appeared included Lewis Collins and John Conteh.
On Saturday 21st March 1981 Russell appeared on the classic BBC radio show ‘Desert Island Discs’ where his choices were
1)      Overture from Henry V Suite by Sir William Walton
2)      When I’m Cleaning Windows by George Formby
3)      Villianelle from Les nuits d’ete by Hector Berlioz
4)      In the Bleak Midwinter by King’s College Chapel Choir
5)      Dance with Mandolins from Romeo & Juliet by Sergi Sergeyevich Prokofiev
6)      My Way by Paul Phoenix
7)      If You Were The Only Girl In The World by Violet Loraine & George Robey
8)      The National Anthem by the Cambridge University Musical Society
The book he chose was ‘A History of Craven’ by E.T. Whittaker and his luxury item was a flagpole and Union Jack.
The ‘Russell Harty Plus’ show lasted until 1981 when he moved to the BBC.
The new BBC show, titled ‘Harty’, was an early evening celebrity chat show and it was here in 1981 that Russell received his infamous ‘slap’ in the face by American singer and actress Grace Jones, who took offence because Russell supposedly turned his back to her to talk to his other guest. Russell developed a style of always on sitting in-between his guests rather than sitting in the traditional position of side on to his guests as say Michael Parkinson would do, so Russell was not ignoring her at all. Grace recalled the interview “I have no regrets. He was misbehaving, which is why I thumped him. We had a rehearsal of the show but when we got on air, Russell completely changed it and turned his back on me. I fumed: "Why have I flown in all this way from America just to be ignored? I'm not having this." So I thumped him. I didn't feel bad - I actually wanted to hit him even more. My only regret is that I should have just rolled his chair back and tipped him over on to the floor.'”
Boy George from the 80’s pop band Culture Club also created a stir by claiming he preferred a cup of tea to sex whilst being interviewed by Russell. The show ended in 1985.
Whilst continuing with the chat show, he also continued to make documentaries for the BBC. One, called ‘Favourite Things’, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher revealed that one of her favourite snacks was a poached egg on Bovril toast.
 In 1987 he was presenting ‘Start the Week’ on BBC Radio and writing a weekly column for the Sunday Times. He also began working on a new show for the BBC ‘Russell Harty’s Grand Tour’ but he only completed a few interviews, most notably with Salvador Dali and Dirk Bogarde when he fell ill. It was to be his last television work.
He never hid his homosexuality and was in a stable relationship with Jamie O’Neill, from 1982 until his death in 1988. They met in London and Russell encouraged Jamie to write, not only reading his manuscripts but secretly sending them to publishers, which eventually led to him securing a book deal with Weidenfeld Publishers. After Russell’s death Jamie won the Ferro-Grumley Award for Fiction and the Lambda Literary Award for his book ‘At Swim, Two Boys’. It has since been performed on the theatre.
Alan Bennett, the playwright, talks about Russell and his family in ‘Untold Stories’ his semi-biography in the episode ‘Written on the Body’.
Russell died from Hepatitis B on 8th June 1988, aged 53, in a Leeds hospital and was buried in the churchyard of St Alelda, Giggleswick.
Russell had a talent for making guests feel comfortable and his method of interview allowed him to get away with asking difficult questions without appearing impertinent. He was adored by the public and by his wide circle of friends, his friend Alan Bates once said, ‘One laughed more helplessly with him than anyone else I know’. Russell will always be known as one of the chat-show greats in what was a golden era of television.
By Roger Booth