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Monday, February 01, 2010

Harry Bell obituary

Harry Bell

Harry Bell died peacefully at The Lock House, Semington on 27th January 2010 while listening to music with his devoted Old English sheepdog, Sophie, by his side.

Harry was one of that group of people who started canal businesses confident that the Kennet & Avon Canal would one day re-open.

Harry was active in the K&A’s trade association, ACE (The Association of Canal Enterprises) and in its early days he served both as Chairman and Secretary.

Harry and his wife Sue started Tranquil Boats in 1984 building a dry dock, taking in bed & breakfast guests and running an electric day hire boat.

Sadly Sue died after only 10 years at The Lock House — but she was immensely proud and honoured to have been spoken to by HM The Queen at the ceremony to re-open the canal in 1990.

Harry was a clever, forthright and honest man — with Harry respect had to be earned  and if gained then that person had a true friend for life.

Harry was a fiercely independent and private man and very few people who met him on the canal had any idea of his long and fascinating life in the world of show business.

Harry Bell was born in Forest Hall, between Newcastle Upon Tyne and the coast, on the 17th December 1935.

He was educated first at a church primary school then moving on to the local Grammar school. It was in school plays that he showed an interest in the ‘back stage’ work which subsequently took over his life.

His love of the stage soon saw him volunteering as a general helper at the Peoples Theatre in Newcastle during school breaks.

He left school with few qualifications — just 3 GCEs — but he was ambitious and he got his first job as an electrician at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle. He then moved on to the Empire ‘variety house’ in Sunderland but he was soon on the move again — this time with Billy Smart’s Circus. He soon realised that this was a bad move and he returned to the Empire in Newcastle, where he stayed until he was called up for National Service in the RAF.

He served two years as a wireless mechanic — but he kept touch with the theatre by helping to produce the entertainment at the transmitting station where he was based. When he left the RAF Harry returned to the Empire in Newcastle where he continued as a stage hand until his 21st birthday.

Then the big city beckoned and he left for London. He quickly got into his stride — first at the Chiswick Empire as an electrician, and then with the Paul Raymond organisation as stage manager, electrician and coach driver.

He then joined HM Tennent who presented many of the top shows in the UK — again as an electrician — and he toured with Norman Wisdom in ‘Where’s Charley’. When the show came to the West End, Harry moved on to Drury Lane, this time for the big production of the year — ‘My Fair Lady’.

Never staying still for long Harry joined the Talk of the Town as the sound man. He considered himself very lucky to work there with many performers in their last days in show business – Judy Garland and the Andrews Sisters among them.

He met his future wife, Sue, and he soon realised that enjoyable as theatre work was, the wages would not buy a house or support a family. At that time commercial television was expanding rapidly and ATV had taken over the old National Studios in Elstree and needed staff — he applied and he was taken on as a prop man.

Over the next 22 years promotion followed promotion and he progressed from Prop Man to Floor Manager and then to Production Manager. Harry was now in the prime of his life. He specialised in light entertainment for which ATV was renowned in the 60s and 70s.

Harry worked with every major British and International star from Liberace to Bing Crosby and with his all time favourite — Karen Carpenter. He enjoyed every moment of an exciting working life alongside stars like Morecambe and Wise, Lena Horne, Dickie Valentine, Des O’Connor and Englebert Humperdinck.

Harry said, “This was when TV was an entertainment medium run by show business people — unlike today when sadly it is run by accountants”.

In 1983 ATV had become Central and relocated to the Midlands. Harry did not like the way things had been going so he decided to take redundancy and look for a new way of life. Harry and Sue had bought a boat which they named ‘Lady Caroline’ after their daughter. They used it to escape the pressures of work and to take their two Old English Sheepdogs on holiday with them.

And like many boat owners they dreamed of retirement in a house with a boat on the canal at the bottom of the garden. They found The Lock House at Semington and although the canal was not open Harry and Sue believed that it would be one day. In 1984 they moved in and set up Tranquil Boats and they were able to live their dream — a total contrast to Harry’s previous hectic life.

Harry freelanced at HTV so that he was able to live at The Lock House and develop the business — while still working in television.

Harry was passionate about Old English Sheepdogs — and over the years four shared his life at The Lock House.

Harry always said that he had been fortunate to meet so many good people and he hoped that he had provided a good service to boaters — but he said that his life would have been a lot better if he had not had to deal with the harassment from British Waterways management which over the years had caused him so much avoidable distress.

Harry was immensely proud of his daughter Caroline, her husband Mark, and his two grandchildren, Eleanor and Rosie who were all a great comfort to him.