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Harty, Russell (1934-88)

Presenter, Producer

Main image of Harty, Russell (1934-88)

Softly spoken presenter Russell Harty offered a cosier, slightly more intimate ITV alternative to the BBC dominated chat show, which during the 1970s and 80s was represented by his main TV rival Michael Parkinson. In an era when celebrity culture was not so prevalent, Harty was able to adopt a more informal style with his subjects. This approach even gave him a catchphrase, the slightly hesitant: "you are, are you not?"

He was born in Blackburn, Lancashire on 5 September 1934, and gained a first-class English degree from Exeter College, Oxford. His route into broadcasting came via academia, first as an English and drama teacher in Yorkshire and then lecturing in English Literature at the City University of New York. He joined the BBC as a radio producer in the 1960s reviewing arts and literature.

His big break in television came in 1969 when he presented LWT's arts programme Aquarius, including a memorable programme on Salvador Dali where the artist was captured at his flamboyant and enigmatic best. Harty soon established himself as ITV's face of arts and culture.

Between 1972 and 1981 he hosted his own series, Russell Harty Plus (later shortened to Russell Harty), which boasted occasional specials with the likes of Rudolf Nureyev, Danny Kaye and Gracie Fields. Highlights from this show included an anarchic interview with The Who's drummer Keith Moon at his devilish best. He also hosted the TV gossip show Saturday Night People (ITV, 1978-80) alongside Janet Street-Porter and Clive James.

He switched to the BBC in 1980 to host the slightly more highbrow arts programme All About Books (1980), before settling down to the chat show circuit. This led to his most celebrated moment came when he was smacked in the face by singer Grace Jones for unintentionally turning his back on her during an interview. A more considered interview with Dirk Bogarde revealed more about the enigmatic actor and was favourably mentioned in Bogarde's biography.

A travelogue series, Harty Goes To... (BBC, 1985-86) led to Russell Harty's Grand Tour (BBC, 1988), where he walked in the footsteps of the 18th century travellers.

His career was cut short at the early age of 53 when he died of hepatitis B in 1988 in Leeds. At his funeral, his close friend Alan Bennett delivered an uncharacteristically barbed attack on tabloid reporters and paparazzi, who had spent Harty's last months trying to dig up nonexistent scandals.

Eddie Dyja

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