|'This is Holy Week'
by Fr Richard Coles, Senior Curate
Russell Harty is perhaps not a figure one readily associates with Holy Week, but every year, when it comes round, I find myself thinking of him. Do you remember that notorious interview with Grace Jones on his ITV chat show? She was somewhat the worse for wear and when Mr Harty unavoidably turned his back on her to speak to another guest she started slapping him quite viciously. An Amazon attacking a poodle, I thought, or did until I got to know Mr Harty better.
Unusually, I only got to know him after his death. I was asked to write and present a documentary about his life for Radio Four, which turned out to be one of the most enjoyable jobs I’ve ever had. We interviewed his friends, from Oxford, where he was a contemporary and pal of Alan Bennett and Ned Sherrin; from Yorkshire, where he lived, including a hilarious interview with Madge Hindle from Coronation Street (or Myra Hindley as he absentmindedly introduced her at the opening of Giggleswick Fête); and his family in Blackburn, who never really understood Uncle Russell and his fancy London ways. They were pretty fancy – confidante of the stars, chat show host, arts journalist for the BBC, and a man of great gusto and occasional mischief, to the delight of his friends. He was irrepressible, incorrigible; Ned Sherrin remembered visiting him as he lay dying in hospital in Leeds. As Ned approached his bedside Russell feebly pulled at his oxygen mask; what is it Russell?, asked Ned, aware that the end was near. Russell whispered, Princess Margaret... asked how I was... twice!
There were other famous stories; of how he was once at a do near Leeds with the Princess of Wales who asked him if he’d like a lift back to London in her helicopter. He gratefully accepted, talked non stop all the way to RAF Northolt, and on arrival promptly hailed a cab to drive him all the way back to Yorkshire where he actually needed to be.
Although I never met him in reality, making the programme made me think I had, that we too were friends. His biography was so vivid, his personality so striking, that when those who really knew him told their stories he came to life for me. I could see him in my mind’s eye as as they did. I suppose I felt part of his story.
Holy Week is here and over the next seven days we share the story of the climactic events of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, another vivid biography of a man who died young, in disgrace, leaving an indelible impression on his friends. But, as the great liturgies of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter remind us, he was more than a striking personality, and this this is more than mere story-telling. It is nothing less than an invitation to share in his life, in his death, and in the glory of his resurrection.