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Archive - Thursday, 8 June 2006
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Memories revived of Famous Five
IF you spent your childhood imagining how cool it would be to quaff ginger beer, bathe in blue seas and have adventures in dungeons, the chances are you were a Famous Five fan.
So what a blast from the past it was to sit in Wallingford Town Hall chatting to new deputy mayor, Marcus Harris, aka Famous Five leader Julian Kirrin.
"On May 13, I was guest speaker at the annual Enid Blyton Day in Reading, the next day I was taking the oath at the mayor-making in Wallingford, it was a weird weekend," said the 42-year-old councillor.
As one of the young stars of the 1978-79 Famous Five series, Mr Harris enjoyed more than his '15 minutes of fame'. The series transformed him and his fellow Fivers into household names almost overnight.
Housed in a farmhouse in the New Forest with their own tutor, chef and chauffeur, they were mobbed in the street and made regular appearances on children's television shows and there is still adoration.
"I'm still surprised by just how many people are passionate about the series," he said. "At the convention a couple of weeks ago, I signed autographs for half-an-hour. A policewoman asked me to sign her t-shirt, which had a picture of me on it. And the father of a 16-year old girl who has become one a new generation of fans told me she had a picture of me on her bedroom wall, although when she met me, she exclaimed, 'Haven't you got old!'"
Mr Harris was only three when he began his stage career.
"I was living in Middlesex, and my mum and dad were keen on amateur dramatics," he said. "I came on one night in a walk-on part and it just went from there. I was in lots of productions and then, when we moved to Oxfordshire when I was ten, I joined the Henley Youth Theatre and signed up with the children's agent, Wendy Wisby."
Despite his dreams, the big break didn't come easily.
"I attended so many auditions without getting a call back.
"Then they announced they were making the Famous Five, and this became my ultimate ambition. I loved Enid Blyton's Famous Five books, but I knew competition would be stiff."
In fact, 5,000 children went for the parts of the children, Julian, Dick, George and Anne (the fifth member was Timothy the dog).
"I wondered if I really had a chance, but at the first audition I watched a young lad being cheeky with the director, so I went up afterwards and asked if it was better to be loud and boisterous.
"The director howled with laughter and I must have stuck in his mind, because I made all the next five call-backs and was picked from the final four 'Julians' for the role."
Plucked from obscurity, life changed drastically for the 13-year-old actor, but he relished it.
"It was basically being paid for having a two-year adventure," he said. "We spent the first whole summer filming an hour-long episode a week we were the fastest-filming series alongside The Sweeney.
"And in between filming it was book signings, photo-shoots, and phone-ins on Saturday morning shows like the Saturday Banana I couldn't believe that children were phoning in to talk to me. My dad used to go through the sackfuls of letters I'd get each week."
Weekends at home in Oxfordshire were spent coming down from the buzz on a Friday night and driving his parents "mad" as he got more excited by the time Sunday came around again.
"We would literally get the script, learn our lines and then spend our time riding horses, climbing trees and building rafts," he said.
Whereas Enid Blyton set her 21 Famous Five tales in the 1940s, the BBC series was firmly grounded in the 1970s.
"It wasn't, like the books, about 'lashings of ginger beer'. The clothes, bikes, everything, were very much of their time in the 70s and I think that's why kids loved it so much," he recalled.
"It was real life, but we were also having adventures and solving mysteries."
When the two series came to an end, he crashed back to earth with a bump.
"I felt a crashing low, but, luckily, my dad had anticipated this and we went on holiday for a couple of weeks until I adjusted," he said.
"Coming back to Oxfordshire, I had been off school for two years and spent much of that time dodging tutoring so I had no real interest in school and left at 16.
"Despite this, I think it's really interesting that I've gone to to be a businessman (he runs his own consultancy in Reading). I was Julian the leader, and I think my career mirrors that. And the lad who played Dick Gary Russell, who I still see went into the media.
"Jenny, who played Anne, has a lovely cottage and two grown-up children in Sussex, while Michelle Gallager (who played tomboy George) disappeared completely it seems the casting was pretty spot-on."
Now a father himself, Mr Harris's children have seen the series and are very proud of their dad's 'celebrity'.
"Up until quite recently, one of the biggest questions amongst fans, has been who owns the right to the series," he said. "Now two German guys have come forward and it looks, quite possibly, that it has been resolved and a DVD may be released. I'd love that, not because I miss the fame, but because it would be fabulous for a new generation to discover the Famous Five. I still get at least one email a week from somewhere in the world. People have found me on the website because of my work as a town and district councillor, and I still get people humming the tune at me in the pub, plus I've lost count of the times people have asked me jokingly: 'What part did you play? The dog?' "But I'm still very proud of the Famous Five. It was a cracking adventure."