For more than half a century until being jailed as a sex offender in 2014, Rolf Harris, who has died aged 93 after suffering from neck cancer, was one of the most celebrated television entertainers in Britain and his native Australia. He was a musician, singer, artist, comedian – a man who, as one journalist put it, had “a professional life that has skipped across disciplines with the agility of a kangaroo”.
He sold millions of records with songs such as Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport (which reached No 3 in the UK charts in 1960), Sun Arise (No 3 in 1961), Two Little Boys (No 1 in 1969), and an improbable reworking of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven (No 7 in 1993). He introduced audiences to the joys of such musical instruments as the Stylophone, the didgeridoo and the wobble board, the last his own invention.
Between 1953, when he was signed by the BBC to perform with a puppet called Fuzz in the children’s TV series Jigsaw, and 2012, when he was honoured with a Bafta fellowship, he was rarely off UK screens, in shows such as Hey Presto, It’s Rolf! (1966), The Rolf Harris Show (1967-72), Rolf on Saturday OK? (1977-80), Rolf’s Cartoon Club (1989-93), Animal Hospital (1994-2004) and Rolf on Art (2001-04). He was one of the handful of entertainers who was often professionally identified by his first name alone.
Lavishly honoured for his contribution to the entertainment industry, he was appointed MBE in 1968, advanced to OBE in 1977 and CBE in 2006. As late as 2012, the year before he was arrested during Scotland Yard’s sex crime investigation Operation Yewtree, he was made an officer of the Order of Australia.
“I arrived in the UK on a boat in 1952 at the age of 22, with nothing but a load of self confidence,” he wrote in his 2001 autobiography, Can You Tell What It Is Yet?
“As a musician, singer and songwriter, I have had No 1 hits and taken pop festivals by storm; as a television presenter, I have been awarded the MBE and voted TV personality of the year; and as an artist I have had pictures exhibited by the Royal Academy. People who are now parents and grandparents grew up watching me on TV singing Jake the Peg, doing vast drawings with a fat felt-tip pen, blowing the didgeridoo and wobbling a piece of hardboard. Children today know me as the man who worries about cats with broken legs, and ferrets with flu, on the BBC’s Animal Hospital. Touching so many people’s lives has been a huge thrill.”
The widespread fondness for Harris was summed up in a profile of the entertainer in the Independent in 1998. “He’s still, even after all these years, just so brilliantly innocent … It’s why we still hold him in such great and genuine affection. He’s approaching 70, has been in the business pretty much for ever, but remains spectacularly kind and good.” The author of the piece was hardly alone among profile writers in tending towards the hagiographic tone. “There must be a Mr Nasty somewhere inside that Mr Nice. There just must be. But try as I might, I couldn’t find him,” said the Guardian in 2000.
That line he used to title his memoir, “Can you tell what it is yet?”, was the catchphrase he used while speed-painting huge canvases on stage or on TV shows. But very few people could tell what Rolf Harris was. In 1985, for instance, he made a film warning about sexual abuse, called Kids Can Say No (1985), which was released on video. In it, he managed to include a sing-song element: “My body’s no body’s body but mine/ You take care of your body/ I’ll look after mine.”
The last of the offences for which Harris was found guilty and jailed at Southwark crown court in 2014 was not committed until 1986. Criminologists later argued that Harris presented Kids Can Say No out of guilt about what he was doing at the time – and also to hide in plain sight.
He was born in Bassendean, a suburb of Perth, Western Australia, to Agnes (nee Robbins) and Cromwell Harris, Welsh migrants. “My life has never been conventional,” he wrote. “Our family lived in a house built by my father, a power station worker, out of second-hand materials and recycled nails. He added rooms as he could afford them. My brother Bruce and I slept on the veranda for our entire childhood, with the rain splashing through the shutters and on to our noses and foreheads.”
Harris displayed his cartoon skills on a BBC children’s show and wrote songs for a London club called Down Under
Aged 16, Rolf became Australia’s junior backstroke swimming champion. The following year, his self-portrait in oils was accepted to be hung in the Art Gallery of New South Wales as an entry for the 1947 Archibald prize. He inherited his artistic skills from his father, a frustrated portrait painter.
“When I showed talent, he got me the best paper, the best paints, even though we didn’t have much money.” His mother was an analytical chemist until she had children. “Without my mother,” Harris told one interviewer, “my career wouldn’t have happened. She was always saying: ‘Do this, go there, try that.’”
So in 1952 Harris travelled to London to go to art school. His BBC television debut on Jigsaw was followed by Whirligig, on which his character Willoughby came to life on a drawing board. He was also developing his musical skills by playing a piano accordion at a London club for expat antipodeans called Down Under and writing songs, one of which was Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport. This calypso tune about an Aussie stockman on his deathbed became a No 1 hit in Australia and reached the British Top 10 in 1960. Three years later a version of the song produced by George Martin went to No 3 in the US Billboard chart.
In 1958, Harris married Alwen Hughes, a Welsh sculptor and jeweller, whom he had met when they both had paintings at the Royal Academy in London. They had a daughter, Bindi, who became an artist.
The key influence on Harris in those early years was the Australian impressionist painter Hayward Veal. “Veal was the one who got me on the right road for doing all these huge paintings I did on television,” Harris recalled. “I was just using a simplified version of his impressionist painting.”
Harris became renowned for the speed with which he painted on live telly. On his first adult Saturday night TV series, The Rolf Harris Show, accompanied by the Young Generation dance troupe, he would draw huge landscapes on 4 x 3 metre canvases, having practised creating the paintings against a stopwatch earlier so he could produce them live. He became so famous for his painting that in one poll he was ranked the best known artist in Britain: 38% of respondents knew his work, while only 23% knew Constable.
In 2005 he was commissioned to paint an official portrait of the Queen. “The Queen deserves better, surely,” argued the Guardian critic Jonathan Jones of the resulting picture, “than to be vacuously flattered by a painting with all the emotional and intellectual insight of – well, of Rolf on Art.”
In 1993, his version of Stairway to Heaven found him fame with a younger generation of fans. In 2010, aged 80, he made his fifth appearance at the Glastonbury festival, performing on the Pyramid stage before a crowd of 30,000.
Three years later, in March 2013, Harris was arrested over allegations of sexual offences. He was jailed in 2014 for five years and nine months for 12 counts of indecent assault that took place between 1968 and 1986, on four female victims, including a 13-year-old schoolfriend of his daughter. His predatory behaviour was like his paintings, argued the prosecution counsel. “Each stroke can be a little bit vague or unclear but taken together you can identify what is happening,” she said. It demonstrated the “Mr Hyde concealed behind Rolf Harris’s Dr Jekyll, who was his public profile.”
In February 2016, the Crown Prosecution Service announced that Harris would face seven further indecent assault charges relating to incidents that allegedly took place between 1971 and 2004, involving complainants aged between 12 and 42. He pleaded not guilty: in February 2017 he was cleared of three of the charges, and the jury failed to reach a verdict on the other four.
He was released from prison on licence in May of that year, and at the end of the month faced a retrial on three of the four of the unresolved charges from February plus one new charge. Again the jury could not reach verdicts, and there was no further retrial. One of the 2014 convictions was quashed in November 2017 as being unsafe, but Harris was refused permission to appeal against the other 11.
Last week a two-part ITV documentary, Rolf Harris: Hiding in Plain Sight, examined how he exploited his celebrity status, and how his behaviour went unchallenged for so long.
He had been stripped of his CBE and AO honours in 2015.
In Australia two pavement plaques honouring the disgraced entertainer, one in Bassendean, the other in Perth, were dug up. His artworks were removed from Perth Modern, his former school, and from the walls of the council chambers, and his status as a freeman of the city of Perth was revoked. He became one of only two people to lose the title of Australian Living Treasure, which had been conferred on him in 1997.
He is survived by his wife and daughter.
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