Rolf Harris

His fame allowed Rolf Harris to abuse young girls for decades without suspicion or blame. But as other celebrities were exposed as sexual predators, his victims found the courage to come forward.

“I assumed from the start that Rolf was a perfectionist...He’s an immense talent... You can’t write that off just because of what’s come out since...The performer Rolf was terribly focused......You just couldn’t reach him...He’s not the kind of guy to have a beer with.”
Tony Porter, Actor

 

THE BOY FROM BASSENDEAN

Rolf Harris was born in March, 1930 and raised in a suburb of Perth, Western Australia, called Bassendean.

“It was a bit...of a fly-blown backwater of a place.”
Dr. Joe St. John, Author and Lawyer

Rolf’s childhood was typical of many Australians back then. He spent a lot of his boyhood outdoors and was a natural at sport. And, perhaps because his Welsh grandfather had been a portrait artist, he was also as happy at home painting. But indoors or out, whatever he did, Rolf needed an audience.

“He talked about being a natural show-off from the start. He liked performing for other school children.”
Patrick Carlyon, Senior Journalist, Melbourne Herald Sun

With a river behind his house, Rolf swam nearly every day and by 15 he was a national backstroke swimming champion. He would, however, fail to find a place competing for his country at the 1948 London Olympic Games.

Aged 16, Rolf held the first of four exhibitions of his paintings in his home town.

He attended university but struggled to shine and decided to train as a swimming teacher. When a polio-like virus ended that hope, he determined, aged 22, to become a painter in what his parents called ‘the hub of the universe’, London. For many Australians, it was a ‘rite of passage’ to go to the ‘motherland.’

He enrolled in art school and there met his future wife Alwen Hughes. He said she agreed to marry him on their second date. Rolf supported himself through performing at cabaret clubs - this polished his natural abilities - and made him an obvious pick at a children’s TV audition.

“His...beginning in television coincided, more or less, with the beginning of television itself. And one of the things that was often done in children’s entertainment, was to try to have a show that taught them how to draw. That tended to be very boring entertainment (because) it was laboriously slow”

Dr. Joe St. John, Author and Lawyer

Rolf could not only draw and paint fast, and do both well - he could perform to camera at the same time. He’d practise his routine at home by talking to a door handle as if it was the camera in the studio.

Rolf was about to become very, very famous.

 

Fame Years

“I thought he was just aloof. From that moment, I thought, nah, you’re an a******e.”
Tony Porter, actor, after Harris patronised him during filming

“It’s very rare that a person can be such a celebrity that...even their Christian name alone will signal them to the whole world.”
Dr. Joe St. John, Author and Lawyer
 

In 1953, just one year after arriving in the UK, Rolf found fame on BBC children’s TV. One of his creations that helped him stand out was Willoughby, a cheeky Cockney kid who came to life as he was drawn.

For the next few years, Rolf was in demand by the both the BBC and, unusually for back then, commercial TV – normally stars worked for one side or the other, but children’s entertainment was seen as less competitive.  

In 1958, he married Alwen. It would be a long marriage.

Rolf later said he regretted how little time he gave to her. He said that she later contemplated suicide partly because of the boredom of being married to a workaholic who was rarely there.

In 1960, he had a hit with his first novelty single, a jokey Australian folk song called ‘Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport’. Rolf said he offered the backing band royalties or a flat fee. Assuming it would flop, the four musicians took their £28 flat fee. Within four weeks, it was a number one hit.

Harris would later apologise for the racist reference in the song saying it came from a more innocent age. He would later attempt a similar defence when accused of other offences

In 1961, he took a new song, ‘Sun Arise’ to the man who would produce the Beatles, George Martin. George told Rolf his song was boring. But it was notable for featuring aboriginal sounds and the wobble board, an ‘instrument’ Rolf would make his trademark.

And onscreen, he coined a new catchphrase for when he was painting...

“Can you tell what it is yet?”

During the 1960s, Rolf hosted a string of TV shows including ‘Hi There!’ and ‘Hey Presto It’s Rolf!’.

In 1964, he had his only child, Bindi. She will find that her father will give more attention to ‘a strange girl on the street than...to his own daughter.’

‘The Rolf Harris Show’

At 37, Rolf had his own show.

The following year, he received an MBE.

His next single was huge. ‘Two Little Boys’ – an old music hall number about childhood friends sent to war – becomes 1969’s Christmas number one.

‘Rolf on Saturday, OK?’

The next year, the BBC launches a Saturday teatime variety show centred around Rolf.  

In 1977, he was made an OBE at Buckingham Palace. His wife and daughter accompany him.  

His ‘Cartoon Time’ children’s show was in the BBC One schedules for a decade until 1989 and then ITV gave him another four years after that.

“I knew him growing up – Rolf Harris’ Cartoon Time, Rolf Harris on Saturday...He was on telly the whole time”
Nick Pisa Journalist

TV would make him so ubiquitous that at one point, he was the most recognised painter in the country, ahead of Rembrandt and Van Gogh.

“He’s always been a warm and friendly presence in everybody’s household. He’s always been there.”
Patrick Carlyon, Senior Journalist, Melbourne Herald Sun

But when ITV cancelled his show, Rolf was diagnosed with clinical depression.

He feared his career was finished.

However, he appeared at Glastonbury in 1993 with his cover of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven and he would go on to feature on the festival’s billing four more times.

And the BBC came to his rescue by having him host a one off show about animal welfare.

‘Animal Hospital’ was a surprise hit. Over the next decade, there was 19 series.

In 2002, while writing his autobiography, the star stated he had realised his pursuit of fame had adversely affected his ability to be a husband and a father. This realisation – which helped publicise his new book – didn’t stop him hosting new art programmes such as ‘Star Portraits with Rolf Harris’ and ‘Rolf on Art’.

In 2005, the BBC commissioned him to paint a portrait of the Queen. It was nearly universally criticised. Rolf took the attacks very personally. But it doesn’t stop his canvasses being snapped up for six-figure sums. He was made a CBE.

In 2012, the man who thought he was finished in TV received its highest honour - a BAFTA Fellowship. The cream of British entertainment gave a standing ovation and cheered him on as he mounted the stage. He told them how his grandfather had always said there was no money in painting and drawing but Harris had made a career of it.


But as much as he’s loved from afar by the public, some of those who worked with the man were left with a different impression.

When fellow performer Tony Porter amused a TV audience in between takes, Rolf – who had previously barely said a word to Tony, said to him, “I’ll do the funny stuff, mate”...

“...Until that moment, I thought he was just aloof. From that moment, I thought, nah, you’re an a******e.”

 

 

Crimes

“The key thing for me as a child was, if I met Rolf Harris, I’d think I know him. I’d never met him, but if I met him, because I’d seen him on TV, I would feel that I knew Rolf Harris.”

Peter Watt, National Services Director, NSPCC

 

In 1968, the same year Rolf Harris received his MBE, he assaulted his first young girl. Just a few years after his own daughter had been born; Harris abused a girl aged between 7 or 8. Harris was already well known by the time of her abuse. That’s why she came to see him at a community hall. She queued for his autograph. On finally meeting her idol in the flesh, he secretly sexually assaulted her. The child said later:

‘It took away my childhood. It affected every aspect of my life from the point he assaulted me.”

The victim was left with a sense of guilt and shame that her star had singled her out.

“The fact that Harris was so family friendly and so well known for working with children...is what’s caused most of the victims so much shock.” 

Liz Dux, Abuse Lawyer, Representing Harris’ Victims, Slater and Gordon

But Harris was only getting started. His main victim would be the best friend of his daughter, Bindi.

The 1980s saw his longest period of abuse. He preyed on his daughter’s best friend, grooming and molesting her. They lived opposite each other and she and Bindi had grown up together and had been in each other’s houses. But it was when the Harris’s went on holiday and took her, aged 13, on holiday to Australia that the abuse began.

His victim had never been away. She was without her parents. She was dependent on the Harris family.

Harris violently sexually assaulted her.

She was too terrified to resist him.

She was too traumatised to report him.  

When she returned home, the abuse continued.

He once abused her in his daughter’s bed, as his daughter slept beside them. By this point, she was fifteen. Harris was fifty.

In an attempt to block out the abuse, she started drinking.

Either oblivious or indifferent to her suffering, Harris continued to abuse others.  

His audacity was such that in the 1980s, he fronted a child protection awareness video in which he told children how to say no to predatory adults.

Actor Tony Porter worked with him and behind the scenes, saw how blatant Harris had become.

“The show was called Rolf. And it was just Rolf doing his shtick - bad puns and dad jokes. It wasn’t cutting edge comedy.”

Tony was in make-up and witnessed Harris reach for the make-up artist’s breasts. He acknowledged his lunge to Tony with a Hannibal Lecter like intake of breath. Believing it to be a one off, Tony didn’t report it.

“Harris presented a very warm, empathetic presence...he was very good with children, he was very good at cracking jokes and all the rest, yet in his spare time, he was also attacking women, and he was groping, and taking advantage...You can’t be both of those things.” 

Patrick Carlyon, Senior Journalist, Melbourne Herald Sun

Increasingly, in entertainment circles, Harris became known as ‘Dirty Rolf’. On one occasion, a well-known celebrity was at a Melbourne radio station when he saw a school group doing a tour. Knowing Harris was in the building he panicked, and ordered the school group out.

But it seemed that Harris’s dirty secret would stay known to only a very few.  

Investigation

CELEBRITY WITCH-HUNT?

Operation Yewtree was set up to investigate allegations arising from the Jimmy Savile scandal. Sexual predators were now themselves being pursued. And though the two had met, the investigation into Harris was not connected to the late DJ. The massive publicity around the Savile scandal caused more and more victims to come forward. Among them, were the victims of Harris.

The first to come forward was the one he abused the longest – his daughter’s friend. She was spurred on by the appearance of Harris in June 2012 at the Queens Golden Jubilee. She was furious that Harris, now in his eighties, was still revelling in the spotlight, when he had destroyed her life while she was just a teenager.

Detectives took her testimony and then gathered more and more evidence. 

In November 2012, just after receiving his Bafta fellowship - the crowning moment of his career - the police, after searching his home, questioned Harris.

In March 2013, they charged him.

But with Harris so beloved by so many, some asked whether those coming forward to name and shame Harris were simply joining the celebrity witch-hunt that seemed to attack every entertainer from the seventies.

And this trial by media did have an effect. Channel 5 removed two programmes featuring him from it’s schedules.

Rolf Harris was slowly but surely being exorcised from the world of entertainment.

In March 2015, Harris was arrested.

“We can’t be in a world in which somehow, if it happened, 20, 30 years ago...they can get away with it. That impact, that pain, didn’t just happen in 1968 or 1969 – in Rolf Harris case – it’s happening now for the victims. That’s why they went to court...to look him in the eyes again...because he wouldn’t admit his guilt. That’s why they did it: Because they are still feeling the pain today; and they wanted justice.” 
Peter Watt, National Services Director, NSPCC

In May 2015, a police report revealed that they were looking at 1,400 men – of them 261 were high profile individuals such as celebrities and politicians. 

Trial

“Rolf is innocent OK!”
Placard of support for Rolf Harris during his trial which echoed his 1970s variety show

As one of the most recognisable faces on television, and even after the Jimmy Savile revelations, it seemed inconceivable that Harris was guilty. Savile had always appeared eccentric and odd – but Rolf was the fun uncle you wished had brightened every birthday. Everyone who had grown up during the seventies, eighties and nineties had grown up with him.

When the trial of Rolf Harris began in May 2014 in Southwark Crown Court, London, many were sceptical that the cartoon drawing, didgeridoo playing performer was guilty of being a sexual predator.

Despite admitting that he had failed to be there for his wife and daughter, they were there for him nearly every day of the trial.

“I remember the first day starting and seeing Rolf Harris arrive at court. He emerged from a big people carrier...he did the same routine every day...accompanied by his wife, Alwen, and his daughter Bindi.”
Nick Pisa Journalist

For seven weeks, they entered and exited the court with him.

Harris faced 12 counts of indecent assault.  Seven of them were against his daughter’s best friend. In total, he was accused of assaulting four girls, the youngest of whom was seven or eight and the oldest 19, between 1968 and 1986.

He denied all the charges.

JEKYLL & HYDE

The prosecution portrayed him as a ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ character, able to in public be the affable Aussie everyone knew, but in private, be capable of appalling deviancy.

As witness after witness testified against him, Harris remained silent, instead he often sketched. (It is, in fact, illegal to draw in court – even court artists must draw from memory.)

Six women from Australia, New Zealand and Malta also gave evidence of him indecently assaulting them to illustrate his behaviour even though Harris couldn’t be prosecuted for those alleged offences in a British court. An Australian makeup artist described him as an octopus. The actor, Tony Porter, who had witnessed Harris groping a makeup artist, agreed to corroborate the story in court believing she was the lady he’d seen groped by Harris. It wasn’t. Harris had repeatedly taken advantage of women all over the world.

All of his victims, bar one, gave their evidence anonymously.

“These are women who are having to go through the most intimate items of evidence. And they all found that very, very distressing...the giving of your most intimate secrets to a packed courtroom.”
Liz Dux, Abuse Lawyer, Representing Harris’ Victims, Slater and Gordon

A lot of their evidence was too graphic for mainstream media to report. This gave some casual observers the false impression that the charges against Harris weren’t serious.

In the face of mounting evidence, the defence simply responded by labelling the witnesses liars. But in the case of the Cambridge victim, there was proof that maybe it was Harris who was lying.

The Cambridge victim was around 14 / 15 years old and had been assaulted by Harris in Cambridge in the mid 1970s. She was at a fun day on the green when Harris assaulted her. She told her friends but no one else. Harris denied ever having been to Cambridge.

The prosecution then played video footage of him at the event. He was clearly visible taking part in a swimming event.

When it came to Harris giving evidence, he even sang at one point. Many were angered by this latest performance of Rolf Harris.

“There was just no remorse in him...He thought his fame was going to get him off and (he was) singing and behaving in a way that was just absolutely indifferent.”

Liz Dux, Abuse Lawyer, Representing Harris’ Victims, Slater and Gordon

‘LOVE ROLF’

But the prosecution had the difficulty of proving their case when little physical evidence existed. There was no DNA and normally in such cases there is no documentary evidence at all.

But one family had kept a letter written to them by Harris. It was a turning point in the trial.

“The nail...was this rather damning letter which he had written to the father of his daughter’s best friend in which he said what he thought was going on which was just basically reciprocated and that she was a willing partner.”
Nick Pisa Journalist

In it, Harris had written, ‘I said, why didn’t you just say no?’

He claimed she replied, ‘how could I say no to the great television star Rolf Harris’

The letter ended with the words, ‘love Rolf’.

At the end of June, Rolf Harris was found guilty of 12 counts of indecent assault.

“It’s taken 30 years, but at least justice has been done.”
Tony Porter

A less self-indulgent human being would have admitted his guilt. Instead, Harris had put his victims through yet more traumas by making them bear witness to his crimes publicly.

Mr Justice Sweeney said the 84 year old entertainer had taken advantage of his celebrity status and had shown ‘no remorse’. Harris stared straight ahead as he was jailed.

He was sentenced to five years and nine months.

The victims wanted him to serve longer in jail and were bitterly disappointed.

But the judge was restrained by the fact that sentencing was less severe back when the offences were committed. 

Aftermath

“I’m a very lucky man”
Harris’s last words at his BAFTA acceptance speech

His victims believed his sentence was too short, and that, coupled with his lack of remorse, spurred many of them to consider taking a civil action against him. This, in turn, has brought forth more alleged victims.

In July 2014, Harris’ crowning career moment, his BAFTA Fellowship, was annulled.

It was just one of many, many honours of which he was stripped.

Even in the suburb of Bassendean where he grew up, portraits of their now infamous inhabitant were removed.

In June 2015, a letter emerged allegedly written by Harris in prison. The author referred to his victims as “money grabbing wenches.” If authentic, it showed how little the perpetrator understood the suffering he had caused. 

The solicitor of his victims said that Harris should be denied parole after he reportedly called them ‘slimy little woodworm’ in a jail-penned song.

The following month, the Crown Prosecution Service said it would work with police to see if there was enough evidence to bring further charges against the 84 year old.

 “In 1995, he was asked ‘What is your greatest fear?’ His answer was, ‘Not being loved’. Well frankly, Rolf Harris is loved by nobody anymore”
Patrick Carlyon, Senior Journalist, Melbourne Herald Sun

Rolf Harris had a career in which he did nearly everything.

Over almost six decades, he performed comedy, made music and created art.

The boy from Bassendean was awarded some of Britain’s highest honours by the Queen herself. 

He is currently serving a 5 year, 9 month prison sentence at Her Majesty’s Pleasure, Stafford.

On 12th February 2016, he was charged with an additional seven counts of indecent assault. The Crown Prosecution service said of the new charges: "We have concluded that there is sufficient evidence and it is in the public interest for Mr Harris to be charged with seven counts of indecent assault."