The disgraced TV personality died aged 93 on 10th May 2023, after suffering from a long illness.
Crimes That Shook Britain (S6, E1) examines how popular entertainer Rolf Harris was exposed as a child abuser. You can watch the episode and all eight seasons of Crimes That Shook Britain on Crime + Investigation Play.
From beloved children’s entertainer bestowed with royal honours, to convicted child sex offender, Rolf Harris’ fall from grace was rapid and dramatic. His television career spanned seven decades as he entertained generation after generation. Behind the camera, however, he had a dark side; a deviant sexual predator who continuously exploited his position to abuse innocent victims.
We take a look back over the life and crimes of Rolf Harris, dissecting the downfall of a man who was once considered a national treasure.
Born and raised in Australia
Rolf Harris was born in March 1930 and raised in a suburb of Perth, Western Australia. A natural sportsman, Harris spent a great deal of his youth outdoors or in a swimming pool. He became the Australian Junior 100 metres Backstroke Champion in 1946, however, he failed to make the national team for the 1948 London Olympics.
Harris was also a keen portrait artist and at the age of just 16, held exhibitions of his work in his hometown. A natural show-off, it was clear from a young age that Harris liked an audience.
Harris moves to the UK
Harris moved to London in 1952 when he was 22. He enrolled at art school where he met his future wife, Alwen Hughes.
A year later, Harris auditioned for a BBC TV show, using his talents as an artist to help teach children how to draw. He was a natural in front of the camera and it wasn’t long before he was in high demand.
Fame and fortune
With art school drifting into the rear-view mirror, Harris concentrated on his new television career. He created a variety of characters that would magically come to life as he drew them. One of his most famous was a cheeky boy called Willoughby.
Working across both the BBC and commercial channels, Harris became a household name along with his catchphrase, ‘Can you tell what it is yet?’
He then crossed genres into the music world, releasing several novelty songs in the 60s such as 'Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport’ and ‘Two Little Boys’. The former featured Harris’ trademark instrument, the wobble board, whilst the latter was the Christmas Number One in 1969.
Later career and awards
Throughout the 80s and into the 2000s, Rolf continued hosting TV shows and even performed at Glastonbury on several occasions. A dry spell led to Rolf being diagnosed with clinical depression but he found his feet again hosting the surprise hit ‘Animal Hospital’.
In 2005, he was commissioned to paint a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II and in 2012 he performed at her Diamond Jubilee concert.
During his career, he was awarded an MBE, OBE and CBE by Buckingham Palace, as well achieving TV’s highest honour, a BAFTA fellowship.
Harris married Alwen in 1958 and the pair had their only child, a girl named Bindi, in 1964. A workaholic, Harris spent little time with his family. At one point, his wife even contemplated suicide due to the boredom of being married to an absent spouse.
Harris later stated his regrets over his absenteeism, putting the pursuit of fame ahead of his duties as a father and husband.
Although Harris had been a constant warm and friendly presence in the British public's household for decades, those who knew him personally had witnessed a different side to the entertainer.
‘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.
In entertainment circles, Harris was known as ‘Dirty Rolf’. One actor who worked with him witnessed his attempts to grope the breasts of a make-up artist.
Just a few years after the birth of his daughter, Harris began his attacks. His first alleged victim was a girl aged between seven and eight. After queuing for his autograph at a community hall in the late 60s, the girl was sexually assaulted by Harris. The child said later, ‘It took away my childhood. It affected every aspect of my life from the point he assaulted me.’
The 80s saw Harris’ longest period of abuse. A neighbourhood friend of Bindi’s often came over to the Harris household and at the age of 13, she accompanied them on a family holiday to Australia. It was during this trip that Rolf Harris began his abuse. Violently sexually assaulting her whilst they were away, the teenager was too afraid and too traumatised to report him.
The abuse continued for years back in the UK and on one occasion Harris molested her as she lay next to a sleeping Bindi.
Victims come forward
In the wake of Operation Yewtree (the investigation set up in late 2012 looking into sexual abuse allegations against Jimmy Saville and others), victims of Rolf Harris felt empowered to come forward.
The first victim to speak out was the one Harris abused the longest, it was his daughter’s friend. Others soon followed.
Arrest and trial
In March 2013, Harris was arrested and in August he was charged with multiple counts of indecent assault dating between 1968 and 1986.
His trial began at Southwark Crown Court, London, on 6th May 2014. Alwen and Bindi accompanied Harris every day of the seven-week trial with the entertainer denying all charges against him. Several witnesses testified against him, including six women from Australia, New Zealand and Malta.
On 30th June, Harris was found guilty of all 12 counts of indecent assault.
Harris was sentenced to five years and nine months in prison with the presiding judge declaring, ‘You have shown no remorse for your crimes at all. Your reputation now lies in ruins, you have been stripped of your honours but you have no one to blame but yourself.’
In the aftermath of the verdict, Harris was stripped of his royal honours as well as his BAFTA fellowship. Further charges of indecent assault were brought against him during his prison sentence, but he was acquitted of them.
The victims wanted more prison time for their abuser but after just three years, Harris was released from HM Prison Stafford in May 2017.
In November 2017, Harris' conviction for assault on the young girl at the community hall was overturned because it was ‘unsafe’. All other 11 convictions remain.
Now aged 92, Harris is believed to reside in Berkshire where his health is said to be in decline.
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