“Guilty on all counts, Your Honour.” So said Rolf Harris, weeping in contrition.
He uttered those self-incriminating words and shed those remorseful tears on a television talk show in 2011, as he told the smarmily sympathetic Piers Morgan about his neglect of his wife Alwen and daughter Bindi, left behind as he frolicked round the world to further his career and amuse his fans. The solemn plea was a self-dramatising gesture and the tears may have been histrionic too, but here was unexpected evidence that the goofy Rolf – so familiar on television since the 1950s that he had become an honorary member of most British families – might be a less agreeable, more tormented character than he appeared. His daughter, he told Morgan, chastised him when she was a teenager because he was perpetually available to the passers-by who accosted him in the street but never had time for her and her mother. His closest relatives “said they didn’t know who I was. They said I was a total stranger.” He seemed to be wondering whether they were right: could he also be a stranger to himself?
Rolf was happy to plead guilty in front of a studio audience, whose applause instantly pardoned him. But in January this year, when he was charged with 12 indecent assaults on four young girls, his response was a forthright “Not guilty”, and at his trial the barrister defending him attacked his accusers, now middle-aged women, as fantasists or gold-diggers and picked apart their fuzzy memories of events that dated back to the 1970s. It was not enough to rehabilitate a man who once proudly called himself “everyone’s favourite Aussie”.
Following his initial arrest in March 2013, Rolf disappeared from view for a few months. Then in August, just before a bail hearing, he performed at a music festival in Hampshire. A roar of acclaim revived him, and gave him the courage to joke about his legal predicament. “I would like to thank you all for my support,” he said. He then corrected the pronoun, smuttily capitalising on his slip with a reference to the cumbersome belts and adhesive pads that used to be prescribed for elderly gents troubled by hernias: “Thanks for your support, I will always wear it.” Rolf’s British public is, in more ways than one, his truss. That dependency is mutual, and his travails have alarmed and bewildered a country that used to be held together by deference and discretion and is now, after the covered-up horrors exposed by the investigation of Jimmy Savile’s crimes, forced to reconsider those questionable principles.
Last year the record producer Vince Hill bolstered Rolf’s reputation by calling him “a national monument”, and in her opening statement in court the prosecutor Sasha Wass described him as a “pillar of society”, so irreproachable that the BBC had persuaded the Queen to allow him to paint her; a message on a Facebook page defending him announced “In Rolf We Trust”, a paraphrase of the pious assertion “In God We Trust” that is inscribed on every US dollar bill. But gods can let down their believers, and currencies can lose their value. Before the trial began, my accountant told me that his wife’s limited-edition print of a painting by Rolf, a view of Durham Cathedral, had been demoted from its location above their fireplace and stowed in a kitchen corner. “If there’s a guilty verdict,” he said, “it goes into the garage forever!” At Buckingham Palace, oblivion had already overtaken Rolf: after his arrest, his portrait of the Queen conveniently went missing.
When Rolf’s agent Jan Kennedy took him on as a client during the 1970s, she remarked that, thanks to television, he had been her companion since childhood: “I’ve known him all my life – but then, hasn’t everyone?” Well, yes and no. If Rolf is a stranger to his own family, the rest of us have little chance of knowing who he really is. It’s even uncertain what he is, since this one-man variety show has had so many successive careers, punctuated by timely self-reinventions.
With a diffident shrug, Rolf describes himself as a lucky amateur who happens to be “good with people” and owes his success to geniality rather than genius. He is too modest, overlooking the force of will that has driven him all along. At school in Perth – where his parents settled after migrating from Wales in the 1920s – he was always “being singled out as the best in the class at this, that and the other”, he remembers. Yet his boisterous over-achieving was not unanimously admired. “Nobody likes a show-off,” snarled one teacher: Australia back then was egalitarian with a vengeance. “I was different from other kids,” Rolf has recalled, adding that his father, Crom – a quiet, withdrawn man, employed as a turbine driver at a power station, which can’t have been much relief from life at home with Rolf the domestic dynamo – encouraged his eccentricity and told him to “enjoy your difference”. That’s a little implausible, since Australian parents in the 1930s seldom set out to raise crops of tall poppies. Rolf was his own creation, and his over-exuberant personality exceeded the normal requirements of social life.
At the age of ten, on a family holiday, he learnt to yodel during the drive across the Nullarbor Plain, and in Sydney terrorised his grandmother by hiding in the bathroom and ululating at her. “I never heard that child make a pleasant sound,” said the tremulous old woman. In those days he often barked like a rabid dog, and he still inserts the occasional “woof” into his conversation. He sings, very nasally, and plays a range of instruments, but for him music was basically an unbridled din. His wife came to tolerate his glottal shunting, snorting and gulping as the soundtrack of their shared existence. “Rolf has always made strange noises,” she once resignedly remarked.
Performing was a logical continuation of his childish exhibitionism. His first field of endeavour was the swimming pool, where he triumphed as Australian Junior Backstroke Champion in 1946. Out of the water, he successfully auditioned for Australia’s Amateur Hour, regaling radio audiences with the manic scatting that he called his “virtuoso boogie-woogie”; as well, at the age of 16 he precociously entered a painting – a self-portrait, of course – for the Archibald Prize. In a poem written for Rolf’s 70th birthday, Clive James called him “the incarnation of / The Australian spirit, spry yet down to earth”, but that tribute muffles Rolf’s raucously high-spirited behaviour. In his heyday he was not so much spry as bizarre, and far from being down to earth he usually seemed to be in orbit somewhere above it, bounced about by the jolting rhythms of his wobbleboard. Level, taciturn, dun-coloured Australia could not contain this over-energised jester for long.
A young Rolf Harris. Photo: rolfharris.com
In 1952, Rolf sailed off to London to attend art school. On the way, he busked for the captive audience on board the ship; on arrival, he made it his personal mission to enliven the stiff, staid British. At his boarding house in Earls Court, he erupted into the breakfast room each morning, barefoot and wearing only shorts, to greet his fellow lodgers with a megaphonic reveille. “How’s it going?” he used to yell. “C’mon, give us a big smile!” The fortress of frosty reserve did not crumble.
Rolf’s unglamorous art school in South London bored him, so he strayed into cabaret and performed with his accordion in an expat den called the Down Under Club. Soon, bluffing his way into a studio, he popped up on television, where he began by nattering matily to a puppet called Fuzz. Towards the end of the 1950s came his forays into the hit parade, with the droning ballad ‘Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport’ and the outback aubade ‘Sun Arise’. By the late 1960s, Saturday evenings on the BBC belonged to The Rolf Harris Show, and on weekday afternoons his cartoon programs made him the nation’s designated child-minder. A flickering box had supplanted the hearth as the source of conviviality in British households; leering cheerily out of it, Rolf doodled caricatures or graphic puzzles, and like a latter-day Welsh bard organised singalongs that were accompanied by the didgeridoo or the jew’s harp or the buzzing Stylophone or a whoop-whooping length of plywood. In addition he whistled, drummed on his face or used his tonsils as a percussion instrument, babbling rhythmically in a nonsensical coloratura that could be transcribed as “bumph, dee, bumph, dee, chuph, chuph, bumph, bumph, bumph, brrrrrrr” or “wunna wanna worree wa wether”.
His body functioned as a magician’s bag of tricks, and for his song about Jake the Peg – reprised, to the prosecutor’s astonishment, at his trial – he grew a third leg, the precursor of Sir Les Patterson’s impertinent trouser snake. When the BBC allowed Rolf to stray into the commercial sector, he advertised house paint, car insurance and the benefits of drinking milk. Purportedly good with people, he seemed to be especially trustworthy with children. He therefore appeared in a video to recommend swimming lessons, splashing in a pool with some under-age playmates, and in 1985 made another educational video in which he advised a group of tiny tots against allowing adults to touch their sacrosanct bodies.
Throughout all this, Rolf’s most significant achievement may be that he endeared himself to his adoptive country without toning down his larrikin act. When he arrived in London, Australians either had to pass themselves off as Brits or else – like the comedian Bill Kerr, the butt of Tony Hancock’s jibes in the radio series Hancock’s Half Hour – be treated as village idiots. Rolf’s mother had coached him to smooth and round out his vowels, but he resisted her tuition; in London he was told that he sounded like “some sort of second-rate cockney” and advised, if he wanted work on the BBC, to “lose that atrocious accent”. When he recorded ‘Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport’ in 1957, he even had to bully the Australian back-up singers into using their own lazy drawl instead of a fake American twang: “I don’t want ‘tar mah kangaroo dayown, sporrrt’,” he told them.
Outfacing the snobs and cultural cringers, Rolf turned his supposed disadvantage into a trademark: he succeeded, as he has declared, by being “unashamedly Australian”. Yet this phrase, which he uses twice in his autobiography, is as revealing as his gratuitous confession of guilt to Piers Morgan. It hints that he retains the scars of early humiliations, that he is aware he hails both from the bottom of the world and, as his father sternly warned him, from the bottom class in society – at ease with the children or animals on his television shows, but less confident in the company of grown-ups.
“Sun arise, she bring in the morning”: that is Rolf’s official gospel. His song personifies the sun as a woman, “fluttering her skirts all around”, and relies on the torrid matriarch to brighten the world and dispel its gloom. Such solar good humour can be oppressive. In 2010, captioning a photograph of his geeky 17-year-old self, Rolf said that he resembled “the sort of guy who’d be all over you like a rash, smiling fiercely at every opportunity”, and admitted that the prospect was “scary!”
This ebullience is not the whole truth about him: the affable Rolf has a shadow self. Over the years he has let slip anecdotes about his past, clues to a covert legacy of guilt and shame. Rolf’s Aunt Pixie intimated that his father Crom had been sexually abused as a 15-year-old while working as a cabin boy on a boat bound from Cardiff to South America. Crom returned home after four months, now – in Rolf’s words – “absolutely hating” his own father, who had sent him off on the voyage. Rather than settling down again with his parents, he shipped out to Australia. Something is missing from a tale that Rolf admits is “garbled”, because Crom refused to discuss the unforgivable wrong his father had done him. Instead he jokingly passed on the grievance to the next generation, miming a little scene of castration during a portrait sitting: whenever Rolf reached out with his index finger to dab a section of paint or to signal some passing felicity of light, Crom waited till the digit got within close range, then chomped at it with his teeth.
Rolf’s mother Marge was an ambitious woman, a gold medallist in mathematics at school in Wales and a qualified analytical chemist. Though she found little outlet for her talents in scrubby, flyblown Bassendean, she rigidly upheld genteel standards, and when playing tennis served the ball underarm because she thought it unladylike to expose her armpit. At the age of four Rolf did what he calls “a super drawing of a man with no clothes on – he was standing there absolutely naked and urinating”. When his mother saw it, she rewarded him with a hiding. The incident forged a connection between art and indecency: Rolf had imagined what he was not allowed to look at. Even music, pure because abstract, is in his view capable of obscenity. Trying out a didgeridoo on television in 1966, he said, “What about that for a lovely sound?” as an eructation emerged from the tube. “It’s used for luring young maidens out into the bush,” he explained, then quickly added, “Sorry, no, forget that!”
As Rolf approached adolescence, his mother took responsibility for imparting the inflammatory forbidden knowledge to him. As he told TV Times in the 1970s, she decided that “I should see her naked to let me know it was all natural”, and at her suggestion “we had baths together”. She supplemented the demonstration by buying Rolf an illustrated guide to the facts of life, then “stayed in the room while I tried to read it”.
Since she had seemingly encouraged such intimacy, Rolf reacted in the same way when he saw her in a swimsuit she had knitted, with a fringe of tassels below the waist. In the water, the dangling strands swelled up, which prompted him to say, “They look like pubic hairs.” Affronted, his mum belted him hard across the face. “I was 30 years old when that happened,” he adds in his memoir. It’s the most shocking sentence in the book, and it explains where his song ‘I’ve Lost My Mummy’ comes from: here a child cries inconsolably in a department store, afraid of having been abandoned, only to bawl even louder when his mother returns to collect him and gives him “a hefty whack” as punishment for wandering off. Rolf’s mother did her work only too well. In another song he attests to having lived a spotless life, at least until he met “my two good amigos / Nick Teen and Al K Hall”. There’s a coy displacement here, since drink and tobacco were never his vices.
Marriage and fatherhood came with other, built-in interdictions. In 1958 Alwen brought her pet poodle to the wedding as an honorary bridesmaid, and Rolf had difficulty dislodging it from the nuptial bed. His wife clearly needed its company and its morale-boosting devotion. Rolf much later discovered a diary she wrote in 1959 in Perth, where he was helping to set up the first local television station. Alwen, he found, felt so displaced and ignored, so nullified by the boredom of her castaway life, that she had contemplated suicide; at the time, he simply hadn’t noticed. In 1964, hours after the induced birth of their daughter, he flew from London to New York to start a concert tour. When Alwen joined him shortly afterwards, bringing the baby, he failed to recognise her at the airport, and explained his distraction by pointing out that she had dyed her hair.
A subsequent episode in Rolf’s autobiography, which he may now regret having made public, deals with transgressive impulses that the law warns us all to control. Bathing Bindi in their New York hotel, after having photographed Alwen as she breastfed the child, Rolf marvels at the “minute size of everything”, and lets his eyes travel from Bindi’s neck to her “delicate shoulders” and smooth tummy. Then he nears a border zone, trespasses across it, and backtracks: “I reached her genitals and skipped that part. My brain was saying, ‘Don’t be ridiculous. Why are you so uptight about nudity?’ I couldn’t help it.” The taboo is artificial, but all the same necessary; those who defile innocence may do so because they envy it and want to share in it.
Rolf at the easel. Photo: rolfharris.com
The Rolf Harris Show featured a chorus line of girls in micro-miniskirts and hotpants, and was nicknamed The Twinkling Crotch Show. Backstage, the shy host says, he “tried not to watch – or be seen watching” the cavalcade of semi-clad young women. Throughout one season he flamboyantly flirted with “a tall, leggy brunette called Glor, short for Gloria”, who finally chastened him when they were sitting with some colleagues in a hotel lounge. After listening to a bout of his amorous drollery, she reached across, “unzipped my fly, put her hand into my underpants, took a firm grip of my old fella and flipped it out for all to see”. What, she asked, did he intend to do about his supposed infatuation (which apparently hadn’t extended to that flipped, floppy member)? Rolf turned “seven consecutive shades of red”, just as he flushed scarlet when his mother slapped him; then, in an image that begs for psychoanalytical exegesis, he wished he could “dissolve into a grease spot and soak into the carpet”. Gloria suffered no further harassment.
A cartoon by Rolf represents grown-up sexual relations as a balance of terror, predicated on the threat of pain. In the drawing, an angry blitz of black scrawls surrounds a glaringly spotlit dental chair. A male dentist aims his drill at the gaping mouth of a prone female patient, whose teeth are as razorlike as a shark’s; she defends herself by grabbing his crotch and squeezing what ought to be his testicles, though it looks as if she has fastened onto a bulbous penis. The rearing organ doesn’t appear to be discouraged, but the drill is paused in midair, hesitating before it ventures into that vagina dentata. The caption to the drawing is “We’re not going to hurt one another, are we?” Cuddles, hugs and tickles, like those to which Rolf initially treated his alleged victims, are – at least in theory – exempt from such nasty adult recriminations.
In the caricatures Rolf usually adds to his autograph, his face consists of a grinning mouth sandwiched between his goggles and his goatee. His smile is evangelical, as well as something of an artwork: he often warned sulky children who cried or frowned that they were “sculpting their faces for the future” and ruining their chances of looking benign in old age. Despite this amiability, his glasses and beard tell another story, because both, in Rolf’s case, were disguises. Spectacles, as he commented when taking his own off to paint a self-portrait on television, reflect light and thereby deflect attention from the eyes of whoever you are painting; they interfere with your interrogation of another human being. As for whiskers, Rolf first experimented with them in 1949 when cast as a sailor in a musical at teacher’s college in Perth. He grew them again on his way to England in 1952, protectively preparing a face with which to meet the new faces he would encounter there. His beard was a frame for his grin, and it also served, like a garden hedge, as a barricade to deter intruders. His wife preferred him with that cosy camouflage: when she first saw him clean-shaven, Alwen likened him to “an American car with all the chrome removed” – an extraordinary image, which implied that beneath the decorative trim there was only a noisy, revved-up engine and a motorised mouth that puffed out hot air through its grille.
Late in the 1980s, when Rolf’s act began to seem antiquated, his cover version of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’ updated him. “It was very square to say you liked Rolf Harris before that,” he complacently noted. “Suddenly it was very cool to say you liked Rolf Harris.” Musical performances at the Glastonbury Festival established him as a harmless, gormless figure of fun, immune to the irony of the ovations he was receiving from the muddy mobs of rock fans.
Rolf’s original audience had grown up, so in 1994 he took on a more avuncular role and began a ten-year run on Animal Hospital. Like Christ, he had suffered the little children to come unto him in Cartoon Time; now, ministering to poorly quadrupeds, he turned into St Francis. In an episode featuring a euthanised Alsatian called Floss, audiences sniffled as a teary Rolf consoled the dog’s sobbing master – “the first time,” he later announced, “that viewers in England had seen two adult males unashamedly crying on TV”. Once a festive, mischief-making imp, he had matured into a shrewd orchestrator of the nation’s tenderest emotions. In 2001 he reverted to an earlier vocation, setting up his easel to pastiche Degas and Monet in the first series of Rolf on Art, a long-running show that encouraged and empowered amateur painters. As a result, the ageing Rolf joined the ranks of the Old Masters: in 2012 a Liverpool museum sold record numbers of tickets to a retrospective exhibition of his work. “Rembrandt, Rubens and Rolf, all in the Walker Art Gallery now,” said a fawning BBC reporter.
“The world has learned from him,” Clive James declared at the end of the birthday poem he addressed to Rolf the moral mentor, “and I likewise.” Accepting his near-priestly status, the Church of England invited Rolf to write a preface to a booklet that explained the notion of bereavement to children: “G’day kids” was his salutation before he brought his little readers the bad news about mortality. His wife’s brother suggests that Rolf may have undergone a conversion when he witnessed the healing feats of the Indian “godman” Sathya Sai Baba (who was himself accused of sexually abusing his young male acolytes, to whom he offered his penis as a token of blessing). Short of performing miracles, Rolf said that his purpose on earth was “to spread a little love and affection wherever I can” and “to talk to everyone and be accessible”. Accessibility, however, is a two-way street, and in several of the incidents described by the prosecution in its case against him a child’s request for an autograph allegedly led almost immediately to molestation.
In 2005 his painting of the Queen conferred respectability on Rolf, but during the sessions he did his best to be unrespectable, as if still teasing his prim mother. Rolf’s music is about his body’s cheeky production of sound, and painting licenses him to make an almost scatological mess. Explaining his technique, he told the Queen that when he confronts a pristine canvas his first move is to “kill the white”, dirtying it with a puddle of colour. “Extraordinary,” she remarked with her usual equanimity. To cover up his missteps, Rolf tends to splash turpentine around, so he asked the Queen if she disliked the smell. Unfamiliar with its resinous stink, she gave a wary reply: “Well, we’ll tell, won’t we, soon?” Later, flicking his brushes, he whispered to himself about the risk he was taking: “Imagine if I sloshed paint all over the Queen!” She remained unblemished, but Rolf’s banter – about domestic pets relieving themselves on the carpet, and the stench of dissected horses in the studio of the 18th-century equine painter George Stubbs – flirted with impropriety.
By now Rolf had attained the rank of national treasure, but rumours circulated about his octopoid gropings, and detractors who resented his ineffable good humour teamed up to vilify him on a scurrilous internet forum. One anonymous poster claimed to have seen him twist a puppy’s paw on camera to make it squeal, another imagined him shooting sparrows with an air rifle in his garden beside the Thames near Windsor. A conspiracy theorist, having read The Da Vinci Code too often, decoded “didgeridoos” as an anagram of “O did God rise” and took this as proof that Rolf belonged to the occult sect of the Knights Templar. The most demented of these fantasies sent him on tour to Cambodia, where – as an “unofficial roving ambassador of evil” – he allegedly played cricket with Pol Pot, using human skulls as balls.
Otherwise Rolf’s audiences took him at face value; he alone dared to let the benign mask slip. He did so on one of his painting programs, while attempting a self-portrait in the style of van Gogh. After two hours of staring at his reflection in the mirror, he noted that his smile “starts to crack and eventually falls off with a crash!” In its absence, the man Rolf painted is an ogre, considerably more baleful than Baron Hardup, the curmudgeon he played in the Christmas pantomime Cinderella. Without glasses, his eyes stare hypnotically, and a brow arches in cold appraisal; his jowls, like a mastiff’s, seem to reverberate with a low and menacing growl; his mouth turns down at the corners, sourly grimacing. Here, in bright acid green and bruised purple, is a glimpse of what the prosecutor at his trial referred to as his “dark side”. You can see why the women who testified against Rolf said they were “terrified” or “petrified” of him when, as adolescents, he had them in his grip.
In a letter written in 1997 to the father of one of his alleged victims, read out in court near the start of proceedings, Rolf quoted the naïve, intimidated teenager’s description of him as “the great television star Rolf Harris”. At the time, he saw no reason to disagree with that estimation: he was irresistible because powerful, untouchable because universally popular. But the domestic screen has recently lost the authority it once conferred on its cherished performers. Media today are interactive, with online gossip challenging the impunity that figures like Rolf once enjoyed. A website that conducts a vendetta against child abusers named him as a suspect days before the police announced that he had been questioned, and the first witness at his trial decided to make her legal complaint after seeing him at the Queen’s jubilee concert in 2012: it seemed, she said, that she could not “get away from this bloody man”, who was invading her home every time she turned on the telly. She completed Rolf’s humiliation by incidentally disclosing that his penis was “very small, very very small”. The prosecutor argued that fame was Rolf’s shield, but it no longer has that protective function: in the tabloids and in courts of law, diminutive old fellas can be hauled out and used in evidence against their wincing owners.
Giving evidence, Rolf’s accusers and the supplementary witnesses called by the prosecution literally de-famed him. Their accounts alleging hasty, fumbling assaults in Hawaii, Darwin, Auckland, Malta, Portsmouth and Cambridge combined into the sad tale of a primal lapse, a moment when paradise was irretrievably lost: “All the happiness was gone,” said a woman he allegedly molested when she was seven. In her summation, Sasha Wass called Rolf a “sinister pervert”, who employed his charm as a form of mesmerism and relished his demonic power over his victims. No longer disseminating sunshine, he was now portrayed as the source of all evil, responsible for the post-traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism, bulimia or aversion to tongue-kissing that had overtaken his accusers in later life. The decade he spent murmuring “Poor little blighter” to the internees on Animal Hospital counted for less when set against his interest in a brusquely canine approach to courtship, exposed by a saucy postcard he sent the first complainant. On the card, a beagle imparts its life lessons, which include a recommendation that if you want sex you should beg, with the added advice that “a cold nose in the crotch can be effective”. Twisting the knife, the addressee remarked that when he came to visit during her adolescence, “he never greeted the family dog”.
Rolf’s grovelling letter to this woman’s father seems genuinely anguished, but it still hankers after the sentimental simplicities and quick fixes of his television programs. In Rolf on Art he advises novice painters to use oils, which allows them to wipe out a mistake “or let it dry and paint over it”. Off the canvas, erasure is not so easy. As he tells the aggrieved parent in his letter, “You can’t go back and change things you have done in this life – I wish to God I could.” What troubles him most, however, is the damage to his self-esteem. “As I do these animal programmes,” he writes, “I see the unconditional love that dogs give to their owners and I wish I could learn to love myself again.” It’s an obtuse, coldly self-regarding formulation. Dogs do not dote on themselves; misinterpreting animal psychology, Rolf identifies both with the adoring pet and its adored owner, which makes him his own most fervent fan. His appeal to be reprieved from self-loathing so he can love himself again reveals – somewhat crassly given the context – that narcissism is the norm for him.
Arriving at court each morning, flanked by his wan, strained daughter and his stoical wife, Rolf sported a succession of ever more iridescent ties, bright reminders of the rising sun with her fluttering skirts. Perhaps this blaze of colour proclaimed that he had done nothing wrong: as he says in his confessional letter, the affair with his friend’s daughter “progressed from a feeling of love and friendship”. He may still think, as he did when bathing Bindi, that the restrictions we impose on desire and imagination – two forces that collude inside us – are unnatural. Or there might be a more vindictive intent behind the scenarios described by the aggrieved women: were such attacks on innocence meant to console him for his own loss of it? A grey, stooped, portly Peter Pan, Rolf compulsively re-enacts a childhood that ended prematurely the first time around.
Art is an uncensored playground of fantasy, safe so long as you have a bottle of turps and plenty of rags close at hand; the problems start when art’s rampant liberties extend into life. One of the most perceptive comments about Rolf was made by a conservationist who worked with him on a wildlife program in Scotland. After watching him fraternise with an armada of dolphins, the scientist said, “If he wasn’t well known, he’d be quite mad.” Like Shakespearean fools, celebrities are free to be crazy or zany, and we dispense them from the customary rules about manners and morals. But this permission is apt to be revoked abruptly when the police arrive. Is it Rolf who has double standards, or society?
Peter Conrad’s most recent book is How the World Was Won. His Myths of the Day, based on a BBC radio series, will be published in 2016.
“Guilty on all counts, Your Honour.” So said Rolf Harris, weeping in contrition.
He uttered those self-incriminating words and shed those remorseful tears on a television talk show in 2011, as he told the smarmily sympathetic Piers Morgan about his neglect of his wife Alwen and daughter Bindi, left behind as he frolicked round the world to further his career and amuse his fans. The solemn plea was a self-dramatising gesture and the tears may have been histrionic too, but here was unexpected evidence that the goofy Rolf – so familiar on television since the 1950s that he had become an honorary member of most British families – might be a less agreeable, more tormented character than he appeared. His daughter, he told Morgan, chastised him when she was a teenager because he was perpetually available to the passers-by who accosted him in the street but...