“One of the most loved, respected and enduring figures in British showbusiness”. That’s how Rolf Harris is described in an old publicity email I’ve found from 2009, announcing his appearance as guest host on Have I Got News For You. “I’m very excited to sit in the hot seat – but also rather nervous, as Paul [Merton] and Ian [Hislop] are both sharp as a tack.”
Not so sharp that they were able to expose him as a raging, predatory paedo, though. But then, who would have guessed? There were no rumours about Rolf in the way that there were rumours about Jimmy Savile.
As far as most of us were concerned, Rolf Harris was little short of being a national treasure. We’d grown up with him, via Two Little Boys and Rolf’s Cartoon Time (“Can you tell what it is, yet?”), then, later, through his pets-in-peril series Animal Hospital. We’d warmed to his lovable appearances at Glastonbury, where he played Stairway To Heaven on his wobble board.
Everyone was taken in, from the National Gallery’s Charles Saumarez Smith who granted his paintings a retrospective in 2002, to the Queen (whose 80th birthday portrait Harris painted, rather hideously, in 2005).
But when the prosecution was announced I can’t say I was surprised. Until I met Harris personally, I was a massive fan. I’d seen him doing Two Little Boys at his first Glastonbury and, like most of the audience, had shed a tear for my lost childhood. So when the chance came to interview him around the time he was doing Animal Hospital, I could scarcely wait to meet my hero.
That “Jekyll & Hyde” personality that was mentioned in the court case: this was exactly the impression I got. Before the interview, I’d seen him on camera being sweet as pie. But once the camera was off, he was cold and prickly and remote.
He didn’t want to talk about his time compering the Beatles (for 16 nights in 1963, after befriending George Martin who produced his early records), nor about playing didgeridoo on Kate Bush’s The Dreaming, nor about any of the other things he had done in his extraordinary career. There was no joy, no enthusiasm, no warmth, just an empty husk with a familiar beard.
But I’m sure I said nice things about him when I wrote up the interview all the same. It’s how these bastards get away with it. Everyone is so determined that the Rolf Harris they meet in the flesh should resemble the lovable character they know from TV that when he falls short they lie to themselves or persuade themselves that they just caught him on an off day.