A character sketch of Rolf Harris
I remember the moment clearly, a distinct if fleeting discomfort and an equally quick laugh to defuse the puzzled recoil.
It was late 2008 and my photographer colleague Mike Bowers and I had just spent a morning with Rolf Harris. It was the eve of one of his last tours in Australia. He’d come directly from an early morning TV appearance on the BBC and after breakfast with us was due to be whisked off to yet another London TV studio. His Australian schedule would have daunted a man half his age, and included a series of shows at the Sydney Opera House, a keynote lecture at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, the launch of a new illustrated edition of Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport and a literary lunch for our then employer, The Sydney Morning Herald.
Determined not to keep the great man waiting, Mike and I set out early to beat the traffic and arrived at the Trafalgar Hotel in central London with plenty of time to spare. It was a typically dark, grey and drizzly day in the British capital but you couldn’t have missed Harris if you’d been blind. Dressed in an electric blue blazer, turquoise shirt and a truly frightening geometric pink and purple tie, he looked like an eccentric beacon, ensconced at a table in the hotel’s breakfast room, a cup of tea sending coils of steam towards the shock of trademark silver hair. Not far away hovered Pat Lake-Smith, his long-time agent and old friend.
Harris was already 78 then and still remarkably well preserved: a full head of hair, the obsessively clipped Colonel Sanders beard and moustache sliver, and always those big, old-fashioned black reading glasses.
Welcoming and expansive, he quickly ordered us hot drinks and without waiting for a question, began to talk at a dizzying speed. At the time, I likened spending time with Harris to boarding one of those seaside fairground roller-coasters: up, down, a hurtle forwards, a lurch sideways. He’d embark on a mad sound effect, stop halfway through and let out a gale of laughter. Or he’d remember something entirely random, change subject again, and intersperse it all with rapid-fire silly puns and jokes.
He appeared also to have a penchant for the tamer of dirty jokes and I remember him announcing that his current favourite contained the C-word and therefore he couldn’t possibly tell it in front of me – he whispered it flamboyantly into Mike’s ear instead.
There was great delight, too, in regaling us with his exploits over the past year, as if being relentlessly busy was a psychological necessity for him: he’d done three BBC documentaries, exhibited limited edition prints of his paintings at the Portland Gallery, had been inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame, narrated a World War I television program, and launched the new edition of Kangaroo for Ashton Scholastic. Oh, and then there was the email from Baz Luhrmann that ended up with him playing the wobble board for the soundtrack of the Australia blockbuster.
In many ways, his longevity and remarkable success in Britain seemed to lie with this very ability; a talent for reinventing himself, morphing over the decades from the 22-year-old painting student who landed in London in the 1950s into the novelty musician who played odd instruments and somehow turned himself into a kind of daggy pop star, then took on Saturday night prime-time television, hosted animal programs, bounced around as a cartoon program presenter, and ended up painting a portrait of the Queen, not to mention being chosen as one of the stars at her diamond jubilee concert.
Alternately comedic then avuncular, he stopped his monologue at one point to demonstrate that weird, rhythmic, musical breathing that he does, panting loudly like a dog to explain the technique needed to talk through it. The Herald later ran the audio under the now rather unfortunate click-bait headline “Enjoy some heavy breathing with Rolf Harris”.
All in all, he was funny, gregarious and wacky, and all that felt out of kilter was this white-haired septuagenarian behaving as if he’d been inhabited by the spirit of an overexcited adolescent. Yes, he joked and he winked, he gestured floridly and he touched. Mike Bowers told me rather robustly that he thought Harris had also flirted outrageously. But I can honestly say it didn’t bother me: I’d dismissed him as a harmless old man testing his charms to see if they still worked.
Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20. And this week, as Rolf Harris stared vacant and emotionless while the jury delivered unanimous “guilty” verdicts on all 12 cases of indecent assault brought against him, I’m sure I am not the only person struck by an abject sense of disconnect and bewilderment – and of absolute horror.
How could I not have seen the sinister creature behind the clown? How could the old man who said, for once quiet and pensive, that he wanted to be remembered as “just an entertainer” be the same one who coldly and dispassionately groomed his daughter’s best friend from the age of 13? How could I, an adult, a woman and a journalist – trained to observe and write about people – have been so oblivious to the darkness Harris harboured within?
This puzzlement doesn’t mean an absence of anger and profound sadness for the many, many young women and girls – some as young as eight – who were forced to endure his gormless, hideous advances, and whose lives were torn apart in his wake.
It just makes it even harder to accept that this was the same old showman who was proud and happy to say he’d put into practice the old truism that “if you make your hobby your profession you will never do another day’s work in your life”. There was palpable melancholy in his voice as he added: “That’s just great, isn’t it?”
Afterward, I asked him who’d authored the saying? Quick as a flash, the clown Rolf returned: “Oh, I dunno… probably Fred McThradcabbage. You know him? Or maybe it was Fred McPhurtlesquirt. That’s McPhurtlesquirt with a ‘ph’.” He laughed uproariously at his own joke.
Equally difficult is reconciling the monster in the dock with the artist who told us joyously that he felt like the “King of the World” when a painting was “working” or when he felt an audience was with him “seeing the world through your eyes for a while”.
The past 18 months have seen the exposure of other high-profile men who were calculating predators and paedophiles: Hey Dad..! star Robert Hughes, the BBC superstar Jimmy Saville, PR supremo Max Clifford and veteran broadcaster Stuart Hall. Their jailing and disgrace, even if the latter came posthumously, will hopefully provide acknowledgement and a modicum of “closure” to their courageous victims. But as British academic Bernard Gallagher wrote this week, the rest of us have come to a strange sort of crossroads: how can we ever again be so naive about the existence of sexual abuse or the prevalence of sex offenders, however well we might think we “know” them?
Outside the hotel, as Mike and I finished our interview, we asked Harris to pose for a few shots with Trafalgar Square and the spire of St Martin in the Fields as a backdrop. Passers-by waved and cars honked as they recognised Harris and he signed a few autographs.
Then, as we were leaving, he asked for my pen and notebook. Inside 30 seconds, he’d drawn my name in 3D-style block letters, and got the spelling wrong. Feigning red-faced embarrassment, he wrote it correctly and gave himself a little tick as a reward. Then, to my amazement, he drew a little portrait of himself, lips drawn back, teeth bared, little drops of sweat off his forehead and mouth, his eyes narrowed and set under lascivious brows. He signed it “Rolf” with a flourish and then, smiling, disappeared into the hotel.
As we headed back to write and prepare photos to send to Sydney, Mike couldn’t help himself: “I told you, didn’t I? The dirty old bugger.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 5, 2014 as "Jake the paed". Subscribe here.