Tuesday 23 May 2023

Rolf Harris - my memories of him

The entertainer and convicted child abuser Rolf Harris has died. He was one of the most recognisable performers on British TV but ended his career in disgrace after he was found guilty of the indecent assault of teenage girls. He was 93. A registrar at Maidenhead town hall, close to Harris’s family home in the Berkshire village of Bray in the UK, confirmed that the former entertainer died on 10 May of neck cancer and “frailty of old age”.

I got to know Harris a little in the 1970s when I provided showbiz items for Australian outlets such as the Macquarie Radio Network and TV Week magazine. My first meeting with him was on March 29, 1969, after which I wrote this account in a letter to my family:

Rosemary [my wife who helped with the audio recording] and I went to the Hippodrome Theatre for an interview with Rolf Harris who has just completed another TV series and who will shortly return to Australia for a holiday. He did quite a good, sometimes quite funny, interview, but we didn’t have much time to really judge him as a person because he was in a hell of a rush to start rehearsals for his final show. But I should hope his home is tidier than his dressing room. The dressing room looked quite imposing from the outside, what with its chrome plated door and embossed stars, but inside it was an absolute mess. Clothes, sheets of art paper and tins of paint were everywhere, and there was hardly room for us to sit down. We arrived as he was in the middle of cleaning his teeth. He spent a fruitless frothing-at-the-mouth search for a towel, but had to settle in desperation for a hankie. Such is the life of an international TV star!

I interviewed him several times at various locations or over the phone. I would described his manner as business-like rather than matey. There was never any indication of the dark side of his life in those meetings. I appear not to have made copies of the interviews before the tapes were airmailed to Australia. All that I have is this TV Week article, written under the pseudonym, Bruce Conway, that I was required to use for that magazine and which was based on conversations I had with him and his documentary producer:

Harris was involved in charities and I was phoned at home by him on Boxing Day in 1974 after Darwin had been devastated by Cyclone Tracy, wanting to know if there was someone he could contact about organising a concert to raise money for the victims of the storm. I can't remember if such an event took place. 

He was, for a time, an honorary vice chairman of the charity called Physically Handicapped and Able Bodied (PHAB). An immediate neighbour of ours was then PHAB's events organiser. She adored Harris almost as much as she did another vice chairman, Jimmy Savile. She died some years ago before the scandals surrounding Harris and Savile came into the open. She would have been horrified by the revelations, disbelieving even.

My wife had another connection with Harris. Back in the early 1960s, she was employed by the Bendigo Timber Company in the Australian gold mining city of Bendigo in the state of Victoria. Harris was touring Australia and engaged by the timber company to perform on their stand at the local agricultural show. He and the company were promoting Masonite board, made famous by Harris as his "wobble board" in his hit single, Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport. At the time, Harris's career as an entertainer was just taking off in Australia and the UK. She clearly remembers his performance but doesn't think she met him.

It's extraordinary that Harris risked such a high-profile and successful career by engaging in such terrible sexual abuse. Worse, he showed no remorse.

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