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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Rolf Harris (1930–2023)

by Amy Ripley

from Sydney Morning Herald

Rolf Harris built a successful career as a loveable family entertainer but ended his days as a convicted sex offender, a recluse in his waterside home in the affluent village of Bray, just outside London.

As veteran TV critic Brian Courtis wrote in 2001, Harris “made a lifetime career of being the most cheerful Australian of us all”. In 2013, however, this sunny larrikin reputation was permanently eclipsed when he was charged with the first of numerous sex offences, mostly relating to underage girls. The entertainer, who denied the charges, was imprisoned and also stripped of many honours he had received, including the OBE, AO and his place in the ARIA Hall of Fame.

It was an ignominious end for a man who made art accessible to millions over his decades-long career. Often described as the Queen’s favourite artist, his successes ranged from the song Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport to a 2002 exhibition of his work at London’s National Gallery. Based for most of his life in Britain, where he became a fixture on television, Harris was also a household name in Australia. His popularity ebbed and flowed, but just when he seemed passe, the man with the wobbleboard captured people's imagination again – most notably when his idiosyncratic Stairway to Heaven cover became an unlikely hit.

This comfortable existence was thrown into disarray in November 2012 when Harris was questioned by the Metropolitan Police as part of Operation Yewtree – an inquiry into historical sexual abuse, predominantly that of children, against disgraced BBC TV presenter Jimmy Savile and other high-profile entertainment figures.

Harris went on trial on April 30, 2014 in London and denied 12 counts of indecent assault. He was found guilty of all 12 counts, which included assaulting four girls, the youngest of whom was seven or eight and the oldest 19, between 1968 and 1986. He was jailed for five years and nine months.

The central allegation concerned a friend of Harris’ daughter, whom the court heard he groomed and molested from the age of 13 until she was 19. (Harris argued that they had a consensual relationship after she turned 18.)

In a statement read to court, his victim said the abuse had made her feel “dirty, grubby and disgusting”. She said: “As a young girl, I had aspirations to have a career, settle down and have a family. However, as a direct result of his actions, this has never materialised. The knowledge of what he had done to me haunted me. I started drinking at the age of 14 to 15 years old. This was to block out the effects of what he was doing to me.”

The presiding judge said he had no doubt that Harris had caused this victim “severe psychological harm” and that his crimes against her were partly responsible for her becoming an alcoholic.

The other victims said they were groped by Harris, sometimes at his public appearances, with one saying that he had “destroyed her childhood innocence”.

The judge concluded: “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 2015, the Mail on Sunday published a letter allegedly written by the imprisoned Harris that contained lyrics blaming and mocking his victims.

More women came forward after the 2014 trial and in January 2017 Harris went on trial again, charged with six indecent assaults and one sexual assault against seven women and girls aged between 12 and 42. He was cleared of three of the charges and the jury was discharged after failing to reach verdicts on the other four counts.

Later that year, one of his 12 indecent assault convictions was overturned by the Court of Appeal, but the judges rejected attempts to challenge the 11 other convictions.

Born in Perth on March 30, 1930, Rolf Harris was the second child of Welsh migrants Cromwell, a power-station turbine driver, and Agnes Margaret (nee Robbins). Older brother Bruce had arrived in 1924. There were more Harris migrants in Sydney, including Rolf’s aunt Rhona, better known as children’s author and illustrator Pixie O’Harris. Art ran in the family as his grandfather, George Frederick Harris, was a portraitist whose subjects included George V.

Rolf shared with his brother the enclosed verandah of the home their father built from recycled materials, and swam in the Swan River at the property’s edge. An excellent swimmer, he also had a gift for drawing, painting and piano. At age 16, Harris became Australian junior backstroke champion, was an Archibald Prize finalist, and sold every painting in his first solo exhibition.

Harris later told a friend that he was sexually abused as a child, although he never spoke about this publicly. When asked by his friend if he had received counselling, he replied: “No, I’m good.”

After graduating from Perth Modern School (a year behind Bob Hawke), he attended the University of Western Australia. In the limited structure of the university, and with the distractions of playing in a band and painting, Harris drifted aimlessly until asked to leave.

Reviving his fortunes with the discipline of teachers’ college, he landed a job: teaching children to swim. This ended abruptly when he was paralysed by a virus. “Lying in bed ... I made a decision,” Harris later wrote. “If I managed to walk out of that hospital, I wanted to be a painter.”

He arrived in London in 1952 and enrolled at art school, but the course encompassed disciplines he had no interest in and aspects of painting and drawing he found difficult. By the time Harris dropped out, he had stumbled into a showbusiness career.

There was a steady Down Under Club gig and a regular slot on a children’s series for which Harris played piano, sang, drew pictures and told stories – the prototype for his long television career. He had not abandoned painting, though. With guidance from expat Australian artist Bill Veal, Harris had two paintings accepted for the Royal Academy’s 1956 summer exhibition.

He met former classmate Alwen Hughes at this exhibition. Harris had admired her at art school, but their personalities clashed: “She thought I was mad ... I thought she was incredibly stuck up,” he later recalled. They exchanged phone numbers, however, and on their second date he proposed and she accepted. They married in 1958 and in 1964 had a daughter, Bindi, who became an artist known by her married name, Nicholls.

Harris’ relationships with his wife and daughter were sometimes strained, but they remained notably loyal to him throughout his trial and time in prison. A workaholic who admitted in his autobiography, Can You Tell What It Is Yet?, to being “hooked on the buzz” of public approval, he rarely had family time. In the same book, he described the shock of discovering decades after the fact that his neglected wife had contemplated suicide and his daughter felt spurned because Harris always had time for fans, but little for her.

Shortly after marrying, Harris presented his own children’s television show in Perth. During that year in Australia, he recorded Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport, which introduced the world to his signature instrument, the wobbleboard (he was also renowned for playing didgeridoo). According to Harris, who had been self-conscious about his unrefined manner in Britain: “It proved to me ... that I could be myself ... I could be unashamedly Australian and succeed. It changed my life.”

On the way home to London in 1960, Harris began a decade of success as a touring performer and television personality in Canada, where he developed his famous three-legged Jake the Peg routine. Back in Britain, brushes with celebrity included sharing stages and airwaves with The Beatles – perhaps most memorably when they joined Harris in singing Kangaroo on BBC Radio. Increasingly, however, Harris was becoming a star in his own right. By 1967 he had an eponymous prime-time television variety show.

Other major television successes included the long-running Animal Hospital reality series and its spin-offs, and Rolf on Art, which featured a special episode about his 2005 portrait of Elizabeth II.

Further recording triumphs included Two Little Boys and a cover of Stairway to Heaven – a song Harris claimed ignorance of when asked to perform it on Andrew Denton’s The Money or the Gun in 1990. According to Harris’ biography, The Most Talented Man in the World, this television appearance “led to the relaunch of Rolf’s career on a trajectory not even the canniest of managers could have predicted”. It became a hit single that put him in the ARIA Hall of Fame and before enthusiastic crowds at the Glastonbury and Edinburgh festivals.

Other notable live performances on Harris’ relentless touring schedule included the Sydney Opera House opening concert in 1973. He was forced to slow down in 1994 when hospitalised by a debilitating virus probably triggered by overwork. When the medication that kept him “wide awake on a constant high” was withdrawn, Harris briefly suffered from depression.

After his release from Stafford prison in 2017, he returned home to care for Alwen, who had Alzheimer’s disease. He was rarely seen in public, but in 2019 the BBC reported that he had been asked by a teacher to leave the grounds of a primary school near his home in Berkshire. Harris had been talking to a sculptor who was working in a part of the school.

There were brief attempts to rehabilitate his public image by Bindi, who tried to write a book and produce a supportive documentary about his experiences. These attempts came to nothing and Harris remained a pariah for the rest of his life.

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Citation details

Amy Ripley, 'Harris, Rolf (1930–2023)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/harris-rolf-33527/text41899, accessed 23 April 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Rolf Harris, 1978

Rolf Harris, 1978

National Archives of Australia, B582:H2/2/1978/W

Life Summary [details]

Birth

30 March, 1930
Bassendean, Western Australia, Australia

Death

10 May, 2023 (aged 93)
Bray, Berkshire, England

Cause of Death

cancer (neck)

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