I once met Rolf Harris. This was sometime in 2003 and I recall interviewing him in connection with a now long forgotten TV project called Portraits of the Stars with Rolf Harris (adding a name to the title proves he still had celebrity power) .
Harris, who died at the age of 93, was never one of my heroes. When I was a kid in the 1980s, a show that was very similar to my era – Rolf's Toon Club – seemed too formulaic, and in any case, I never got into Looney Tunes, those sharp cartoons of the mid-20th century with featuring Porky Pig and Bugs Bunny. Harris was also too rustic for me: the hosts I adored as a child—Derek Griffiths in Play School and Sandy Tokswig in No. 73—had an anarchic quality, a sense that they would guide you through a series of exhilarating pranks. /p>
Nevertheless, I felt that I understood Rolf, understood why millions love him and, perhaps most importantly, he inspired many children to pick up a brush. He was inspiring and upbeat. There was also friendly courtesy.
If I was a fan, the Rolf I met that day would have destroyed my inner child. He was cold, grumpy and, as I later reflected, a little disappointed that I was not an attractive young woman. He answered my questions with a rather depressing monotonous sound, the antipode of Eeyore, who was tired of turning it on for cameras.
He turned it on, however, when the photographer arrived, thrusting his gray, white-bearded face into a frame with gilded edges; that famous laugh seemed to come from him effortlessly. It was a nice, hot personality, ready to play ball.
Rolf Harris with his animal hospital co-host Shauna Lowry and Rhodri Williams. Credit & Copyright: Guy Newman/BBC
And he did the workout. After I tried to turn the tide with a few sycophantic questions, he proved to be a thoughtful conversationalist, albeit one with a chip on his shoulder. He told me about arriving in London as “colonial” in 1950s London, when he had to take off his hat to schoolchildren who then roamed the corridors of the BBC.
Then, when I mentioned his pop career, out of the blue, he started singing to me “Two Little Boys”, his number one hit in 1969. I never liked this song, its meaning about two childhood friends reunited during the Second Boer War seemed a bit forced to me. (I'm sure millions will disagree with me.) But in the echoing silence of the photo studio, hearing his slightly trembling voice was, if not touching, then piercing. He was a man who clung to past glory, but was well aware that his best days were behind him.
I remember leaving our meeting thinking that Harris was probably depressed, although I have there were no darker thoughts. than that – and when a few years later he was exposed as a pedophile, I was shocked.
One of the ongoing debates in our current climate is whether the artist can be separated from his art. Harris was one of those whose work was discussed in a recent Channel 4 documentary on the subject presented by Jimmy Carr. I don't really believe he had much merit as an artist, and many critics, including the late Brian Sewell who called him a “Sunday artist,” agree with me.
Rolf Harris with his self-portrait in 2007. Photo: John Taylor.
The deeper problem with Harris is that both his work and his personality were deeply loved, inextricably linked. While we can safely send his artwork (including this disgusting 2005 oil painting of Queen Elizabeth II) to the dustbin of history, the residual appeal of his public persona is a problem.
Many people in Britain grew up admiring the different facets of the human being. If you grew up in the 1960s, you might have liked his novelties. In the 1970s, you might have watched his Saturday night singing “Rolf” on Saturday, okay? These fans would provide a legacy audience when Harris hit the big time at the tear-jerking animal hospital in the 1990s. However, in light of his terrible deeds, no one would consider him a national treasure, no matter how funny he may seem to you at the time.
I discovered that day that he was a mysterious and controversial figure. And now, after his death, he will be remembered as such – if, ultimately, he will be remembered at all.