30 Jun 2014

Rolf Harris: ‘Demon lurking beneath the charming exterior’

He was one of Britain’s most cherished TV personalities, inspiring generations of children. But Rolf Harris will finish his career in prison after being found guilty on 12 counts of indecent assault.

Rolf Harris (Getty Images)

His artistic and musical talents entertained a generation of children.

But in August last year his former fans were left to reappraise the presenter after Rolf Harris was arrested in connection with Operation Yewtree’s investigation into historic sex allegations.

Now the ebullient children’s television performer, who won a handful of honours including a CBE and MBE, joins Jimmy Saville and Max Clifford as a public personality whose legacy will be defined as a sexual predator. The conviction means the 84-year-old could spend his last years in prison.

It brings to an end a career of more half a century, and almost certainly means that one of his final performances was delivered inside Southwark crown court, where he sang excerpts from his song Jake the Peg as part of his defence.

Read more: Rolf Harris guilty on 12 counts of indecent assault

Meteoric rise

Born in Bassendean, in Perth, Australia, the entertainer moved to Britain in 1952. Within a year he found fame on BBC TV, beginning a meteoric rise that eventually spanned three decades and saw him in demand both in Britain and the country of his birth. He hosted a number of his own shows including Cartoon Time, Rolf’s Cartoon Club and, later, Animal Hospital, which five times was voted Britain’s most popular factual entertainment show.

That was followed by his Rolf on Art, in which he painted on camera in the style of such masters as Rembrandt, Picasso, Monet and van Gogh. It was the most watched arts program in British television history.

In 1968 Harris received an MBE before scoring his biggest hit single with Two Little Boys – an old music hall number about childhood friends sent to war – which was 1969’s Christmas number one. He has also played on the Pyramind stage at Glastonbury.

But while his public persona was shaped on the small screen, his character off camera was taking a very different shape, as the details of the trial revealed.

Tapestry of assault

Harris confessed to at least two “affairs”, the first with his spiritual healer who lived in the grounds of his Oxfordshire home. The second was with a former best friend of his daughter Bindi, who the prosecution said had been groomed, and abused from the age of 13 until she was in her late 20s.

Under cross-examination, Harris agreed he had had sexual contact with the woman over some years, but insisted this had only begun when she was 18 and was consensual.

Rolf Harris victim says she considered suicide

It was just part of a tapestry of sexual assault that the prosecution painted, to dismantle Harris’s image as a starry-eyed children’s performer. The worst of his behaviour would emerge in encounters often so casual that it left his victims sense of reality distorted. Sasha Wass QC described him as a “sinister pervert who groomed” women and used his fame to trap them in bear hugs so he could grope them.

One charge alleged that he groped a girl aged about eight as she sought his autograph at a public event in Portsmouth in the late 1960s.

Another charge suggested he touched the bottom of a teenage waitress at a celebrity event in Cambridge in the 1970s and that he assaulted a teenage member of a youth theatre group at a pub in London in 1986. Until the verdict was delivered this morning, Harris had denied all allegations.