Rolf Harris: the day it turned out nice men can be predators

Unlike Grace Dent, I’m not old enough for Rolf to have entertained me as a child. (June 1991. I know.) At eight or nine, I only knew of him from ads for Animal Hospital, which I didn’t watch. I did, however, grow to like him in his Rolf on Art programmes during my teens, and I’ve followed Operation Yewtree enough to know his case is different from the other men’s involved.

Those whose guilt has been ascertained – Jimmy Savile, Max Clifford, Gary Glitter – or were arrested over allegations (Freddie Starr, Jim Davidson, Jimmy Tarbuck) have a certain seediness in common. After meeting any of them one would want to wash one’s hands: if unsavoury reports had come to light ten years ago, I doubt most of us would have been that shocked, and with one or two it seemed only a matter of time. Rolf – even now, calling him by anything but his first name feels wrong – was by contrast the last person you’d fear in a dark alley. With a quiet, distinctly Australian warmth and a unexpectedly thoughtful painting style for someone who made his name through novelty children’s records, he remains the only Yewtree suspect ever to have come across as a nice bloke, and this makes his guilt uniquely disturbing.

I can’t be alone in feeling this. Harris (alright) was obviously seen to be harmless enough that BBC bosses placed him in kids’ TV, and unlike in Savile’s case (whose child sex abuse it appears was extraordinarily prolific), one doesn’t sense their heads were in the sand. So formidable was the man’s natural charm that it seems it constituted his entire defence strategy in court. ‘In his evidence,’ news stories state, ‘Harris reminded the jury of his career, how he had invented the wobble board instrument by accident and popularised the didgeridoo, and talked about his hit records, briefly singing a line from one of them, “Jake the Peg”’ – as if proving himself likeable would be enough to get him off. While assaulting girls between the ages of seven and fifteen, his barrister reportedly argued, he had simply ‘los[t] perspective and rational thought in the face of flattering attention’. High on well earned public adoration, in other words, who could blame him?

What unnerves is that Harris was evidently quite justified in thinking this would work. For many years it clearly did. With the conviction of men like Savile and suspicion of ones like Davidson, a note of smugness is tempting and to deny it would be humbug. Something about them was always a touch pervy, and it’s hard to resist told-you-so-ism. Harris had us fooled, and that’s harrowing – because mock it as we might when relied on in court, the assumption that a nice bloke couldn’t sexually assault children is exactly what enabled him to get away with it repeatedly.

It’s easier to talk about abuse – assault, harassment, rape – in ways that don’t implicate us, to make out predators are just violent strangers, sexual violence is a problem elsewhere in the world and only leering creeps molest young girls. As I write, the press is busy monstering Harris with words of sickness and perversion, tipp-exing out of history a lifetime of popular affection and approval because inevitable evil is less threatening than a perp who doesn’t fit that image. Admitting Rolf was a nice guy means admitting, too, that apparent nice guys do what he did. That’s a difficult red pill to swallow, but on the other hand, how many victims does denying it prevent from being believed?

Make no mistake, you and I are part of this.





  1. Pen says

    Did you hear the thing about Marion Zimmer Bradley? I’m also a bit young to have connected with her but it’s shocked the hell out of a lot of people who loved her work.

  2. Greta Christina says

    “…he had simply ‘los[t] perspective and rational thought in the face of flattering attention’”

    What the actual is he serious I can’t even what…

    You know, I have received a certain amount of flattering attention in my time. It has no doubt warped my perspective and my rational thinking skills in some ways. It has never once made me want to sexually assault a seven year old girl.

  3. Ally Fogg says

    Good points Alex

    I’d throw Stuart Hall in to the mix as being slightly closer to Rolf Harris than others, on this front.

    You’re far too young to remember, but in the 70s, at the time of It’s A Knockout everyone’s favourite and – like Harris, seemed to be almost entirely sexless, just a stereotypical Good Bloke.

    He never quite had the iconic status of Harris, but there were similarities there.

  4. Nick Gotts says

    unlike in Savile’s case (whose child sex abuse it appears was extraordinarily prolific), one doesn’t sense their heads were in the sand.

    A woman I know was warned against him when she worked in a hotel where he was staying – not to enter his room alone when he was there. Perhaps he was not known to be a child abuser, but he certainly had a reputation for sexually assaulting women.

  5. reinderdijkhuis says

    Just a quick correction: Savile was never convicted of anything while he was alive. That boil didn’t burst until after he’d passed away.

  6. Patrick says

    @4 When I was a kid in the 70s, our neighbours’ daughter was a chambermaid in a London hotel was subject to unwelcome attention from Savile, so nothing else surprised me about him after that. Apart from the sheer bloody scale of his offending.
    Alex’s article is excellent and reminds me that we are in a long process of setting clear boundaries to behaviours which might – and were – simply to be laughed off 40 years ago.

  7. Jeremy Stein says

    The overwhelming evidence of abuse by Savile only really emerged after his death – he was never actually convicted.

  8. Trebuchet says

    Would that be Rolf “Let me Abos go loose” Harris? Whose biggest hit was blatantly racist? Not surprising.

  9. Tairiman says

    He seems to have been able to turn the charm on when he needed to. I thought this account might be interesting.

  10. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    @ 8. Trebuchet : “Would that be Rolf “Let me Abos go loose” Harris? Whose biggest hit was blatantly racist? Not surprising.”

    Huh? I don’t remember that one.

    “Tie me kangaroo down Sport” and the three legged song thingy and the portrait of the Queen and the wobbleboard are what used to spring to mind as his past hits to me although I wasn’t that familiar with his work.

    For this Aussie he was always background -someone I vaguely knew about, although not that much and not that big a deal or anyone I really knew or cared about. Just a pop culture character who was associated with my nation.

    Now, he’s associated with being a pedophile creep uncovered after a long time – too long – and a sad, disgusting, sick criminal.

    Its sad, disgusting and I feel for his victims. I’d have tripled his sentence if I were the judge. At least.

    He deserves worse than any judge can sentence him to. All pedophiles do.

    It is also scary – if sadly not surprising – that someone like that can fool so many people for so long and get away with causing so much suffering.

  11. Trebuchet says

    @ 8. Trebuchet : “Would that be Rolf “Let me Abos go loose” Harris? Whose biggest hit was blatantly racist? Not surprising.”

    Huh? I don’t remember that one.

    Yeah, that was one of the original lines in “Tie Me Kangaroo Down”, followed by “They’re of no further use”. It was in the original recording but was changed in his performances in later years. “Abos” being Aboriginal Australians, of course.

  12. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    @ ^ Trebuchet : Thanks – didn’t know that before now. Can see why they changed that.

  13. Shatterface says

    It’s worth remembering that many of the British tabloids currently getting outraged would run pictures of 15 year old girls in bikinis in a countdown to their 16th birthday, when they could finally pose topless.

    That wasn’t some dark part of the internet, that was mainstream stuff.

    Underage groupies were adored by the press and were frequently interviewed. They had a certain star status.

    Well into the 1980s the press was pushing the message that abusive relationships between under aged fans and celebrities was not only acceptable but something young girls should aspire to.

  14. Phillip Hallam-Baker says

    Saville was also on kids TV. ‘Jim ‘ll Fix it’ had Saville sitting in a big chair surrounded by kids.

    I thought him creepy and horrible at the time and his pieces were always a drag. He was patronizing, smarmy and obviously conceited. And he really had nothing to be conceited about. His show would have done much better without him.

    Clifford was legendary for being sleazy and horrible and Gary Glitter was the proverbial aging has-been rock star.

    Harris was a genuine surprise though.

  15. says


    I saw Rolf live about 20 years ago at my graduation ball (Rolf, Danni Minogue and a didgeridoo band) and he did a kind of x-rated version of “Tie me kangaroo Down”. Can’t really recall the verses but “Nail me balls to the board sport” rings a bell.

    I think a lot of these cases show what (some) people are capable of when they think they can get away with it. Very sad indeed. Not least because it becomes increasing hard to view any (male, I’ll be honest) celebrity from that era without wondering things that none of us would feel happy thinking folks were wondering about us.

    PS: On the subject of Saville, I saw him give several interviews during his life where he said some very odd things about himself (generally when asked about why he had not married or his lifestyle etc). The kinds of things which make some sense with hindsight and almost make me think he actually knew what a sick minded individual he was.


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