The Deborah Ross Interview
As he approaches 70, it is time to reappraise the life and work of Rolf Harris. Surely he must have a dark side...
Rolf Harris. Painter. Cartoonist. Musician. Singer. Master of the didgeridoo, wobbleboard and the truly cracking novelty song. Master, too, of that rhythmic huffing business that sounds part your- granny-having- a-stroke, and part small-woodland animal-reaching-orgasm. Wood carver. Jewellery maker. ("I especially like to work with jade.") Total icon. Under-15 Australian backstroke champion. TV presenter. TV star. Man awash with love for puppies and kittens and even poorly budgerigars who might be better off, frankly, if you just stamped on them and had done with it. Man whose name even manages to sound like a dog bark. (R...r...r...rOLF!) In short, what I'm trying to say is: is there nothing this man can't do? So I put it to him. Rolf, I say, is there nothing you can't do? You must, surely, be rubbish at something. Are you, perhaps, rubbish in bed, Rolf? "Oh no," he says brightly, with that familiar face swimming up though the beard. "I can have eight hours sleep and still want more. No trouble on that front!"
This is the thing about Rolf. He's still, even after all these years, just so brilliantly innocent. But that's OK. It's what makes him. It's what gives him his very Rolf-ishness. It's why he's more than just a post- Modern joke. It's why we still hold him in such great and genuine affection. He's approaching 70, has been in the business pretty much for ever, but remains spectacularly kind and good. There is no John Noakesy dark, bitter underside to him. Rolf, are you ever nasty or horrid or mean? "Well, occasionally I have used my position to smart-arse someone." Oh, dear. "But I always apologise after! I say: `Please, can you ever forgive me?'." Rolf, have you ever rebelled? "Well, I once had a girlfriend my parents didn't like." Crikey. "But, having decided my parents meant more to me than she did, I dumped her."
Rolf, back in the Sixties, when rock'n'roll first exploded, and you toured with Billy Fury, and compered The Rolling Stones' first ever TV appearance, did you ever experiment with sex, drugs, revolutionary politics or naked swimming parties? No, he says. "I just got on with doing my own thing, and playing the accordion. I don't even drink, really. My mother was very strong chapel from Wales. If anyone even went into a hotel, she thought they were a drunkard." Rolf, you know Jake The Peg (diddle-diddle-diddle- dum) with the extra leg (titter, titter)? "Yes." It was a bit rude, wasn't it? Rolf looks momentarily perplexed. Then he says: "What? OH! GOODNESS! Well, it was certainly innocent when it left me, I can ASSURE you!" I think Rolf's beginning to think that I've got a cheap and dirty mind which, I can ASSURE you, is possibly entirely true.
We meet at the Harmsworth Hospital in north London, where he is midway though filming Animal Hospital, the BBC1 show which begins its ninth series this Thursday, regularly attracts audiences of over 10 million, and has won umpteen best Factual Programme awards. We are, I must say, very keen on it in our house. Being dirty and cheap, I like it mostly for Jeremy Stewart, who is one of the vets, and is very handsome, and can operate on budgies, and make splints from cotton buds for their broken legs, so is obviously pretty marvellous with his hands, on top of having to pass loads of exams and all that. And my young son loves it just because he loves it. He even, at one point, went though a stage of kicking our cat in the hope he could injure it sufficiently so we could go on it. I am not big on pets myself, but think I may give in to his demands for something called a chinchilla which, after looking it up, I now know is a small, gregarious, hystricomorph rodent which lives on "volcanic ash" so could, feasibly, double-up as a useful ashtray, once it's been nailed down.
Anyway, the hospital, which is owned and run by the RSPCA, is in a pretty poor bit of north London. You have to be on some kind of benefit to bring your pet here. The smell, once you step inside, is of wet dog, which I hope isn't Jeremy, because, cheap as I most certainly am, even I might find that off-putting. Rolf, when I arrive, is having a mingle and patting dogs and signing autographs and, yes, doing that HUFFING thing - ha-cha- cha-ha-cha-cha-ha-cha-cha. He says later that he can't help himself. "I'm forever singing and beating out musical rhythms. It drives my wife mad." I tell him he's looking very nice, as he is. He seems to have ditched the Swan & Edgar, big-pocketed safari look for something more multi-coloured and Marlboro man these days. He is wearing a canary-yellow denim jacket. Over various series, I've noted he has quite a few of these. I've noted a green one, a caramel one, a pale blue one, a navy one, an ivory one, "and I've just bought a new one. It's orangey red. It's from Simpson's." He shows it to me later. It's nice. He says you have to rotate colours "to give viewers something new to look at. I think that's important, don't you?"
Certainly, Rolf's an absolute star at this real people, real pets stuff. The director says: "It's just not about ego with Rolf." Shauna Lowry, his co-presenter, says: "Oh, he's gorgeous." Jeremy would say something, but Jeremy is NOT HERE TODAY, which is terrible, because I've worn lipstick and earrings and a quick spray of breath freshener and have been on a diet for four minutes and everything. Is Jeremy married, do you know, Rolf? "No, but he's very attached." How very is "very", Rolf? "Just very." Assuming his girlfriend is prettier than me, how much prettier would you say? "It's not for me to say." Jeremy's quite a star, though, isn't he? "Yes. He's even got his own pet care column in the News of The World now." Shauna, do you like Jeremy? "Oh, he's gorgeous..." Shauna is intolerably pretty. I hate her, a bit, I think.
Anyway, Rolf's big thing, aside from the innocence, is his total sincerity. He truly cares and empathises. He's not thinking about his next career move. He cuddles tearful owners. He soothes anxious animals with his big, lovely hands. He says, later: "A lot of love goes through my hands to the animals. I call on St Francis, and I believe he is there." I was minded to tell him my cat joke. (How do you make a cat sound like a dog? Douse it with petrol, set it alight, then watch it go WOOF!) but decide against it. He has, three cats himself - Beetle, Toffee, Rabbit - and a standard poodle, Summer. A previous poodle, Pugsy, was a bridesmaid when he married his wife, Alwen, 40 years ago. No, he says, Pugsy did not wear a sticky- out frock or satin pumps or a headdress of miniature white roses and baby's breath. "But she had a new collar and a new lead, which she carried in her mouth down the aisle."
We have a few minutes before he's needed for filming so we have a beautifully nostalgic reminisce about Seventies telly - you know, the good old days when, yes, you had The Good Old Days, and audiences dressed up in Edwardian bonnets, and sang along to Arthur Askey doing "Busy Little Bee", and that was considered superb prime time viewing. Rolf, of course, also had his own Saturday evening variety show back then which, was the absolute highlight of my childhood, because I could stay up later than usual to watch him do that magnificent, final big painting, the one that only came into focus with the very last stroke. What happened to all those paintings? He says, because of fire regulations at the time, they had to be done on a certain kind of board, which was scraped from one week to the next. It turns out he has never sold a painting. "I would never know what to ask for it," he says.
He is not, it turns out, exactly shark-like when it comes to financial matters. His brother, he says, came over from Australia in the Seventies to manage his affairs. "He asked me: `How much do you earn?' I didn't know. He said: `OK, how much have you got?' I didn't know. I would have to ask my agent when I needed pounds 50 of my own money, which was kept in their account earning interest. And I felt grateful when they gave it to me." I wonder which artists he likes. Van Gogh, he says, and Monet. No modern stuff, then? No Sarah Lucas or Damien Hirst. "I like stuff I can recognise, actually." Do you like the Spice Girls? "I don't know much about them, actually." Rolf! Where have you been? "Oh, doing my own thing - ha-cha- cha-ha-cha-cha-ha-cha-cha."
He has had a great and deserved comeback as of late. He not only recently headlined Glastonbury, but was voted the most popular act there ever. He scored a chart success with his own, jolly, sing-a-long version of Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven", although his follow-up - an album covering all the great rock anthems - might not have been so wise. "Honky Tonk Woman" ("which, apparently, is about prostitutes!") done to the woop- bloop-blop of a wobbleboard does, yes, somehow lose a little something in translation. Still, I wonder, naturally, if Robert Plant plans to cover, say, "Two Little Boys" or even "Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport". Rolf says he doesn't think so. "Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport" was, of course, Rolf's first great hit in this country. It went to number two, and "I was poised for it to go to number one, but then Presley slipped in. That's Elvis Presley, by the way".
Anyway, we have to break off now. Rolf has to be filmed with the first patient of the day. This turns out to be Penny, a hamster who, being an intelligent little thing, fell off a table on to the edge of a chair and has all but ripped her back legs off. Penny needs anaesthetising and splintering and bandaging. I'm not so keen on hamsters, frankly. I had one as a kid, but she was horrid with yellow, bitey teeth, and was also mean, so when, one morning, I came down and my mother said, "Darling, I'm so sorry to have to tell you this, but Ernestina seems to have died...", I was so upset that I did a little celebratory jig before saying: "Could I have a Mousetrap game with a diving board that actually works instead? And some clackers as well?"
The vet in charge is Gabriel Hagard who, I must say, is very cute. And excited. His picture is going to be in TV Quick this week. "My grandma will go berserk." Gabriel, as it happens, isn't that keen on hamsters, either. The trouble with hamsters, he says, is that they are very bitey, and when they nip your finger, your whole hand can shoot up, taking the hamster with it, until it spins off and explodes against a wall. He has lost quite a few hamsters this way, he says. Still, he is very tender with Penny. And he might even be as good with his hands as Jeremy, actually. Are you married, Gabriel? "Um, no." Don't you think Jeremy's had his stab at the News of the World column, and it's time for you to have a go? "Well, erm." A nurse comes up. "Gabriel," she says, "will you have a look at my cat's bladder now?" Gabriel rushes off. The funniest sorts of things seem to interest vets. Still, Penny is coming round nicely and being wrapped in bubblewrap to keep warm. Rolf does the wrapping. There are tears in his eyes.
Certainly, there were times when it looked as if Rolf's career had all but gone down the tubes, and no more so than in 1993, when his popular children's TV show, Rolf's Cartoon Club, was axed after six years. He was totally devastated by this, yes. "I thought that was it. The end. For all those years I'd had the children's interests at heart, and then the powers that be didn't want to know any more." Rolf! Do I detect a certain note of bitterness here? "Oh no. It's all about synchronicity, isn't it? As one door closes, another opens, and Animal Hospital came along."
How exactly did you get the job, Rolf? "Well, they had this new producer, and it was her first job, and she said to her production team: `Give me a list of anyone in showbiz with an interest in animals.' And my name was on that list, because I'd written Rolf's Book of Personality Cats and when she saw my name she said, or so I've been told: `That's the man I want.' The production team then said: `What, the bloke who does the silly songs?' And she said `Yes. I trust him'." And that's another thing about Rolf. You do trust him, don't you?
Another break for the next patient, Wilma, The Panting Bulldog. Wilma does more than pant. Wilma rattles, loudly. Wilma sounds like me in the mornings, just after my first fag. The vet, here, is Nigel Griffiths from South Wales. Nigel would be cute, but has this Bob Geldof-style goatee which makes him look as if a little black mouse has died on him. Personally, I like my beards big, like Rolf's. Nigel's new to the hospital and this is his first time in front of the cameras. Rolf is marvellously avuncular and helpful. Wilma's owner had a previous bulldog who died from this condition. Wilma will have to have an operation, but it'll be risky. Rolf cheers everyone up by singing the Welsh national anthem. In Welsh.
Actually, Rolf Harris is less Australian than you might think. His parents emigrated from Cardiff in the Thirties. His father was a turbine driver, and a very talented artist, but never pursued his art. "His own father had been a portrait painter who never made any money. He had said to him, `Don't, whatever you do, do this for a living'." Rolf's own artistic ability was much encouraged, though. "When I showed talent, he got me the best paper, the best paints, even though we didn't have much money." His mother was an analytical chemist until she had children, and then concentrated on amateur theatricals.
Rolf came to England in 1952, initially to go to art school, and has never really gone back. He now lives in Bray, Berkshire, with Alwen and his pets. And that's about it, really, and it's time to go, anyway. Rolf has to get over to BBC TV Centre to record something for Children in Need. There is no point, I am told, in waiting about for Jeremy because he won't be back in until Tuesday. I say I don't mind. They say: "Bye, then." I give Rolf a big hug as he gets into his waiting car. He's huffing: "ha-cha-ha-cha-ha-cha-cha." I love Rolf, but sometimes I do wish that woodland creature would just get it over with and do something else. Like watch This Morning or go down to Tesco.
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