Can you tell who it is yet?
Thursday 09 October 1997
For generations of children since the Fifties, Rolf Harris has been like a cuddly old-fashioned uncle. Wherever it was hip and happening, he was sure never to be there. He was busy doing his variety turn trotting out songs like "Jake the Peg" and "Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport" while trends came and went.
Back when rock 'n' roll came along, he was the right age and had the talent to have a go, but was convinced you needed an American accent to carry it off, so he never bothered. In the Sixties, he knew about The Beatles because they borrowed his record producer at Abbey Road. "George Martin produced my first records and then, when The Beatles came along, he ran out of time and didn't have any more time for me really." Whatever was in during the Seventies and Eighties simply passed him by.
He did all right. He had his nice little niche on TV, culminating in Rolf's Cartoon Club, which took up five days a week. Then, when his contract was not renewed after the 1993 series, he gloomily entertained thoughts of retirement. But a cult following and a nation's tearful empathy were awaiting as the boomerang of life swung back.
A request to perform Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" - a song he had never heard of - on Australian TV was followed by a recording and a Top 10 hit in 1993. There was an album, Rolf Rules OK! There will be another album out later this month on EMI - Can You Tell What It Is Yet? - named after the famous TV catchphrase he utters as his pictures take shape. On the record it refers to the collection of old songs, diverse styles and covers, like Alanis Morrisette's "One Hand in My Pocket" and Lou Reed's "Perfect Day".
Next week, 35 years after it was originally released, comes a reworked version of "Sun Arise" with Rolf playing didgeridoo. He didn't actually know how to play one when he first recorded it and it had to be faked. The new single also includes a drum and bass remix of "Sun Arise" by 808 State, a "must move" for the groovy Nineties recording artist.
Rolf has a new career as ironist and tear-jerker to adoring university students, who come to concerts wearing Rolf beards and glasses, to chant "We love you, Rolf Harris, we do", to hear his didgeridoo and wobble-board, and to remember their formative years with Rolf. "When `Stairway to Heaven' happened, it was like they had permission to say they actually like Rolf Harris whereas before that it was very square to do such a terrible thing."
Also awaiting the reborn Rolf in 1994 was Animal Hospital. His encounters with animals like Snowy, the miniature white poodle so wretchedly neglected and brought back to health, have brought in an audience of 11 million. The new series continues tonight on BBC1.
Rolf Harris the entertainer was always about laughter; now he's about tears too. Not a typical trait for a man brought up outside Perth, Australia. He was never a product of macho culture. His Welsh-born parents had other values.
"I don't drink at all. I'm not interested in smoking. My mum was strongly anti-drink. She was the daughter of a lay preacher in a chapel in Cardiff. To mum, to go into a pub or drink in any way was drunkenness. Growing up, you either take on your parents' attitudes or rebel. My brother went the other way and I agreed with mum. I didn't like what I saw of people falling over drunk and stupid. I hated it and I still do."
He was "a bit of a show-off", playing the piano and singing and getting an ego-boost drawing posters for older pupils at school. He came to England when he was 22 to become a painter and couldn't understand why he wasn't making a living after three months over here. In 1953, he appeared on a Benny Hill TV showcase and the following year he saw someone drawing on TV and wrote in for an audition for a show called Jigsaw: he got the job.
It was a career that was never planned until 1980, when his brother Bruce, former head of Australian advertising company Litas, took over managing him and was shocked to find how little money Rolf had made. "I was the sort of person who would arrange the fee after I'd done the job." Now Rolf has a five-year plan and is financially secure.
He is aware that students are having a laugh, but he does not think that is the only reason they come to see him. "I can take the piss out of myself the same as everybody else," he says. But he believes they come for the serious songs like "Two Little Boys" as well as to shout out.
The one factor shared by his various audiences on TV, records or in concert, is a belief in Rolf's sincerity. "The bloke you see on stage is the bloke you see backstage," he says. And, unusually for an entertainer, this seems to be largely the case.
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