Rolf Harris: He isn't just for Christmas, he's for life

Now in his 81st year, the Aussie singer and painter can say he has played Glastonbury, sent his work on tour, and featured in a BBC arts documentary. Emily Dugan meets Rolf Harris
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The Independent Online

In bright red trousers, crimson scarf and trademark white beard, Rolf Harris bears a striking resemblance to one Mr S Claus as he arrives at a hotel near his Berkshire home. The eye-catching get-up, sprightly demeanour and Prince Charming kiss on my hand when we meet, send an unambiguous message: Mr Harris – artist, musician and television presenter – is nowhere near ready to step out of the limelight, despite 57 years spent in the entertainment business. In fact, he seems madder for it than ever.

Harris turned 80 this year and, save for the Santa beard, there are few signs of his age. Last summer he dusted off his wobble board – the "instrument" he popularised in the Sixties in songs such as "Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport" – and won ovations from crowds of up to 30,000 at Glastonbury, Womad and the Isle Of Wight.

After more than half a century on our TV screens, doing everything from playing with The Beatles to Rolf's Cartoon Club, Animal Hospital and Rolf on Art, Harris still prompts dewy-eyed admiration from viewers. I suggest, however, that a less robust person of his, ahem, vintage might seek a quieter, more private life after all these years.

"I can't see any reason for retiring, providing it still works," he says. "I equate the word 'retire' with the words 'laying down' and 'dying'. I'm still providing something that the public wants, whether it be paintings, or television shows, or recording songs or writing songs, or doing gigs like Glastonbury, which was amazing."

His motivation for keeping up such a hectic public schedule seems driven not so much by a love of music or art – though he undoubtedly is passionate about those things – as an almost pathological desire to be popular. "I find it a terrific buzz that people would want me to do these things: Glastonbury, Womad and the Isle of White. You come off [stage] feeling like a million dollars. Everybody is on your side and they know all the words and all the songs. It's wonderful; it's a shot in the arm, like a huge boost of self-confidence injected into your veins."

On the art front, his latest project is a series of paintings of famous women posing as Titania, queen of the fairies, for a documentary about his life, which will air later this month. The subjects include the supermodel Lily Cole, actress Dervla Kirwan, and Lizzy Jagger, daughter of rock royalty.

The most reluctant of these was Cole, who grilled him on art history during the sitting and who, Harris says, "wasn't sure about the whole thing and didn't know whether it was beneath her".

All of the women posed semi-naked, with nothing but sheer drapes covering them, a prospect Harris found daunting. "I was always quite nervous of asking people to pose naked for me. Would they think I was a dirty old man? I still have a slightly nervous attitude about it, like a naughty boy. That I shouldn't be there, shouldn't be looking at this."

The documentary's director, Vikram Jayanti, suggested the entertainer should also paint his wife, Alwen Harris, a sculptor in her own right. In the film she appears impatient at her husband's courting of fame. She talks about her frustration at living in his shadow, admitting that she prefers him not to be at her exhibitions because he "spoils it" by taking over as the centre of attention. The film also suggests that she would favour a quiet life, rather than having the simplest excursions turning into autograph sessions.

"She would like to have more time with me, yeah," Harris admits. "These last couple of weeks have been ludicrous. She comes to my date book and writes, 'keep free!', 'keep free!', 'keep free!', and writes it down on the pages. And all of a sudden we find we've encroached on half the pages. Pat [his agent] will say, 'Do you think Alwen would mind if we did an interview in the morning and maybe you'll have the afternoon together?' And I say, well I'll ask. It's got worse."

The couple met when they were both art students in London in the Fifties. Since 1953, when he got a five-minute spot with a puppet called "Fuzz" on a one-hour children's show called Jigsaw, Harris has been in the public eye almost without a break. He can even make the unlikely claim to fame of having Margaret Thatcher as a fan. She chose his song "Two Little Boys" as one of her favourites, but Harris recalls that when he later met her she was less than enthusiastic.

"She did that thing – which I feel is unforgivable – that politicians' thing, of shaking you by the hand and moving you aside with your wrist to talk to the next person. It's like, 'Oh Christ, I could have left anyway when the handshake finished – you didn't have to do that'."

Born in Perth to Cromwell – "Crom" – and Agnes Harris, who emigrated to Australia from Merthyr Tydfil in Wales, Harris went in the reverse direction, moving to the UK from Australia in 1952. Crom Harris spent his working life at a power station in Perth, where he was exposed to asbestos dust from the lagging on its water pipes which eventually killed him. Rolf, who also worked briefly in an asbestos mine, has had himself tested for signs of exposure, but so far none has come back positive.

Recalling his father's exposure and death from mesothelioma, Harris provides a glimpse into his more sombre side. "Dad used to say it was like walking into a fog every day for about three weeks. Thirty years later, he was coughing up blood and not knowing why. He was short of breath and they X-rayed him and found filaments of asbestos and this crap in his lungs. So he died from that. He was 80, exactly my age."

It is not just sad memories that keep him from returning down under, however. Although griping about British weather is a national pastime, it is our chilly temperatures that keep him here. "It's too bloody hot for me there. When it's cold, you can rug up and put a heater on. But when its 104 in the shade, and there's no shade, you don't know what to do with yourself. When I was a kid, I never noticed it, I just accepted it as part of life. But having been away from it for so long – more than half my life – I'm totally unprepared for it. I'll still travel back and forth to Australia, but probably I'll go less frequently."

Harris's dislike of the heat in the country of his birth is not the only sign that he's not the quintessential Aussie. When asked what he makes of Australia losing out to Qatar in the 2022 World Cup bid – a defeat that prompted mass outrage down under – he looks nonplussed. "Did they? I didn't know anything about it ..."

There are other tricky issues around his homeland and heritage. Since his reference to Aborigines being of "no further use" in the 1960 hit "Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport", he has been apologising for inappropriate comments about the country's indigenous people.

I approach the subject and assume he will shut it down fast. Instead, he goes on a rant that revisits many of the gaffes for which he has apologised in the past: "Political correctness has come in and nobody is allowed to tell jokes about this, that and the other nowadays, but when you first were doing it 20 years ago, everybody told jokes about everything."

He continues: "The problem is that the Aboriginal attitude to things is totally different, and if you give them a payment for the dole then the tribal leader, or the chap who's the family leader, just goes straight down the pub, spends it all in the one day – and they can't hold any drink at all, they get absolutely ludicrously drunk – drink it all away in a day, which was money for a fortnight for the family.... Then all the white people – or the ordinary white bloke – they see the Aboriginals throwing away this money and they say: 'Why are we giving it to them? We can't get enough to cope.' So it's a complex issue which would try the patience of Solomon."

He looks relieved when I bring the conversation back to more familiar territory: him being more popular than Picasso. A poll of 1,000 people visiting a London exhibition in 1992 found 38 per cent named him as the world's most famous artist, with Constable receiving just 23 per cent and Turner and Rembrandt not even getting a mention.

He chuckles. "The thing about those guys is they didn't have a weekly television show where people saw them painting each week. Neither did Picasso, neither did Van Gogh. Whereas, suddenly, here I am every Thursday doing this half-hour about painting, so people already know you."

He is all smiles again and you would need a heart of outback jasper not to admit that he has charm. Kissing my hand again as we part company – something I understand he makes a habit of with many interviewers – it is easy to see how he has become so universally liked.

The one thing that is hard to fathom is why he remains so determined to stay in the spotlight. He may have been on our TV screens for well over 50 years. But I still can't tell who he is yet.

Curriculum vitae

1930 Born in Bassendean, a suburb of Perth, Western Australia, to Cromwell and Agnes Harris, immigrants from Wales

1941 Attends Perth Modern School

1946 Becomes Australia's junior backstroke swimming champion

1948 Attends University of Western Australia but leaves after two years and starts teaching children to swim

1952 Moves to London to attend City and Guilds Art School in Kennington

1953 Performs 10-minute cartoon slot on the BBC

1958 Marries the sculptor Alwen Hughes, whom he met at art school

1960 "Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport" released, reaching No 1 in Australia and the Top 10 in the UK. Headhunted for the launch of television in Perth. Tours Australia for Dulux paint

1962 Returns to the UK

1963 Performs "Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport" with The Beatles

1964 Presenter on Hey Presto, It's Rolf and Hi There.

1967 The Rolf Harris Show starts on BBC 1; runs till 1974

1969 "Two Little Boys" tops the UK charts for six weeks

1984 Rolf's Cartoon Club broadcast on ITV. It continues until 1993

1994 Presents Animal Hospital. It runs for 10 years

2001 Presents first episode of BBC's Rolf on Art, introducing the work and lives of well-known artists

2005 Paints an official portrait of the Queen

2006 Made Commander of Order of the British Empire

2010 Performs at Glastonbury. Rolf Harris: A Life In Art exhibition tours the UK

'Arena: Rolf Harris Paints His Dream', is on BBC 2 on 29 December