Rolf Harris death: Disgraced entertainer and convicted paedophile dies aged 93

Convicted paedophile had reportedly been sick with cancer

Roisin O'Connor,Isobel Lewis,Jacob Stolworthy
Tuesday 23 May 2023 12:53 BST
Rolf Harris: Disgraced television entertainer dies aged 93

Disgraced entertainer and convicted sex offender Rolf Harris has died at the age of 93.

His death was confirmed by a registrar at Maidenhead Town Hall, the PA news agency said. A cause of death has yet to be disclosed.

In October, it was reported that the convicted paedophile was “gravely sick” with neck cancer and was receiving around-the-clock care.

The Australian-born TV presenter was a family favourite for decades before being convicted of a string of indecent assaults in June 2014.

These included one on an eight-year-old autograph hunter, two on girls in their early teens and a catalogue of abuse against his daughter's friend over 16 years.

Harris was jailed for five years and nine months after being convicted of 12 assaults, which took place between 1968 and 1986.

Following his conviction, he was stripped of his many honours, including his CBE, OBE, MBE, and Membership of the Order of Australia.

In May 2017, Harris was formally cleared of four unconnected historical sex offences, which he had denied. Later the same year, one of the 12 indecent assault convictions was overturned by the Court of Appeal.

Harris (centre) at the High Court in 2017

Born in western Australia, Harris gained a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Western Australia and a Diploma of Education from Claremont Teachers’ College, which is now known as Edith Cowan University.

At 16, he successfully submitted a self-portrait oil painting as part of the 1947 Archibald Prize. His work was one of 80 that was hung in the Art Gallery of New South Wales and, two years later, he won the Claude Hotchin prize for oil colours with his landscape “On a May Morning, Guildford”.

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He was also a champion swimmer, winning the Western Australian state champion over a variety of distances and strokes between 1948 and 1952.

When he turned 22 in 1952, Harris moved to England, becoming an art student at City and Guilds of London Art School. He swiftly found fame at the BBC one year later after being enlisted to perform ten-minute cartoon drawing plays during a children’s show named Jigsaw. His success on Jigsaw led to an appearance on Whirligig, in which he created the character Willoughby, who would spring to life on a drawing board before being erased at the end of each instalment.

While being mentored by Australian impressionist painter Hayward Veal, Harris would also play a weekly piano accordion set at a club named Down Under, where he developed his skills as an entertainer. Years later, he created what was considered his theme song, “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport”.

Rolf Harris photographed in 1964

In 1959, Harris recorded the novelty track, which famously features a “wobble board”, and it became a hit in Australia and the UK. Three years later, he re-recorded the song with assistance from music producer George Martin, who would become known in the 1960s for his work with The Beatles, and the track became a hit in the US.

Harris’s other tracks include “Jake the Peg” and his version of the 1902 hall song “Two Little Boys”, which became the Christmas No 1 song in the UK charts for six weeks in 1969.

The entertainer, who went on to play Glastonbury Festival seven times from 1993 to 2013, also played the didgeridoo on Kate Bush’s 1982 album The Dreaming, and did so again for the singer’s 2005 record Aerial.

Harris became a prominent figure on UK TV in the Sixties and Seventies. He was given his own BBC series, The Rolf Harris Show (1967-74), and was appointed the UK commentator for the Eurovision Song Contest in 1967. The entertainer went on to utilise his art skills in shows including BBC One’s Rolf’s Cartoon Time and Rolf’s Cartoon Club, which aired on CITV.

He was introduced to a new generation of TV viewers folowing the premiere of Animal Hospital, which ran on BBC One from 1994 to 2003. It won Most Popular Factual Entertainment Show at the National TV Awards a total of five times.

Harris, pictured in 1985

Harris painted Queen Elizabeth II’s official portrait, to commemorate her 80th birthday, in 2005. A portrait he once painted of singer Bonnie Tyler was valued at an estimated £50,000 on Antiques Roadshow in 2011.

The entertainer was arrested as part of the Operation Yewtree investigation in 2012, which was set up in the wake of the Jimmy Savile sexual abuse scandal.

Despite a reportedly well-known reputation for groping in Australia, the entertainer was viewed as an early champion of child protection campaigns in the UK. In 1985, he presented an educational film about child sexual abuse, titled “Kids Can Say No!”.

During his trial, which began in May 2014, prosecutors claimed that the entertainer was a “Jekyll and Hyde” character who used his fame to abuse underage girls with impunity.

In his sentencing, Justice Sweeney said Harris “clearly got a thrill” from committing some of his assaults while “others were present or nearby”.

Rolf Harris arriving at court in 2017

Peter Watt, representing the NSPCC in 2014, said that Harris’s convictions “send a message that no-one is untouchable and justice can come at any time”.

Following his release from prison, Harris subsequently withdrew from public life, spending his time in Bray, Berkshire.

The death of the “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport” singer comes just days after the release of a new ITV documentary about his crimes, telling of the rise and fall of the former “national treasure”.

The two-part documentary, titled Hiding in Plain Sight, included new testimony from his accusers, including those who waived their right to anonymity to discuss the impact his assaults had on them.

Harris is survived by his wife Alwen Hughes, 91, who stuck by the convicted paedophile throughout his prison sentence, and their daughter Bindi, 59.

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