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Rolf Harris death: The disgraced entertainer’s rise and fall

Australian novelty songwriter and cartoonist was a British TV mainstay for decades before history of sexual abuse uncovered as part of Operation Yewtree in 2013

Joe Sommerlad
Tuesday 23 May 2023 17:19 BST
Rolf Harris: Disgraced television entertainer dies aged 93

Disgraced entertainer Rolf Harris has died aged 93, it has been announced.

The Australian had been a popular singer, artist and children’s presenter on British television for decades before his shocking fall from grace began in 2013 when he was arrested and charged with historic sexual offences against young girls.

He had been investigated as part of Operation Yewtree, leading to his jailing the following year.

Harris was sentenced to five years and nine months behind bars but served less than three before he was released on licence in May 2017.

Thereafter he lived in Bray, Berkshire, entirely withdrawn from public life with his reputation in tatters, stripped of his MBE, OBE, CBE and Membership of the Order of Australia and with his work completely withdrawn from public view.

“Your reputation lies in ruins,” he was told at his sentencing by Mr Justice Sweeney. “You have been stripped of your honours and you have no-one to blame but yourself.”

Here is a look back at the rise and fall of a performer who had been a mainstay of British entertainment since the 1950s until his crimes were exposed.

1930

Rolf Harris is born in Bassendean, a suburb of Perth, Western Australia, on 30 March 1930, the son of Cromwell and Margaret Harris, two immigrants from Cardiff.

He is raised in Wembley, Perth, and attends Bassendean State School and Perth Modern School in Subiaco, later gaining a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Western Australia and a diploma of education from Claremont Teachers’ College.

As an adolescent in the mid-1940s, he is recognised for his skill as a portrait painter and becomes a champion swimmer.

1952

Harris first arrives in England in 1952 and enrols as an art student at City and Guilds of London Art School in south London.

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Aged just 23, he gains his first broadcast experience with the BBC, drawing on the children’s programmes Jigsaw, Paper Magic and Whirligig.

Disillusioned by art school, he befriends fellow Australian painter Howard Veal, who becomes a mentor and encourages his interest in impressionism.

Begins performing novelty songs at the Down Under club to audiences of expat Australians and New Zealanders, including “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport”.

1958

Harris marries Alwen Hughes, a Welsh sculptor and jeweller, on 1 March 1958. Ms Hughes would survive him having stuck by his side throughout the disgrace of his final years.

1959

The artist returns to his native Perth to spearhead the introduction of locally-produced TV, featuring in numerous shows, touring and eventually releasing “Tie Me Kangaroo Down” as a single.

He makes a name for himself as a beloved entertainer in the early Sixties, developing his signature catchphrase (said while completing a painting live on stage): “Can you tell what it is yet?”

1962

Returning to the UK, he is introduced to future Beatles producer George Martin, who leads him to singles chart success with a re-release of “Tie Me Kangaroo Down” and “Sun Arise”.

1964

Harris’s daughter Bindi is born on 1 March 1964, named after the town of Bindi Bindi in Western Australia.

The same year, he presents the TV shows Hi There and Hey Presto It’s Rolf.

Rolf Harris in 1964 (Getty)

1967

The Rolf Harris Show is broadcast on BBC One, running for five years and elevating his fame further.

Also that year, he provides commentary on the Eurovision Song Contest.

1969

Harris enjoys his biggest hit in terms of record sales, a reworking of the 1903 song “Two Little Boys” about the American Civil War.

1971

Harris is made the subject of an episode of the biography series This is Your Life.

He would be again in a later 1995 instalment of the same programme, underlining the extent and duration of his popularity at the time.

1979

He presents Rolf’s Cartoon Time on BBC One, which runs for a decade.

1982

Harris performs didgeridoo on Kate Bush’s album The Dreaming.

He would appear again on her 2005 comeback album Aerial.

1985

He presents a 20-minute public information film called Kids Can Say No! warning against the dangers of child abuse.

1989

Harris moves to CITV and presents Rolf’s Cartoon Club for four years.

1993

In this year, he performs at Glastonbury for the first time, notably an idiosyncratic cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” featuring his trademark wobble board.

Harris returns on six further occasions over the course of the next 20 years.

1994

Presents Animal Hospital, a popular documentary series following events at RSPCA veterinary practices, which runs for a decade.

2001

Presents Rolf on Art for three years, profiling such world-famous artists as Van Gogh, Degas, Monet and Gauguin.

Another series, Star Portraits with Rolf Harris, follows.

2005

Paints Queen Elizabeth II’s portrait. His work is unveiled at Buckingham Palace on 19 December 2005, with some commentators labelling it “offensive and unbecoming” but Her Majesty herself expressing approval.

It subsequently tours public galleries around the UK but has not been seen since his conviction. Harris would also perform at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Concert at Buckingham Palace in June 2012.

Rolf Harris with his portrait of Queen Elizabeth II (Danny Lawson/PA)

2013

Harris is one of 12 people arrested in March 2013 as part of Operation Yewtree for questioning over historic sexual offences. Harris denies any wrongdoing and is bailed without charge.

He is arrested again as part of the same investigation and charged with nine counts of indecent assault dating back to the 1980s, involving two girls between 14 and 16 years old, and four counts alleging the production of indecent images of children in 2012 (these latter four charges would later be dropped after Harris’s lawyers successfully proved that the models featured in the pictures retrieved from their client’s personal computer were of age).

Harris appears at Westminster Magistrates’ Court on 23 September 2013. His lawyer indicates he will plead not guilty to all nine indecent assault charges.

In December, the Crown Prosecution Service announces that Harris will face three further counts of alleged sexual assault, relating to females aged 19 in 1984, aged 14 in 1975 and aged seven or eight in 1968 or 1969, making 12 in total.

2014

Harris pleads not guilty at a further hearing at Southwark Crown Court on 14 January 2014.

A trial follows, beginning on 6 May 2014 at the same venue.

On 30 June, Harris is found guilty on all 12 counts of indecent assault, seven of which relate to the same victim, a friend of his daughter, who was aged between 13 and 15 in six instances.

In July 2014, at the age of 84, he is sentenced to five years and nine months in prison.

2017

Harris is released on licence on 19 May 2017 after serving nearly three years at HM Prison Stafford and lives away from the public gaze in Berkshire, his artistic legacy in shreds.

On 16 November, it is announced that one of Harris’s convictions will be overturned but the Court of Appeal dismisses his application to challenge the remaining 11.

2022

It is announced that Harris is suffering from neck cancer, unable to talk or eat and in need of 24-hour care.

2023

Rolf Harris’s death, aged 93,  is announced by his family.

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