A portrait of Rolf

Jonathan Laurence 31 January 2008

Jonathan Laurence talks to enduring legend Rolf Harris about art, performing and Aussie stereotypes

We live in an age where “good TV” is generally held to involve someone getting paid rather too much to pretend to be rather angry and mouthy. But thankfully, Rolf Harris’s brand of genuine enthusiasm and warmth stands in stark contrast to the Simon Cowells and Gordon Ramsays of this world. His five decade long career has taken in several major hits, a string of successful TV shows and some incredibly beautiful and thoughtful paintings.

“I think the truth of the matter is that I’m obviously very honest about what I do and who I am, and the person you see up on stage or on television is exactly the same person that you meet after the show”, Rolf says, when I ask him how he thinks he has been able to maintain his success for so long.

“I think that people like the fact that I am approachable, because there are some people in show business who would run away rather than sign a piece of paper for the fans. I find it most fascinating that they can do that, because to me interacting with the public is part and parcel of the job”, he adds.

I also suggest that part of his appeal is that he always seems to enjoy himself while he’s presenting. “I try and have an air of mischief about me—I’m like a big kid really, enjoying what I do”. And when I suggest his enthusiasm is key to the success of his art programmes, he says “I hope that I encourage other people to have a go, and try it out. It’s accessible to everybody if they want to try, they can have a go, and I’m happy to be the catalyst that helps them on their way.”

But as he talks more about the subject I realise quickly that there is nothing gimmicky about Rolf’s passion for art—he clearly absolutely adores painting, and wants others to share in that pleasure. His self-proclaimed “air of mischief” vanishes briefly when he says “I think it’s a terrible tragedy that when every little kid first goes into school, they can draw anything. You give them a piece of paper and a pencil and they draw. We might not recognise what they’re drawing, but they’re quite happy with it—they just get on and do it.

“And then at the end of that school system, 99% of those kids come out and know that they will never touch a paintbrush or a crayon in their whole lives—they’ve had it somehow kicked out of them.”

It’s only when conversation turns to Rolf’s first major hit that it becomes obvious to me how important honesty has been to his whole career. “I had a huge hit with Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport, which let me know that I could be myself and speak the way I speak and be successful with that,” he says.

“I kept trying to lose my Australian accent because I’d been advised to do that when I first came over to Britain. People said ‘You must lose that Australian accent old boy, or you’ll never work at all’, and of course you think that’s gospel when you’re 22, and someone of 55 or 60 is telling you this. You think they know what they’re talking about.”

It must have been pretty satisfying to prove all those people wrong, I suggest. “You can imagine how excited I was to know that here I was speaking in an unashamedly Australian accent, and people were trekking out and buying the record. It was probably only about the second song that they’d ever had in an Australian accent—everybody had been imitating the Americans before then, and they’re still doing it today.”

When I ask him when he decided to use his own accent when performing, he is quick to point out: “I did try to lose it for several years, but then went back to Australia doing a daily half hour show on children’s television, and I didn’t have time to worry about the way I spoke or trying to pronounce anything (in inverted commas) correctly.

“I just spoke the way I speak and I got on with it and it felt marvelous, and everybody reacted very very well to what I was doing. It was just a wonderful year.”

From here we start to talk about Australian stereotypes, and when I ask whether he thinks there is any truth to them, Rolf’s first answer is playful, but his tone changes as his response develops. “A lot of them drink a lot of beer—I know that! But I think that an awful lot of Australians would complain about the stereotyping of beer-drinking sports lovers, with nothing else in their lives.

“I think there are tremendous other areas of Australia that quite often fail to get taken into account. There are terrific inventions and huge steps forward in medicine happening in Australia, and the music scene is terrific as well. There are other things than beer and sport.”

I also question whether there is anything about Britain that still seems strange compared with Australia. “The formality of it all is still a bit strange,” he says. “I was used to a really happy-go-lucky approach to life in Australia, and to find out how formal everything was caused a bit of a shock, and in a funny way is still a bit of a shock.

“And I think that the people who make things happen, and the people who get things done are the people who are prepared to break through that formality and do different things, and have a go at something different.”

His own portrait of the Queen, commissioned by the BBC for her 80th birthday, seems to be a great example of this. His likeness conveys a genuine warmth and humanity. When I ask him if he was pleased with it, his response lacks none of his characteristic enthusiasm. “It was just wonderful. It took a long time to get it finished, but the end result was I think first and foremost a very good likeness, and secondly it wasn’t a formal portrait.”

“I wanted the queen to look like a real person, with a welcoming smile, and I think that I achieved it. Had I not had a recognizable likeness, it would have been awful.”

I don’t want to use the phrase, because I think it’s hideously patronising. But there’s no other way to say it—Rolf Harris shows no signs of slowing down. Increasingly aware of new media—he has a revamped web site with a ton of exclusive content, and is using the Internet to put out a specially recorded DVD of all the classic hits for which he is best known.

When I ask him whether he’s going to keep on doing new things in 2008, his response is pretty unambiguous. “I equate retirement with laying down and dying. You see so many people who look forward all their lives to retiring, and then they just sit on the couch and watch television and die after about six months. So I’ve got no desire to do that.”