For anyone who grew up in the Seventies and Eighties, Rolf Harris: Hiding In Plain Sight is a deeply uncomfortable watch. Harris, a “social hypnotist”, fooled the public, police and even the Royal family into believing (in his own words) he was the same jovial person at the stage door as he was on TV.
Within minutes of this two-part documentary, we learn the Australian-born entertainer and Jimmy Savile both ruthlessly used celebrity power to groom young women and girls in full view, often on shows together.
At its peak, Savile’s show Jim’ll Fix It attracted 15 million viewers. Children like me eagerly wrote to BBC Television Centre in Wood Lane (the address is still imprinted in my mind) begging for our dreams to come true. But for many who received replies, it turned into the stuff of nightmares.
We see Savile place his hand on the shoulder of one blonde schoolgirl called Lynn, who submitted a letter requesting to watch Harris paint in 1976. She looks no older than 12. He says to Harris: “Do you think I may leave her in your charge?” The artist replies, “Safely leave her in my capable hands.”
Once the drawing is complete, Savile reappears. Harris tells his co-host, “She is anxious to run away.” Savile then jokes, “She is, I’ve got fast hold of her”, while Harris adds sternly, “You stay here and enjoy it, girl.” Viewed in 2023, knowing what we now know, the footage and the words are deeply chilling.
Karen Gardner applied to be on Harris’s Star Games show after a notice was put up at her Cambridge school in 1978. She describes here how he told her she was “irresistible”, adding, “I was 16, he was 48. He was 10 years older than my dad. For the first couple of hours, he was lovely. I didn’t see any signs of what was to come at all. Nothing.”
Then, she says, within 35 minutes, Harris sexually abused her three times. “It was horrible,” she says. “Your blood turns to concrete. I cannot explain the triumph in his eyes. You knew he’d won and you’d lost but you hadn’t a chance to defend yourself.”
Like many others, Gardner suspected if she told her parents or the police, she wouldn’t be believed. Her fears were well-founded. In 1985, Harris appeared on the BBC Breakfast Time sofa to launch his Kids Can Say No guide, a video accompanying it gave schoolchildren advice on rejecting inappropriate advances.
Harris is seen larking around and singing with uniformed police officers and children in multi-coloured sweaters, days before attending a global conference on abuse. “Just because he’s a grown-up, does not mean you have to do what he says,” instructs Harris, without a hint of irony.
Setting himself up as a person who could be trusted, he tells children to say firmly to perverts: “Go away, please!” Harris adds, “A lot of cases you’ll find that adults don’t believe you. ‘Oh, don’t be so stupid’ or ‘How dare you tell such lies?’ These problems are a lot more widespread than anybody believes. A lot of it has been pushed under the carpet.”
Harris knew he was different to Savile. Five decades of being the nation’s avuncular and loveable ‘uncle’, and a CBE (of which he was later stripped) for painting the Queen’s 80th birthday portrait, solidified his undeserved position as a safe pair of hands we allowed into our front rooms each weekend.
Harris, now 93, was convicted of 12 indecent assaults in June 2014 under the Metropolitan Police’s Operation Yewtree, an investigation launched after Savile’s death.
These included one on an eight-year-old autograph hunter, two on girls in their early teens, and a catalogue of abuse against a friend of his daughter over the course of 16 years.
Hindsight is wonderful thing. But, as I remember at the time, the word paedophile didn’t exist in common parlance like it does today. According to my parents, there were just men you “weren’t allowed to be alone with”. Harris wasn’t like that for the viewing public – he was the sort you’d allow to look after your children.
This punchy film doesn’t reveal much about Harris that isn’t now painfully known: it’s more of a recording of events. It’s spread over two hour-long episodes, and at the end of first there’s a caption revealing that Harris was acquitted after two juries failed to convict him of assaulting Gardner, and allegations made by a second talking head were not tried in court because they occurred outside the UK. The second part deals with how the net finally closed in.
Though it could probably have benefited from being tightly cut into 60 hard-hitting minutes, the documentary, produced by Lila Allen and Nick Hornby, starkly highlights the national disgrace that Harris hadn’t been questioned until it was too late. Never again should we be so trusting.
Rolf Harris: Hiding in Plain Sight is out now on ITVX and will air on ITV tonight