When I met Rolf Harris, he was nothing like his celebrity persona

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I once met Rolf Harris. It would have been around 2003, and I recall that I was interviewing him to tie in with a now long-forgotten TV project called Star Portraits with Rolf Harris (the affixing of the name to the title proving that he still had celebrity wattage).

Harris, who has died at the age of 93, had never been one of my heroes. As a child of the 1980s, the show that was very much my era – Rolf’s Cartoon Club – seemed too formulaic, and anyway, I was never keen on Looney Tunes, those abrasive mid-20th century cartoons, featuring Porky Pig and Bugs Bunny.

Rolf Harris pictured in London in 2004.Credit: AP

Harris was also a bit too folksy for me: the presenters I adored as a child in the UK, such as Derek Griffiths on Play School and Sandi Toksvig on No 73, had an anarchic quality, a sense that they would lead you through a series of exhilarating pranks.

Still, I felt like I got Rolf, understood why he was loved by millions and – perhaps most importantly – that he inspired a lot of kids to pick up a paintbrush. He was encouraging and ebullient. There was also a chummy niceness.

Had I been a fan, the Rolf I met that day would have destroyed my inner child. He was cold, cantankerous and, I later mused, a little disappointed that I wasn’t an attractive young woman. He answered my questions in a rather depressed sounding monotone, an antipodean Eeyore who was tired of turning it on for the cameras.

Nevertheless he did turn it on when the photographer arrived, putting his grizzled, grey bearded face through a gilt-edged picture frame; that famous chuckle seeming to emanate from him effortlessly. Here was the cuddly, warmed-up persona ready to play ball.

And warm up he did. After I tried to reverse the situation with a few sycophantic questions, he proved to be a thoughtful interviewee, albeit one with a chip on his shoulder. He told me about arriving in London as a “colonial” in 1950s London, having to doff his cap to the public schoolboys who then stalked the corridors of the BBC.

Then, after I mentioned his pop career, he began, quite unexpectedly, to sing me Two Little Boys, his 1969 number one hit. I had never liked that song, found its sentiment about two childhood friends reuniting in the Second Boer War a little forced. (I am sure millions disagree with me.) But in the echoing silence of a photographic studio, hearing his slightly tremulous voice was, if not moving, then poignant. Here was a man who was clinging on to past glories, but very much aware that his best days were behind him.

I remember leaving our meeting thinking that Harris was probably a depressive, though I had no darker thoughts than that – and when he was exposed as a paedophile several years later, I was shocked.

One of the recurring debates in our current climate is whether you can separate the artist from their art. Harris was one of those whose work was debated in a recent Channel 4 documentary on this subject, presented by Jimmy Carr. Actually, I don’t believe he had much merit as an artist, and many critics, including the late Brian Sewell, who referred to him as a “Sunday artist”, agree with me.

Rolf Harris at the unveiling of his portrait of the Queen in 2005.Credit: AP

The deeper problem with Harris is that both his work and his persona were much loved, inextricably linked. While we can safely consign his art work (including that nasty 2005 oil painting of Queen Elizabeth II) to the dustbin of history, the residual appeal of his public persona is a problem.

Many people in Britain grew up adoring different facets of the man. If you grew up in the 1960s, you may have loved his novelty records. In the 1970s, you may well have watched his Saturday evening singalong show Rolf on Saturday OK?

These fans would have provided an inherited audience when Harris struck gold with the tear-jerking Animal Hospital in the 1990s.

Still, in the light of his horrific deeds, nobody would consider him a national treasure, no matter how entertaining you found him at the time.

That day, I found him to be a baffling, contradictory figure. And now, after his death, he will be remembered that way, if, ultimately, he is remembered at all.

Ben Lawrence is an arts writer. This article was first published in the UK Telegraph.

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