Rolf Still Dodging the Stairway to Heaven
Australian artist and entertainer Rolf Harris is 80 today. Englishman KRIS GRIFFITHS pays tribute to his and Britain’s favourite Australian.
SIR Rolf is without doubt my, and most of the UK’s, favourite Australian of all time – an entertainment phenomenon who’s worked our screens since TV began, successfully crossing over from art to music to presenting without ever losing his cross-generational appeal.
Rolf was born in Perth on this day in 1930 to Welsh parents who later convinced him to seek his fortune back in Britain, where he arrived in the 50s as an art student. Little did they know he would go on to paint himself into the nation’s consciousness so permanently that were he to die tomorrow it would make the front page of every newspaper in the country.
My own personal experience of Rolf dates back to my earliest TV memory, circa four years old: an early-80s BBC vehicle called Rolf’s Cartoon Time, presented by this odd-looking bloke, curly hair and beard, funny accent, sat in front of a drawing-board effortlessly sketching famous cartoon characters, accurate to the whisker, while making strange cooing and whistling noises.
There was always the customary “Canyatellwhatitisyet?” which, even as a nipper, I would find slightly patronising when he was quite clearly drawing Yosemite Sam.
I remember falling into a trance watching him at work, religiously every week, like visiting a fun uncle who’d always have a new trick to confound you with.
But then something awful happened. Remember in Wayne’s World when Wayne and Garth unwittingly sign a contract that transforms their cool independently-filmed bedroom show into a way uncool and overblown studio production with tacky theme-tune? Well, without warning, Rolf’s Cartoon Time became Rolf’s Cartoon Club, and switched to commercial channel ITV. Gone was the intimate space and softly-spoken presenter, replaced by a huge studio full of annoying kids.
And, much worst, Rolf himself had suddenly become a tad too zany and over-animated, introducing the show with a wacky panting beatbox thing that I’d never heard before.
It was a watershed moment in my growing-up – ironically I pretty much grew out of cartoons after seeing Rolf’s Cartoon Club, but then only a few years down the line did it become clear how legendary he was, and how I could never begrudge him.
Despite never really explaining why he tied that kangaroo down, Rolf scored a string of hit singles armed with nothing more than a simple tune and a didgeridoo or his pioneering wobble-board – ‘Jake The Peg’ was #1 in the UK chart for seven weeks, while his wobbletastic cover of ‘Stairway To Heaven’ charted higher than any of Led Zeppelin’s own singles.
Such was his across-the-board popularity he was invited to play Glastonbury five times, becoming one of the festival’s biggest draws. One of my major life regrets is somehow missing them all, despite having attended five Glastonburys myself, with the added irony of missing his 5th appearance last year because I was visiting Australia for the first time.
His latter-day TV shows Rolf On Art and Animal Hospital won the highest ratings ever for their genre, with one vet surgery scene of Rolf’s tearful breakdown as a dog is euthanised forever ingrained in fans’ memories, a spontaneous display that boosted the next episode’s ratings to a zenith of 10m.
Rolf’s legacy goes on. There are numerous icons of modern art: Warhol’s Marilyn, Munch’s Scream, a female tennis player scratching her arse, but can any be more enduring than the Rolferoo?
There was one artistic blip, however, when in 2005 he painted a less than flattering portrait of The Queen, who ended up with serious buck teeth and psychotic eyes (pictured). She still made him a CBE the following year, to add to his MBE, OBE and umpteen honorary university doctorates.
Rolf is one of those rare stars though who deserves the full weight of honours bestowed upon him, a true entertainer and master of arts who will never outstay his welcome.
I was fortunate enough to finally meet the legend at an Australian gallery launch in Fulham in 2007, where he was happy to pose outside for a photo with me.
As he now reaches the final brush strokes of his career, I’d like to wish him on behalf of the country a heartfelt happy 80th and thanks for every song, sketch, beatbox and board-wobble delivered throughout the 20th century.
Here’s to you Rolferoo!
By Kris Griffiths