Bitter memories of SA’s love for Rolf

Jul 07, 2014

The newsprint might be fading but the promise of the young champion swimmer and precocious artist Rolf Harris still shines from Adelaide’s newspaper archive.

Harris was sentenced on Friday to more than five years’ prison for the indecent assault of four girls in Britain between 1968 and 1986.

Since he was sentenced, more women have come forward with accusations about Harris – a man who wooed Adelaide from young age with his feats as a champion swimmer and, later, sold out shows in the early years of the Adelaide Festival of Arts.

At first, a search of Adelaide news clippings shows Harris is mentioned as just a name in results at the Australian swimming championships. The competitive backstroker in the Western Australian team made several trips to Adelaide, starting in the 1940s, to compete at Adelaide’s brand new Olympic swimming pool, built on what is now the Festival Centre plaza.

On 28 January 1947, the Adelaide News included an item about Harris alongside its report on a cricket tour match between the South Australian side and the visiting English (Don Bradman, batting at three, was dismissed for five).

Under the heading, Perth Swimmer is Keen to Teach Art, The News writes: “Rolf Harris, 16-year-old West Australian backstroke swimmer and National Gallery artist, who has brought his sketching materials to Adelaide, hopes to be an art teacher.rolf-clipping

Harris is here for the national championships beginning at the Olympic Pool on Saturday night. A self-portrait painted in oils by Harris, is hanging in the National Gallery, Sydney. Rolf was less than 10 when he began sketching and water coloring. Last year he painted with oil colors for the first time. He likes to caricature and will be on the job during these championships.”

A few years later, the now bearded Harris returned to Adelaide to swim – this time with even more strings to his bow.

The News again was taken by the bright-eyed over-achiever, and published this report in January 1951.

“Rolfe (sic) Harris, 23-year-old bearded Perth swimmer, in Adelaide for the North Adelaide Amateur Swimming Club’s carnival, is also an amateur actor and an artist who has had his pictures exhibited. At the postponed first night of the carnival at the Olympic Pool tonight he will keep the crowd amused with sketches and a novelty piano item while preparations are being made for the races. His beard was grown specially for an amateur theatrical role.”

A decade later, Harris, the multi-talented vaudevillian, had made the jump to television, and had recorded a huge international hit song, “Tie me Kangaroo Down Sport”.

In 1969, his recording of the old Civil War song, “Two Little Boys”, was another huge seller. On the back of that success, the director of the 1970 Adelaide Festival, Sir Robert Helpmann, invited Harris here as the headliner of the “popular” section of the program.

It was a heavyweight program including legendary dancer Rudolf Nureyev, the Royal Shakespeare company, headed, by Dame Peggy Ashcroft, and the Bunraku puppet company from Japan.

This is how the Canberra Times’ arts critic Frances Kelly described the program in a report from September 1969.

“It is a rather heavy programme, perhaps too heavy. A few laughs are needed. Certainly Harris is included, but he has been placed almost disdainfully at the bottom of the list in the popular department as if for the uneducated masses.

“This is a great pity. Although it has been explained that ‘popular’ entertainers cannot be signed until the end of the year or early next year because of uncertain commitments, I think more attention should have been paid to young people and those who are not avid culture vultures.”

As it turned out, Harris became one of the hits of the Festival, quickly selling out his show at the Apollo Stadium at Richmond and scheduling two more.

As the Sydney Morning Herald reported during the March festival: “The locals are queuing up mostly for the Georgian Dancers, although the Royal Shakespeare Company is faring reasonably well. But the longest queues formed after it was announced that Rolf Harris would give a couple of extra concerts.

“Some locals took blankets and blankets to the little street outside the main festival office and spent the night.”

Immediately after the Festival, he described it as “the best reception I’ve ever had”.

Through the 1970s and ’80s, South Australians most viewed Harris from afar with his regular UK television shows being broadcast here. He made the switch from hopelessly daggy to ironically cool in the 1980s, when Andrew Denton invited him to contribute a cover version of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” on his ABC comedy show, The Money or the Gun (complete with wobble board).

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A once nostalgic rummage through the archives is now full of disturbing and troubling moments.

But this article, published by the Sydney Morning Herald  in 1968, is probably the most bitterly ironic.

It is headlined, “Rolf Harris – the monster”.

“Would you believe Rolf Harris as a monster?

“That gentle, bearded entertainer who has countless thousands of Australian children in his TV grip each week?

“That whirling dervish who crashes in on the Sydney scene next Saturday for a nine-day nightclub stand plus tour?

“Well, he was. Once.

“We have it on the word of his brother, Sydney advertising executive Bruce Harris.

“And to put that picture straight, let’s add that Bruce is one of the loudest in the Rolf Harris cheer squad.

“Says Bruce: ‘As a kid he was a horror. A real monster.”

Of course, he was talking about his younger brother being rambunctious and precocious.

Decades later, Bruce Harris gave evidence in Rolf Harris’s trial, admitting to “leaning” on one of the potential witnesses in his brother’s sexual assault trial – but denying that he pressured her to change her story.

He said it was “just not possible” that his brother would have behaved inappropriately towards women.




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