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It’s not every day you get to meet your childhood hero.

But, as it’s TNT’s 1500th issue, I wanted to celebrate it accordingly, by speaking to an Aussie legend. And who better than Rolf Harris? I grew up enthralled by his dynamic cartoon sketches, his deft broad-brushstroke paintings, the way he talked to animals, the way he cried for them. Now, here I am, standing next the man. Like a starry-eyed teenager, I nervously ask to have my photo taken with him, and the 82-year-old makes a sprightly leap to his feet, straightens up his jacket, and asks me to fasten his top button.

Disarmed by his casualness, I fumble nervously with the most stubborn buttonhole in the history of shirt-making, praying not to be known as the girl that choked Rolf. We both smile as the camera flashes. His grin stays as he tells me he’s just heard that, after 60 years in British TV, he will be awarded the Bafta Fellowship at this year’s awards. I wrongly assume it’s just another feather in his cap. After all, the letters CBE and AM trail his name; he’s got two honorary doctorates; he is an honorary member of the Royal Society of British Artists; he is officially Glastonbury’s most popular entertainer; he’s the ’king’ of South Australia festival Moomba; and he painted the Queen. Still, he’s chuffed.

Showing a warm humility, but gleaming with pride, he recalls blazing a trail on the small screen as the only artist working for the BBC, and on commercial radio station Rediffusion, from 1953. “It’s a thrill to be recognised. On commercial TV, I had a thing about a little octopus I used to draw on my hand called Oliver Polip the Octopus.“ Harris pauses to make an octopus shape with his hands, and then talks to it. “Oop! You alright? Yeah, there’s a bit of banana skin there ...“  Clearly, he’s still very fond of Oliver, the adventures of whom became the mainstay of Harris’s children’s shows, even when he returned to Australia in 1959 to help usher in the advent of television.

Harris was born in Bassendean, Perth, arriving in London in 1952 with dreams of being a famous painter like his grandfather. However, not only could he paint, play the piano and sing, it is little known that he was a junior backstroke champion over 100m in 1946 – swimming it in 80 seconds flat.

However his passions were art and performing, and a year later, he began his phenomenal TV career, including award-winning Animal Hospital, Rolf On Art, which garnered the highest ratings ever for an arts programme (only Harris could popularise watching paint dry) and Rolf’s Cartoon Club, which he cites as a career highlight. “That was amazing because we were lucky enough to get the first piece of equipment, which enabled you to do animation actually on the computer screen,” he explains.

“We used that technology before anyone else, and we taught kids about animation. It was just great.“Not bad at all for a boy from Western Australia, whose flair for entertaining was nurtured in front of homesick Aussies at the Down Under Club in Fulham. Convinced by a mate to head down for some musical lark, he would take his accordion and everyone would join in a sing-along. It was the precursor of performing every Thursday night for five years, and inspired Harris’s most enduring song, Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport. “I was booed off stage the first time because everybody was embarrassed by it, and I would never have sang it again,” he admits. “Funny, isn’t it? I had so little self-confidence in those days. Except there was a bloke, John Latimer – he used to do all the dental work for the Aussies – he said ’sing us that mad kangaroo song’, and I said, 'nobody liked it', and he said, ’I did, sing the bloody song!’.

Image: BBC Photographer Richard Ansett


Interview: Rolf Harris - Can you tell what it is yet?
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