The esteemed Australian TV presenter, artist and singer pops his Wobble Board down for a moment to discuss his route into the industry and the secret of good presenting.
Words by Anwar Brett
The career of long serving television icon Rolf Harris is all the more remarkable when you consider the many changes the medium has undergone in the last 60 years. In his early days he learned his craft in the unforgiving crucible of live television and has endured because he developed a strong bond with successive generations of audiences who came to know him like a friend.
So 60years after his arrival in the UK from his native Australia, Harris has an interesting perspective from which to survey a career that has embraced art, music, children’s television and documentary subjects – and all because he wrote to the BBC to ask for an audition.
“A man who helped me tremendously was Robert Harbin,” Harris recalls. “He was a fantastically creative magician who made and operated a puppet called Fuzz that I was telling stories to on my first programme, Jigsaw.
“I went on to paint his portrait, and that painting on a sheet of hardboard became my first Wobble Board. That went on to be a huge success, it provided the background rhythm for Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport which was my first record and became a number one hit.”
As Harris was building his experience in television, becoming in the course of the 1950s the only man to appear regularly on the BBC and the fledgling ITV network, he was also performing live cabaret in venues like The Down Under Club in Fulham. The ability to play to a crowd, to respond to their mood, obviously stood him in good stead for his television work. But it was the advice of an industry legend that offered a particularly useful lesson.
“It was a lady called Hermione Gingold, who was the highest paid cabaret artist in London when I first arrived here. She saw me do a live performance and afterwards asked if she could tell me something. She said ‘You never looked at me once during your performance.’ I was a bit gobsmacked, because I thought she was going to tell me how good I was, but I said ‘I didn’t know who you were then, I’ve only been introduced to you now.’
“She said ‘No, you misunderstand, you never looked at anybody in the audience. You must have the courage to meet everybody’s eyes in that audience, and if you don’t you’ll never achieve your potential.’ She said it was the same with a television camera, you look down the barrel of that lens and must know that you’re talking to one person at home in a room on their own.
“You gear your voice to that level, it’s no good shouting at them because they’ll wonder who you’re shouting at. You use the microphone and talk directly at them. Don’t embarrass them, don’t stare at them but come back to their eyes every time you have an important point to make but look away and treat them like a real person in a conversation.”
Think of Rolf Harris in any of his television shows – from Hi There to Hey Presto, It’s Rolf to the variety styling of The Rolf Harris Show, from Cartoon Club to the long running Animal Hospital series and Rolf On Art programmes and the easygoing style is as obvious as his eclectic talents.
It’s that innate friendliness, combined with a sense that the 82-year-old is engaged by whatever subject he is dealing with that accounts for his longevity with the British public. And it is surely no coincidence that children, the toughest audience of all, respond most positively to a role model like Rolf Harris who shares their gleeful enthusiasm and doesn’t talk down to them.
“Ooh, you can’t talk down to them,” he adds, “you must listen to them when they speak because you remember the teachers that you used to love when you were a kid and they were the ones who listened to you when you spoke to them. The ones you couldn’t stand were the ones who talked at you and never paid any attention to your reaction.
“They felt that because they were 10 or 20 years older than you that they demanded and expected your immediate respect because of that age difference. I think the people that taught you with love and affection and with enthusiasm, they were the ones that got you hooked on a subject.”
Still painting daily, still making music, and looking forward to another art series – and a soon to be published book – Harris remains as busy as ever and it’s quite clear he wouldn’t have it any other way.