Children all across the country opening their Christmas presents in 1969 may have seen delighted to see Australian children’s entertainer Rolf Harris meeting patients at Queen Mary’s Hospital for Children, Carshalton, Surrey on BBC One. I’m betting that during the show, he’ll have sang that year’s Christmas number 1, and final chart-topper of the decade, Two Little Boys. Until a few years ago, it was a fondly remembered anti-war song by a national treasure. Now it’s an uncomfortable reminder that a paedophile tricked us all for nearly 50, and the name of the song has only helped it become a sick joke.
Few stars have fallen in the UK as swiftly and completely as Harris. He was our favourite Aussie, loved by most, including me. And then in 2013 he was arrested and interviewed for allegations related to Operation Yewtree, set up by police in the wake of the Jimmy Savile sex scandals.
Harris was born on 30 March 1930 in Bassendean, Perth in Western Australia. He was named after Rolf Boldrewood, the pseudonym of a writer his mother, Agnes, admired. As a child, Harris loved to paint, and aged 16 and studying at Perth Modern School, his self-portrait was one of 80 works out of 200 to be hung in the Art Gallery of New South Wales as an entry in the 1947 Archibald Prize. He won his first art prize two years later. In his adolescence he was also an excellent swimmer, winning several competitions in the 40s and 50s. This is perhaps why he starred in a public information film in the 70s encouraging children to learn to swim.
He moved to England in 1952, and aged 22 he was studying at City and Guilds of London Art School in South London. Only a year later he had his big break in TV, performing a regular 10-minute cartoon drawing section on the BBC children’s show Jigsaw. By 1954 he was a regular on a similar show, Whirligig. When Harris wasn’t on TV (he also starred in ITV show Small Time from 1955) or learning from impressionist painter Hayward Veal, he could be found every Thursday at a club called the Down Under, where he would hone his entertainment skills.
By 1959 Harris was married to Welsh actress Alwen Hughes and back in Perth after being headhunted. His popularity exploded there and as well as presenting a children’s show and a variety show, he recorded his first single, Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport on one mic with four local musicians and his wobble board. He had his first hit, reaching number 1 in Australia in 1960. It sold well in the UK too and became one of his signature songs.
One of his most notable early hits was Sun Arise in 1962. Produced by George Martin, it was more serious than his usual fare, and I used to love listening to it, finding it pretty psychedelic. Harris couldn’t play the didgeridoo so the sound was replicated by eight double basses. Back in the UK, he got to know The Beatles, possibly through Martin, and despite being angered by them interfering in his act off the side of the stage during one of the Fab Four’s Christmas shows, they struck up a friendship. His 1965 single Jake the Peg became one of his most beloved songs. This tale of a man with an ‘extra leg’ would also sadly take on a whole new dimension once the truth came out.
As well as introducing us to Australian musical instruments, Harris became known in 1968 for his association with the futuristic Stylophone. He would use this miniature analog stylus-operated keyboard on his records and on TV, and he and David Bowie helped popularise the instrument. It did wonders for his street cred in the 90s when musicians like Pulp, Orbital and Stereolab began using it too, remembering Harris’s adverts from their childhood.
By the time of his number 1 single, Rolf Harris was untouchable (sadly, as it turned out), presenting the long-running The Rolf Harris Show on the BBC, churning out novelty hits and becoming one of TV’s top celebrities thanks to his charming eccentricities and lovable image.
Always on the lookout for songs for his TV show, he fell in love with Two Little Boys (ahem… see?) in 1969 and asked musical director Alan Braden to arrange a version for him.
One of the oldest songs to reach number 1 for some time, this music hall song had been written back in 1902 by American composer Theodore Morse and lyricist Edward Madden and was made popular by Scottish comedian Harry Lauder. An unashamedly sentimental tale of two young boys who played together, then fought together in the US civil war, Harris was perhaps very canny to pick such a tune as the 60s drew to a close, with the war in Vietnam proving more and more unpopular. Allegedly, John Lennon congratulated him for getting a protest song to the top of the charts. The TV audience loved it, and so he released it in time for Christmas. It ended the eight-week run of Sugar Sugar over the festive fortnight and stayed there for most of January 1970. So, after light entertainment tunes, the dying embers of rock’n’roll, Beatlemania, psychedelia and rock, the charts came full circle, and a light entertainer ruled the roost again as the 60s drew to a close.
I was genuinely hurt and disappointed when the allegations came out about Rolf Harris. Savile wasn’t a surprise at all, he was clearly weird and had a dark side (although obviously I was shocked and appalled when the scale of his shocking crimes became apparent). I felt, like much of the country, betrayed that such a loveable guy could hurt children. I watched him perform four times at Glastonbury Festival, and Two Little Boys was always one of the highlights. Looking back, I maybe sensed he wasn’t the person we were led to believe. There were times during his performances there that his real personality perhaps slipped out, and I remember finding him a bit vulgar, and wondering if in actual fact he wasn’t the weird but harmless manchild he had hoodwinked us into believing in.
Listening to Two Little Boys is a sad and uncomfortable experience now. Don’t get me wrong, it was never a masterpiece, and wasn’t something I would ever casually listen to, but it was hard not to have a soft spot for a song so full of pathos. It was a song that could make the hardest of hearts melt for a minute or two. Even Margaret Thatcher loved it! It wasn’t cool and it didn’t matter. It was about the love between two friends down the years, forced into fighting a bloody war but still looking out for each other. And that filthy heavy-breathing bastard went has ruined it for everyone.
The 70s were leaner years for Harris’s music career, but he remained very much in the public eye through his TV shows. He performed at the Sydney Opera House in 1973, and became Sir Rolf Harris in 1977, before launching a new series, Rolf on Saturday — OK?, which ran for three years.
In 1982 he performed didgeridoo on Kate Bush’s album The Dreaming, and did so again on her 2005 album Aerial. He presented Rolf’s Cartoon Time on the BBC through most of the 80s, and then moved to ITV to host Rolf’s Cartoon Club from 1989 to 1993, which is where my earliest memories of him stem. Apparently he hosted a child abuse prevention video in 1985, called Kids Can Say No!
It was around this time he began to be loved by students who remembered him from their youth. His version of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven returned him to the charts for the first time in years in 1993, and he made his Glastonbury Festival debut. As well as being an ironic figure of fun, his TV career went from strength to strength thanks to Animal Hospital, which did wonders for his public image and ran from 1994 to 2003.
Harris also moved back into serious painting, presenting Rolf on Art and then Star Portraits with Rolf Harris. He even painted the Queen for her 80th birthday in 2005. Three years later he re-recorded Two Little Boys to mark the 90th anniversary of World War One, after discovering that the song was remarkably close to the experiences of his own father and uncle during the conflict. In 2011 he appeared on Piers Morgan’s Life Stories and spoke of his experiences of clinical depression.
2012 saw Rolf perform at the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Concert, breaking out into a rendition of Two Little Boys to fill in time, before comedian Lenny Henry stopped him and was booed off stage. Then that October, Operation Yewtree began. The UK was still coming to terms with Savile’s crimes when Harris was arrested in March 2013 after many rumours he was one of the suspects. In June 2014 he was found guilty of 12 counts of indecent assault and subsequently sentenced over five years in prison. While inside, stories would occasionally appear of him having written abusive song lyrics about his victims. He was released in 2017, and was last in the news earlier this year having entered a school playground to wave at children. In this climate of #cancelled, Rolf Harris, now 88, will be loathed until the day he dies.
So, sorry to end such an innovative, startling musical decade on such a sour note, but I will be touching on the 60s again soon. Like my blog Every 50s Number 1, I will listen to the whole lot again and whittle them down to pick the best and worst of every year, before deciding on the best and worst of the decade. A mammoth task indeed.
Written by: Theodore F Morse & Edward Madden
Producer: Mickey Clarke
Conducted by: Alan Braden
Weeks at number 1: 6 (20 December 1969-30 January 1970)
Labour leader Ed Miliband – 24 December
Jamiroquai singer Jay Kay – 30 December
Labour MP Andy Burnham – 7 January
Olympic rower Tim Foster – 19 January
Comedian Mitch Benn – 20 January
Art curator Maria Balshaw – 24 January
Actor Jimmy Hankey – 13 January
Urdd founder Ifan ab Owen Edwards – 23 January
Poet Albert Evans – 26 January
Military historian Basil Liddell Hart – 29 January
Boxing Day 1969: A fire broke out at the 15th-century Rose & Crown hotel in Saffron Walden when a TV in the lounge overheated. 11 people died that night, which led to the passing in 1971 of the Fire Precautions Act 1971.
New Year’s Day 1970: The age of majority for most legal purposes reduced from 21 to 18 under the terms of the Family Law Reform Act 1969. Also that day, rhe half crown coin ceased to be legal tender, and the National Westminster Bank began trading following the merger of National Provincial Bank and Westminster Bank.
18 January: The grave of Karl Mark was vandalised by anti-Germanic racists at Highgate in London.
21 January: Fraserburgh lifeboat Duchess of Kent capsized, and five of the six crew died.
22 January: A Boeing 747 landed in Heathrow Airport, making it the first jumbo jet in the country.
27 January: The Rolling Stones’ singer Mick Jagger was fined £200 for possession of cannabis. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, as the French would say.