Veteran entertainer Rolf Harris was a “Jekyll and Hyde” character whose “untouchable” reputation allowed him to carry out a string of alleged indecent assaults on under-age girls, a court has heard.
The 84-year-old was even known at an Australian TV channel as “the octopus” because of the way he put his hands all over women, London’s Southwark Crown Court heard today.
Opening the case against the star, who denies 12 counts of indecent assault between 1968 and 1986, prosecutor Sasha Wass QC said Harris’s alleged victims were “overawed” at meeting him, saying: “Mr Harris was too famous, too powerful and his reputation made him untouchable.”
Addressing a packed courtroom, Ms Wass said Harris was “an immensely talented man” who excelled in art, music and children’s entertainment. He painted a picture of the Queen in 2005 to commemorate her 80th birthday, before being made a CBE the following year.
It was his fame and reputation that meant he was able to carry out “brazen” sexual assaults, often when other people were present or nearby, she said.
Ms Wass said: “The prosecution does not, for a minute, suggest that there is not a good, talented and kind side to Mr Harris.
“But, concealed behind this charming and amicable children’s entertainer, lay a man who exploited the very children who were drawn to him.
“There is a Jekyll and Hyde nature to Rolf Harris and this dark side of Rolf Harris was obviously not apparent to all of the other people he met during the course of his work, and it was not apparent to those who may want to testify to his good character.”
The prosecutor said it was “a side of him which is sexually attracted to children and under-age girls” and “a side which gave him the confidence to molest girls knowing that they could not object and, even if they did, nobody would believe them”.
She said: “You will hear from a make-up artist from Channel 7 in Australia that Rolf Harris’s reputation was such that he was known as the octopus because of the way that he would put his hands all over women.”
Harris, sitting in the dock wearing a grey suit, white shirt and multi-coloured tie, listened intently to the proceedings through a hearing loop as the prosecution case was outlined.
His wife Alwen and other members of his family sat listening in the public gallery alongside dozens of UK and international journalists.
Ms Wass told the court that eight alleged victims will give evidence, four of whom are the subject of charges on the indictment, and the others supporting witnesses.
“The chances of so many people making up similar false allegations are just ludicrous,” she told jurors.
She went on to outline allegations made by one of the victims, who was allegedly groomed like “a young puppy who had been trained to obey”.
The alleged victim, who is the subject of seven of the counts, claims she was abused by Harris, first while on holiday in Hawaii when she was 13 and then continuing over 15 years.
Ms Wass said: “You will hear during the course of this case other instances where Mr Harris touched children and women alike in quite brazen circumstances. It may be that that was part of the excitement, knowing that he could do that and get away with it.”
It is alleged that the girl’s parents trusted Harris, so did not suspect him.
“Rolf Harris was a pillar of society, a well-respected man and somebody who was well-known for being fond of children,” Ms Wass said.
Ms Wass said: “(The alleged victim) thought that it was as though the risk of doing this so near to (the other girl) was exciting him.”
The jury was told: “He never treated her as an equal or a human being. He never had a meaningful conversation with her. She felt, as I said to you, that she was his little toy. As a result of this grooming process, (the alleged victim) had become completely compliant.”
Eventually the woman – whose experiences at the hands of Harris led to her becoming an alcoholic – told her parents, the court heard, prompting her father to write a letter to Harris.
In a reply, thought to have been sent in March 1997, the artist confessed to having a sexual relationship with the woman, but denied it started when she was 13.
In the letter, he described being in a state of “self-loathing” and feeling “sickened” by himself for the misery he had caused her.
“You can’t go back and change things that you have done in this life – I wish to god I could,” he wrote.
He went on: “As I do these animal programmes, I see the unconditional love that dogs give to their owners and I wish I could start to love myself again.
“If there is any way that I could atone for what I have done, I would willingly do it. If there is any way I can start to help (the alleged victim) heal herself, I would willingly do it.”
He apologised to the man for betraying his trust and added: “I know that what I did was wrong but we are, all of us, fallible and oh how I deluded myself. Please forgive me, love Rolf.”
In a police interview in November 2012, Harris gave a prepared statement that said: "I categorically deny having had any sexual contact with the complainant whatsoever while she was under the age of 16.
“I admit that I did have a consensual sexual relationship with the complainant when she was an adult. I finished the relationship and she was extremely upset.”
He said he wrote the letter to her father because he had an extra-marital affair “which I knew to be wrong”, and that he was “very sorry if I had done anything to upset her”.
He was interviewed again in March 2013, when he made no comment in line with legal advice, and again in August that year when he made the following statement.
“In around 1994, I started hosting a programme called Animal Hospital on the BBC. It was an immediate hit.
“After it went on air, I received a telephone call from (the alleged victim) in which she said that she wanted me to give her £25,000 in order that she could set up an animal sanctuary with her boyfriend.
“I told her that I could not and would not pay. She told me that her brother would ’go to the papers’, by which I assumed she meant that he would reveal details of our affair to the media.
“I refused to make any payment to her. Although nothing appeared in the press at the time, I feared that it was only a matter of time until she would make our affair public. I believe that was the last time I spoke to (the woman’s name).”
The court heard that the woman had told other people about the alleged abuse.
Ms Wass said: “It demonstrates that this is not a recent invention by (the woman) to jump on any bandwagon arising out of the Jimmy Savile inquiry. It it not joining in the celebrity witch-hunt.”
The court heard that seven of the 12 counts relate to this woman, but Harris could not be charged in relation to alleged assaults while on holiday because, until 1997, someone could not be charged with alleged offences that happened outside the UK.
Harris has also not been charged in connection with offences that were said to have taken place after the woman was 19, because she was effectively consenting.
Ms Wass said Harris’s interest in the girl was not an “isolated aberration”, telling the court: “The investigation in this case has revealed that Mr Harris has used his position as a well-known and well-loved celebrity to access children and to touch them indecently in the knowledge and with the confidence that they would not make any complaints against him because of who he was.”
The court heard that some complainants came forward years ago, while others only did so after the publicity surrounding high-profile Operation Yewtree.
But jurors were told that none of the witnesses knew each other and had not “put their heads together”.
Ms Wass said one charge relates to a woman who claims Harris groped her when she was just eight years old as she went to get his autograph at a community centre in Portsmouth in 1969.
The woman, who is now in her 50s, said she watched Harris perform one of his songs at the centre and then queued for his autograph.
But after the entertainer gave her his autograph, he put his hands between her legs twice, in a way that she thought must have been deliberate.
“It was intrusive, it was not a gentle gesture in any way at all,” Ms Wass said.
Despite being young, the woman knew what he had done was wrong and threw the autograph away, the court heard.
Ms Wass said that, years later, when Harris appeared on television while the woman was watching with her husband, she described what had happened.
The woman also later made the allegations to a support group, telling them that Harris had indecently assaulted her when she was seven or eight.
And when the entertainer’s name emerged in the press in the wake of the Savile scandal, the woman sent a text message to her husband, saying: “I told you so”, the court heard.
There came a time when the woman told her support group she was confident enough to speak to the police as she now felt she would be believed, Ms Wass said.