Rolf Harris: Hiding in Plain Sight review – the awful truth behind the abuse that shocked a nation
There can be few people who, when the outpouring of allegations of historic child sexual abuse against the late Jimmy Savile began in 2012, did not at least acknowledge that there had always been something unsettling about the man, even if their only exposure to him was a few seconds of Jim’ll Fix It. Those who followed him more closely would have read the clues to his monstrousness scattered in his autobiography, the hints he gave to interviewers that his apparent philanthropy was a front to allow him to get away with things, or the casual jokes he made about sex with young girls (“My case comes up next Thursday!”). Of course those who worked in the prisons and hospitals that allowed him free access to patients knew far more – from the nurses who would refuse to leave vulnerable patients alone with him to the higher-ups to whom those nurses did not feel able to complain.
But Rolf Harris was different. When he was arrested in 2013 and charged as a result of the Operation Yewtree police investigation (leading to a conviction on 12 counts of indecent assault – one later overturned – and a nearly six-year sentence, of which he served half), there was genuine shock and disbelief. Nobody saw it coming, I don’t think. Except his many victims, of course, whose years of silent suffering are firmly attested to in this two-part documentary.
Karen Gardner was 16 in 1978 when she jumped at the chance to help in the filming of Star Games (a celebrity version on ITV of the BBC’s It’s a Knockout). She was assigned to assist Harris on the day and “for the first couple of hours he was lovely”. He then went on to assault her three times. She declines to say exactly what he did – a growing trend in these kinds of documentaries, and a pleasing sign of evolution in both survivors’ confidence and programme-makers’ attitudes – but notes that her period was due “and my breasts were very tender. There was no doubt he’d done it and done it deliberately. It was humiliating, degrading and awful. And your blood turns to concrete.” As in other victim testimonies later in the programme, she notes the look in his eyes – lascivious, triumphant, free of remorse. He was 48 at the time: “Ten years older than my dad.” She stayed silent for years because she thought she must have done something to deserve it. But “I bloody didn’t”.
The programme follows what is now, sadly, an established formula. The entertainer’s career is outlined, salient points emphasised – Harris’s friendship with Savile and appearances on Jim’ll Fix It, plus his involvement with an anti-child abuse campaign where he urged children to tell a trusted adult about anything that was happening to them – and commentary supplied from TV insiders such as Michael Grade and Mark Lawson explaining the place the star had in the social firmament. All this is interspersed with accounts from those who were exploited by him. This includes a friend of Harris’s daughter, Bindi, who speaking via her psychotherapist, claims that she (the friend) was abused by him for years from the age of 13.
That we have seen and heard it all before in recent documentaries about celebrities (several on Savile, R Kelly, Michael Jackson, Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein and Prince Andrew) doesn’t lessen its power but gives it cumulative strength.
There are signs, too, that such documentaries are preparing to broaden their focus. The programmes about R Kelly have increasingly asked questions about his enablers – the people who helped him get the girls and keep them confined to his mansion, turning a blind eye to the obvious wrongdoing – and the many who colluded in Epstein’s horrors (beyond Ghislaine Maxwell). Here, makeup artist Suzi Dent remembers Harris groping her whenever she had to powder his face but just as angrily recalls that not one of the men in the room stood up for her despite her repeated requests for him to leave her alone. “It was the green light to have fun with me.”
So many green lights everywhere, still. So many stories to come.