By John Henwood
OCCASIONALLY I suffer from ear worms. Well, suffer is not exactly the right word because they don’t cause pain or distress, but they can be irritating. This particular affliction occurs when a tune or a snatch of a lyric pops into my head without warning and without any discernible reason. Sometimes it stays for days, with the same musical phrase repeated over and over then, suddenly, it goes away.
This week both tune and lyric arrived simultaneously and I had heard neither for eight years. I know it’s that long because it was in the summer of 2014 that music composed and performed by Rolf Harris was no longer heard. My ear worm was called Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport. For younger readers who have probably never heard of it, the song was released in the UK in 1960 when it became a huge hit.
I’ll touch on the lyrics, which I found funny, a little later, but this particular worm made me realise how much I missed hearing Rolf Harris’s songs and, extending the thought, how I had met Rolf Harris and others at the height of their fame who later became personae non grata.
Harris, Clement Freud and Jimmy Savile are three such. I’m sure everyone, however young, will have heard of Savile, who died in the affection of his many fans. It was after his death in 2011 that credence began to be given to stories which had circulated, disbelieved for many years, about his abuse of young people. Then, from the legend of a hugely popular radio and television personality, emerged a monster.
Savile’s mother was a Roman Catholic, whose long-time friend was a nun of the order of The Little Sisters of the Poor and who for a time lived and worked with the order in Jersey. Savile would come to the Island to see his mother, ‘The Duchess’, when she was staying here. He was interviewed on Channel Television and privately let it be known he was looking for an opportunity to project his serious side. ITV provided it in a religious programme called ‘Mrs Worthington’s Daughter’ about the conflict between Christianity and show business. In a bizarre hooded robe Savile gave a televised sermon on the theme in St Saviour’s Parish Church.
My own recollection of Savile at that time is that he was odd. When the act was over, he was very uncommunicative and it is easy with the benefit of hindsight to see that there was a dark side to him. Just how dark it would take years to discover.
Clement Freud was one of the most amusing people I ever met. A regular on a number of popular radio and television shows, he was also a racehorse owner who famously lost a huge amount of weight in order to ride in a match race, which he duly won. He is perhaps remembered best for a series of TV commercials for dog food in which he co-starred with a bloodhound called Henry. A Jew and grandson of Sigmund Freud and brother of the artist Lucien Freud, he fled from his native Germany with his family as the Nazis grasped power.
He became a chef and a respected food writer and it was in this context that I met him when he came to Jersey to fulfil a speaking engagement. Asked about the tricks of the trade among great cooks he described how the best chef he knew produced perfect pommes persillées by chewing a large bunch of fresh parsley and then expelling it over the potatoes in ‘one perfect ejaculation’. Freud was a great wit and easy to talk with. I asked him whether he had a horse I should follow and he named the unraced Hot Rock, about whose prospects he was excited; the wretched animal eventually managed to scrape home in a race of no consequence.
Clement Freud died in 2009. Seven years later his reputation also died when two women alleged he had sexually abused them. Exposed in a television documentary without the test of a trial Freud was ultimately condemned when his widow apologised to his accusers.
So, we come back to Rolf Harris, who served three years of a five-year sentence for abuse. He was convicted as part of Operation Yewtree, a series of investigations of high-profile entertainers initiated in the febrile post-Savile period. A number of famous people had their reputations traduced after the police released details of allegations which proved to be false.
Later, some charges against Harris were dropped and another conviction overturned as unsafe.
Years before, he had come to Jersey to perform at West Park Pavilion and was interviewed on Channel Television. As so often happened with him, the interview turned into a performance which had the TV crew in stitches. He came across both on and off stage as a down-to-earth man who had not let his fame and fortune go to his head.
I enjoyed his music. Returning to his lyrics, Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport is the tale of an old stockman who issues his dying instructions to his gathered friends, for instance: ‘…Take me koala back, Jack, take me koala back. He lives somewhere out on the track, Mac, so take me koala back’. And, ‘…Mind me platypus duck, Bill, mind me platypus duck. Don’t let him go running amuck, Bill, mind me platypus duck.’ Simple, inoffensive and amusing with kangaroos, wallabies, cockatoos and the didgeridoo similarly feted in the song.
Harris had other huge hits, none greater than Two Little Boys, the deeply sentimental tale of two children who grow up to be soldiers. Written in 1902 for the music hall, Harris revived it in 1969 and it shot to number one in the pop charts and stayed there for six weeks. A decade later Margaret Thatcher identified it as her favourite song.
Now we come to the moral dilemma. Society dictates that we should be denied the ability to hear Rolf Harris songs on the radio and it’s hard to find Clement Freud in bookshops. Does the fact that they did bad things make their creativity any less valid?