In 1993, after a prolonged absence from prime time screens, Rolf Harris was brought back to the BBC to host Animal Hospital. The series drew such high ratings that the incoming controller of BBC1, Lorraine Heggessey, commissioned him to present Rolf on Art, the channel’s only educational programme on the arts.
It was a significant act of dumbing down, from which the BBC has struggled ever since to recover.
I challenged Lorraine Heggessey at the time, in print, and live on BBC Radio, to explain what she was doing allowing a man of no attainments other than great fame for being famous, to usurp the role of Kenneth Clark as the man who opened the nation’s eyes to art.
She spluttered a bit and called me ‘elitist’. She had no other justification for employing Rolf other than his ‘popularity’.
I accept that many friends and colleagues knew nothing of Rolf’s dark side. But now that Harris, 84, has been sent to jail for five years and nine months, for indecent assaults on young girls, the BBC has two questions to answer:
1 Given that female staff commonly called him ‘the octopus’ for his roving hands, was any formal harrassment complaint ever made against the entertainer, and how was it handled?
2 Was any objection at a senior level to Harris being cast as an authority on art? Did Alan Yentob, now the corp’s ‘creative director’ register an objection? Did the present D-G Tony Hall, then head of news? Did anyone attempt to prick Lorraine Heggessey’s preposterous bubble that brought so much disgrace on an national institution? Or did everyone just look the other way?
Answers, please, Tony Hall.