Vincent Glanvill writes …
It was 1994 and Rolf Harris had been booked to play our university hall. The hall was a good-sized venue, if a little run down, having lost some of its lustre since its Edwardian heyday. I was a second-year student and Iʼd already helped organise a couple of gigs; weʼd load all the equipment into the hall and help set up, then weʼd watch the gig, drink some of the band’s rider and stay just sober enough to pack up and load out at the end. Nominally in charge was one Mark Connolly (NB: not real name). Connolly was rarely sober for the three years that I knew him. Despite this, he generally managed to function in the role, which included booking bands for gigs. And, on one occasion, Connolly outdid himself and managed to book Rolf, at that time one of the most sought-after acts on the university circuit.
Rolf was, of course, a TV legend and this was years before Operation Yewtree uncovered his misdeeds and destroyed his reputation . Back then, he seemed like everyoneʼs favourite uncle. He could draw, and cry about dogs being ill, and, kind of, sing. Rolfʼs version of Led Zeppelinʼs Stairway to Heaven re-launched his singing career: an implausible hit that led to an invitation to play Glastonbury, and projected Rolf back into the zeitgeist. He embarked upon a subsequent tour and thatʼs where I met him.
Rolf arrived dressed in a sheepskin waistcoat, with signature goatee, glasses and toothy grin all in place. He greeted everyone and made sure he shook hands with each of us. We helped the band set up, then Rolf joined them to sound check. They played Jake the Peg and Two Little Boys followed by a song with a didgeridoo, only Rolf mimed playing the didgeridoo; the keyboard player made the sound instead. I felt a little betrayed by this but put it down to the problems of feedback that a resonant instrument can create.
Rolf took Connolly aside after the sound check and said, ʻI’m going to need some help.ʼ Connolly volunteered me. Rolf took me back to his dressing room and produced a beaten-up leather suitcase. ʻWe always start with Jake,ʼ he said. ʻItʼs since Newcastle.ʼ He took a prosthetic leg and arm out of the suitcase and showed them to me. ʻStudents – they want the leg as a prize. Iʼll finish the song and wander over to you in the wings. Iʼll hand them to you, you put them straight into the suitcase and lock it in the dressing room. Straight away. We canʼt have another Newcastle. We canʼt risk losing the leg.ʼ I nodded and told him not to worry. ʻWould you like a drink?ʼ ʼI offered. ʻJust spring water. Iʼm teetotal. Have been for yearsʼ, replied Rolf. ʻDonʼt mind me having one?ʼ I asked. ʻNo, no,ʼ came the reply. Great! I thought. Thereʼs a whole rider of booze out there and he doesnʼt drink!
Rolf and his band opened their set around 9:30pm with Jake the Peg. Rolf hopped about the stage singing to the inebriated crowd, who went wild as they sang along to the chorus. The song seemed to end quickly and Rolf shambled over to take off his Jake overcoat and pass me the arm and the leg. I packed them in the suitcase, which I then secured in the dressing room. Mission accomplished, I grabbed another cider and returned to the side of the stage to enjoy the rest of the show.
As I climbed the stairs to the wings, I could tell something was wrong. I couldnʼt see Rolf. I stood in the wings, stage right, as the bassist and keyboard player started gesturing for me to come on stage. Rolf was on his knees at the front and a woman in the audience had taken the mic stand off him and was singing Tie Me Kangaroo Down into the microphone. I froze for a second. Where was Security? I ran on stage, pulled the mic stand out of the audience and swung it back in Rolfʼs direction, the microphone swinging at Rolfʼs head. He ducked at the last minute, grabbed the mic and seamlessly joined in with the verse as I tightened-up the screws on the stand. I realised there was no security, it was just me. Connolly hadnʼt left any money in the budget to book them and rather than stay to help was off doing lines of coke in a dressing room.
Full of cider and yet solely in charge, I faced a fresh problem with each new song: stage invasions by both men and women, who I escorted back to their place in the pit; people throwing drinks at the stage, me having to mop them up; women throwing underwear at Rolf, which I threw back. It was relentless. When the band started playing Waltzing Matilda, a woman mounted the stage and headed straight for Rolf. I started to escort her away, but this time the band gestured for me to stop. Rolf turned to me and winked, ʻThis oneʼs OKʼ. He took her hand and put his arm around her waist. ʻLetʼs waltz,ʼ he said and they danced around the stage as the audience sang the song.
The band ended with an obligatory encore of Stairway to Heaven then left the stage. ʻThat was worse than Newcastle. Where was Security?ʼ Rolf said as he clambered down the stairs.ʼ I lied and blamed the management of the University, knowing that this was all Connollyʼs fault. ʻShall I wait outside? Do you want some time alone?ʼ I asked Rolf. ʻNo, stay, itʼs fine.ʼ As I was taking a piss in the dressing room toilet, the door left open because the light was broken, the band came in with Connolly. Connolly, all jokes and banter, was wearing a white polyester suit and looked like an extra from Scarface. ʻHey Rolf, could you draw a Rolfaroo for my baby daughter?ʼ Connolly asked. ʻIʼd be happy to,’ replied Rolf. He drew the character with practiced ease and gave the page from his drawing pad to Connolly. ʻWould you like me to draw something for you too?ʼ Rolf asked me. ‘Oh, no thanks, I said. Then changed my mind. ʻActually, could you draw something for my brother? Heʼs nine. He loves your show.ʼ Rolf started to write my brotherʼs name and I quickly said ʻAnd maybe for me as well …ʼ
There was a knock at the door. I went over to answer. An attractive student was standing with one of the roadies. ‘Can I speak with Rolf?ʼ she asked. I started to say no, when I was interrupted by the roadie: ʻTell them what you wantʼ. Rolf came to the door. ʻIʼd like you to draw a little face on theseʼ she said, pulling up her top and bra to unveil her breasts to Rolfʼs face. I stepped back as Rolf grabbed his marker pen and set to work. He drew the same toothy grin on the womanʼs breasts that he had on his face.
ʻYeah! Thatʼs rock and roll!ʼ said Connolly.