I, and – fuck it I can’t be the only one – a whole chunk of my generation, have had some bad luck when it comes to children’s tv presenters.
Jimmy Saville was just too fucked up for words but at least it was – in hindsight for those of us viewers who weren’t aware of the ubiquitous rumours – somewhat obvious. I mean if you wanted to fucking dress like a stereotypical sex offender then honestly he was doing it right there.
Rolf Harris though. I liked Rolf Harris. Before it came out that he was a paedophile I mean. I was a vaguely arty kid so honestly Tony Hart and Morph were my first loves but as a kid my sister and I weren’t allowed for the longest time to watch ITV so we weren’t exposed to the adverts. Rolf Harris did his art stuff on 3 (ITV for any of you who don’t live in the UK) and Dad kind of hated him anyway. No prescience on my Dad’s part but he’d been nicknamed Rolf by school kids because he had an Australian accent and a goatee a la Rolf. In anycase liking Rolf Harris, who was a cartoonist and cheesy musical person and a bit weird seemed kinda like a kid rebellion. I always found the rolfaroos somewhat creepy though.
Turns out the whole guy was creepy. Just like Saville. I guess you could say Harris was to children’s ITV what Saville was to children’s BBC.
Christ we were cut off from things us children of the 80s. Eccentrics and weirdos were supposed to be a good thing to be feted, outsiders welcomed into the mainstream except that with section 28 meaning that we couldn’t talk about our own differences from the norm of sexuality we were lumped in to everyone who might want to keep their vices quiet. Not just because they might frighten the horses but because they liked to hurt people.
I’ve tried to write before about the normalisation of the dirty old man in UK culture and largely failed to make my point, partly because I lacked the language and partly because I’ve struggled to solidify my thoughts. As soon as you have the idea that the dirty old man is a bit of postcard humour then he becomes harmless and the predators can use that to hide right there in plain sight in our living rooms every Saturday night. And they did, all through the eighties (and before too but I wasn’t around then).
I know Harris and Saville were around before Section 28 got implemented, hell I know they were predators who used all the systems of their time to abuse their victims. But Christ when they were really big in UK child culture we were starting to have things like Childline and to be encouraged to talk to trusted adults by the NSPCC… and right at the same time those of us who weren’t straight were being told we had to keep quiet and shut up and being linked in with the predators. That’s a fucking problem and I think that’s why I feel so pissed off about it, like I specifically was left out to dry, like me and mine were disproportionately let down.
We were I guess.
I liked Harris. I didn’t like Saville. I’m so angry he was a child abuser, I wanted him to be the friendly, funny, cheesy artist who painted the Queen and made wobbleboards a thing and then now they’ve announced his death I could’ve felt uncomplicatedly sad. I could have mourned properly. Instead I’m just left with feeling betrayed by the system that was supposed to protect us kids and instead lied to us.
I guess I can be sad. I’m sad that the children’s tv presenter who loved animals and liked to paint and sing wasn’t the only part of him and in fact concealed someone who hurt children like me. I’m sad that joking in public life causes normalisations of abuse that are still fucking haunting us.
Of course this isn’t just about Harris, or Saville for that matter, it’s about my feelings of utter betrayal that the wholesome images on TV are just as fake as I always thought they were and it’s a very real anger that sickening shifts in my sense of reality feel so familiar to me.
Rolf Harris died. I feel betrayed by the UK of the 80s.
I am angry and sad in turns.