‘Not once did I have any suspicions. I’m shocked’
As shamed entertainer Rolf Harris starts his sentence in Wandsworth Prison, his showbiz friends struggle to come to terms with shock revelations that he abused young girls for years.
Famed Lancashire choreographer Dougie Squires, who was a character witness for Harris at his trial, tells Brian Ellis about the Rolf he knew and trusted.
Dougie Squires’ jaw dropped as he sat in the public gallery of Southwark Crown Court and saw his old friend Rolf Harris unmasked as a predatory paedophile.
The veteran choreographer, who worked with one of the world’s best-known entertainers over five decades, confessed later: “I never knew. Not once did I have any suspicions. I’m totally shocked.”
Today, as Harris was struggling to come to terms with prison life, Dougie, who appeared as a character witness for him during the trial, was at home in Lancashire wondering just how the star managed to keep his dark side so well-hidden from all his showbiz pals.
“The picture they painted in court wasn’t the Rolf I knew,” he said at home near Garstang.
“None of us suspected in the slightest that he was doing that sort of thing.
“I’m still struggling to believe it even now because there is always gossip in rehearsal rooms, yet there was never any about Rolf. Not a word.”
Dougie’s dance troupe the Young Generation appeared weekly in the Rolf Harris Show in the black and white days of television. Backstage the girls would walk about in their bras and G-strings.
But, insists Dougie, there was never any suggestion the star of the show acted improperly at any time.
“We were working with young, attractive girl dancers,” he recalled. “As a choreographer you become very protective of your dancers and you know if anything is wrong.
“I would have been aware if anything had been happening. But it wasn’t. Rolf was just one of the gang and it never crossed my mind there was anything suspicious.
“He was very popular with the dancers, but as a father figure really. I never, ever doubted him in any way.”
Harris, found guilty of 12 counts of indecent assault against four girls and young women aged between seven and 19 over an 18-year period, was jailed for five years and nine months on Friday. He is expected to serve only half of it.
But, at 84, there are fears he may die behind bars. There are also real concerns for his wife Alwen, 82, who is frail and in poor health.
“This will destroy Rolf,” said Dougie. “He has had a history in the last few years of depression. What this is going to do to him I don’t know. I can’t imagine what it has already done to him mentally.
“But, more than that, it’s terrible for his wife Alwyn who is very frail. I really fear this may have a tragic outcome.”
Famed TV and West End choreographer Dougie, who was artistic director for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee celebrations in 2002, first met Harris in the 1960s.
His Young Generation group were regulars in the Rolf Harris Show. In 1971 they appeared in front of the Queen and Princess Anne at the Royal Variety Performance. They also featured in series with Dame Vera Lynn and Harry Secombe.
Dougie was choreographer in a host of TV shows like It’s Lulu, the Les Dawson Show and the Mike Reid Show. He was honoured with the OBE in 2009 for services to performing arts.
“When I first heard Rolf had been charged I couldn’t believe it – because the Rolf I knew wasn’t a man who did that sort of thing,” he said. “Like most people who worked with him, I found him to be a very kind and moral man.
“But behind all that he must have suffered great guilt and fear over the years with a problem none of us knew about.
“I regularly worked with Rolf in the 60s and 70s. We weren’t close friends socially, but professionally we have worked together a lot over 50 years or so. I went to court as a character witness and told the truth about what I knew. The man that I knew was a kind and very generous man who was a real professional. That was the truth.
“But you don’t always know all the dimensions of the people you work with. I didn’t know that the man had this problem. At the trial, the verdict really did surprise me. The jury took over a week and, when it came back as guilty and unanimous, I was shocked.
“But I’ve got to say that, once they said ‘guilty’, I thought the sentence would have been greater. Mr first reaction was ‘thank God it’s not that long.’ But at 84 that is still a long time and I think it is sufficient. The man has been publicly shamed and humiliated. He has been destroyed and so too have his family.
“Rolf will not be remembered for his talent, his kindness and all the good work he did – we did quite a bit together for charity over the years. Sadly, he will only be remembered for what he did wrong.”