By Costas Pitas
LONDON (Reuters) - Australian entertainer Rolf Harris, a TV family favourite in his homeland and Britain for more than 50 years, is a "Jekyll and Hyde" figure who groped women and used his fame to abuse girls, a court heard on Friday.
Harris, 84, is the biggest name to go on trial since British police launched a major investigation after revelations that the late BBC TV host Jimmy Savile was a prolific child sex abuser, leading to the arrest of more than a dozen ageing celebrities.
Known to millions in Britain and Australia for pop chart hits such as "Two Little Boys" and "Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport," Harris is also a keen artist who painted Queen Elizabeth's portrait in 2005 and was honoured by her for his services to entertainment and charity. The white-bearded, bespectacled entertainer sat silently in the dock as he was accused of 12 counts of indecent assault against four girls between 1968 and 1986, the youngest of whom was aged just seven or eight at the time of the alleged offence.
Harris denies the charges.
He was accompanied by his daughter Bindi and wife Alwen Hughes when he arrived at Southwark Crown Court on the opening day of what is expected to be a six-week trial.
The jury of six men and six women heard prosecutor Sasha Wass describe Harris as a Jekyll and Hyde figure whose "dark side" was not known to colleagues and companions for decades.
She said Harris had groomed one girl "like a pet", slobbered around the neck of another and ran his hands down a third victim inappropriately in separate incidents, with two girls later becoming alcoholics as a result of the abuse.
Wass said Harris used his fame to touch girls with impunity and consistently acted in the same way: "a lunge and getting straight in there."
The jury was also told Harris had a reputation at an Australian TV channel for inappropriate behaviour.
"He was known as the octopus because of the way he would put his hands all over women," said Wass. "He took advantage of his fame and popularity," she added.
Harris developed a consistent approach in gaining the trust of his young victims before abusing them, the jury heard.
"You will see a pattern, during the case, of Mr Harris approaching girls in a purely friendly way and then once he is in close physical contact with them, taking advantage of the situation in order to indecently assault them," Wass said.
The court heard Harris wrote a letter of confession to the father of one of his victims in which he accepted that he had had a sexual relationship with the woman but did not say it had occurred while she was under-age.
"I fondly imagined that everything that had taken place had progressed from a feeling of love and friendship,” the jury heard Harris wrote in the letter.
"There was no rape, no physical forcing, brutality or beating that took place," he added.
Harris abused the girl from the age of 13, in numerous locations in Britain and elsewhere, the court was told.
His status meant she did not talk about the incident until 1996. But in 1994, the court heard, Harris says he was contacted by the woman who demanded 25,000 pounds ($42,100).
When he refused, she threatened that her brother would go to newspapers over what Harris assumed were details of the affair.
The first prosecution witness is due to take the stand on Monday.
(Editing by Tom Heneghan)