Monday, 11 February 2013

It Was Good While It Lasted

Jimmy Savile was a very bad man, there seems little doubt about that. So how did he hold such an elevated place in British society? Was it hypnosis or misdirection, blackmail or sheer force of will? Did he groom the UK? Are we all his victims?

Well, you'd think so. Whenever the issue is raised everyone now jumps to say that they suspected him all along. Nobody ever liked him or trusted him, everyone always found him creepy - so why was he on telly in the most prominent possible position for nearly forty years? Why did we all used to watch him? Why did Britain lower its collective head when he died, and play along with the outrageously self-serving funeral rites he had put in place?

I don't have any answers, and there are simply far too many questions. I don't believe that it was all a massive conspiracy, because that way madness lies, but I also can't think it could have been possible without some sort of collusion. That said, Savile was clearly a resourceful and horribly self-possessed kind of monster - he almost seems capable of anything. Perhaps that's why they concreted his grave, not to keep thieves out, but to keep him in.

What I keep coming back to is his public persona: how very weird it really was and how very normal we all once believed it to be. Was it a case of misguided faith in the tradition of British eccentricity, in the notion of the card, the character? Or was it that, without knowing what he was really capable of, we were happy to balance his good works against his obvious personality issues and, because we are predominantly a fair minded people, consider one adequate compensation for the other? Some sort of strange national psychological shift must have taken place, as Jimmy Savile, loner, oddball, misanthrope, exhibitionist, bully and narcissist (these are just the traits he freely exhibited, the ones he showed us) somehow became a man qualified to tell the nation how to behave - a person chosen to warn us against danger.

It would have been the bitterest of ironies if Savile had ever presented a public information film about stranger danger or not accepting sweets from people you don't know (he didn't, although he did write the foreword for some cautionary books on the subject), but it still seems incredible to me that he was ever allowed to present anything, simply because he was such a deeply and unapologetically strange person. Take a look at this PIF from 1971. Try and watch it as objectively as you can, judge him on what you see, not what you now know.

So, objectively, what is going on here? Forget the mismatched outfit and the jewelry and the dirty white Perkin Warbeck haircut, these are as much props as his cigars and that chair he used to have that made cups of tea. What we have is a brittle, brusque man, full of anger, seething with contempt. When he starts shaking the box he becomes visibly agitated, his shoulders squaring as if ready for confrontation. He doesn't smile once, not even when his serious point is made. He's all stick, no carrot - and if you don't listen to him you're going to get smashed to bits: very unfunny.

In the second clip he's het up about women and their inability to shop and pick up the kids without causing an accident, although the idea that they might be badly disfigured seems to satisfy his desire that they get what's coming to them. And is it just me, or do they hold the final shot a little too long? Don't look into his eyes, you will start to feel that he is unblinkingly appraising you, and that you are not coming out of it at all well. Basically, he hates you, regardless of whether or not you wear a seatbelt.

Here's a short clip from his Saturday primetime variety show 'Clunk Click'. This is a low-key, more adult Savile than we're used to. He's actually quite somber and thoughtful, which is much more disconcerting than his usual sinister tomfoolery, especially if you listen to what he's actually saying. He's basically comparing himself to Jesus, and telling Uri Geller to use his gift to heal the world, just like Jimmy has. Savile seems convinced that he has overcome incredible odds to be on the telly, but he may of course be thinking of his double life, which must have been extremely difficult to maintain.

When he stops talking about himself and lets Uri do his thing, the subject of his drawing gets some indulgent titters from contemporary audiences used to the idea of Jimmy as a 'ladies man', but it obviously gives pause now. Interestingly, this clip (and the next) were taken from the BBC tribute show broadcast a couple of months after he died when he was still considered a high achieving weirdo and national treasure rather than an evil monster.

Finally, here he is in conversation with Russell Harty, one of the most apparently artless but insidiously offensive interviewers who ever lived, a man who was always pissing off his subjects. There's something chilling about the control Savile exudes in this sequence: he's being interviewed live on national telly in front of a hundred people in person and millions at home, and he doesn't even bother to stop eating his dinner. When Harty puts his foot in it, Savile destroys him. It's all done under the pretence of banter, but his eyes aren't smiling - he's deadly serious, even about the chips - and the message is quite clear: this is not a man to be fucked with. If he was this aggressive offscreen, it is perhaps not surprising that people waited until he was dead to tell the truth about him.

I don't have a conclusion. I'm not a psychologist or a psychiatrist or even a particularly astute people watcher. I'm also looking at a completed jigsaw, not trying to work out what the picture should be, so it's easy to see everything as a puzzle piece. But it bothers me this Savile business: the awful things he did; the impunity with which he did them; the fact that he got away with it his whole life, and that he implicated us all simply by being such a public figure, the fact that it was 'good while it lasted', and it lasted so very long. Like I say, it bothers me. It bothers me a lot.


  1. Got to say, absolutely brilliant post. Like you suggest I'm surprised by the sudden U turn seemingly by everyone - both public and fellow celebs alike - to the 'I never liked him/trusted him' camp. Because, surely no one stays at the top of the tree so long by being unlikeable or unwatched? Yes, collusion may well have played a part and kept him in roles where he could come into contact with the underage conduct his criminal activities but people were still viewing him in their millions. It could be argued I suppose that having only 3 channels then accounted for a lot of his perceived popularity, but even so. Hundreds used to flock to public events he participated in.
    But the nature of the programmes are telling. Savile could have been utterly unlikeable, but his choice of shows to front where always utterly populist, so that you'd tune in regardless of him.
    I like Charlie Brooker's comment recently about how back in the 70s TV's were tiny and kept in the corner of the room, as such people weren't totally aware how odd he looked and behaved, whereas now with the benefit of plasma widescreens we can see just how horrid he was. Flippant yes, but amusing and slightly convincing when one considers the 70s were the era of glam, of OTT looking characters. One such as Savile was easy to slot in.
    There are sadly no easy answers, but its interesting to view as a sort of collective wtf? Albeit an all too tragic one.
    Incidentally a family friend used to work the doors in Manchester in the 50s and 60s back when Savile was a prominent club and dancehall figure, and he used to always say something along the lines of 'that Savile is one ruthless little git' Yeats later when Louis Theroux interviewed him and the stories of tying people to chairs in club basements came out brought that comment home. Definitely not a man to fuck with, a man who did whatever he felt like doing safe in the knowledge he was well protected.

  2. Thanks, Mark, interesting stuff. For me, having grown up in the 70's, I find the subject horribly fascinating. I well remember the reality of the period as well as the prismatic view through rose tinted spectacles but this is awful, Savile as a spectre terrorising the country. It's permanently and irrevocably changed my view of the world.

  3. This is probably the best post I've ever read on here, Paul. Mark and Brooker are right: three channels, small TVs, and a host of 'odd' characters such as Slade, Glitter and avowed family-man Bowie, etc. JS fitted in very well, didn't he? Kids like us never questioned it, but yes, horrifying to think now that as we were all sat around laughing at cub scouts eating their packed lunches on a rollercoaster, JS was probably somewhere else, knobbing a corpse for something. The Theroux doc reminded me of all the rumours that had followed him over the years, and I'm SURE I saw one on TV once where he was asked about his habit of picking up teenage schoolgirls and taking them back to his flat - although they were never allowed in Mother's (a.k.a. The Dutchess) room, and he deflected the question with expert ease. And yes, the stories keep flooding in. Our neighbour used to work at Rampton Hospital (a few miles up the road) and told us about the time JS turned up in his shag-wagon. Apparently he was looking to 'assist' that institute as well, but the powers-that-be were having none of it.
    Savile: like a cross between Rod Hull, Captain Sensible and Fred West. Ugh.

  4. And why does that Hardy clip remind me of Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner?

  5. Going to echo the above two posters by saying what a great post this is. Frinton-On-Sea is probably still my fave ever Island of Terror/This Is Not the Universe post but this well considered and interesting piece comes a close second.

    I have to admit as an adult I was kind of fond of Savile, not in the same way I was fond of (to pick two semi-random TV faces from my childhood) Johnny Ball or Derek Griffiths but because, kinda like pre-downfall Gary Glitter, there was always something "wrong" about Savile and it was all but impossible to figure out his popularity.

    He looked, dressed and acted strange, He didn't seem particularly friendly for a much loved national treasure and, well, exactly what was he famous for again? He wasn't an engaging TV presenter and he was moderately annoying on the radio. One of my first proper radio memory was aged maybe 9 hearing him on his Sunday afternoon Radio 1 show waffling on at length about "Bicycle Race" by Queen and thinking to myself "Who is this guy? Shut up and play another record you idiot"

    It occurred to me while typing this that Savile's self aggrandizing reminds me a lot of another famous sexual predator and media "personality", Johnathan King, but that's perhaps not got much to fo with anything...

  6. An addendum to my post; you're right, Harty was a prick. Even when he's interviewing a paedophile I still find myself hating him just as much.

  7. trivia: an ex lady sex partner of mine worked as a make-up artist for television and film. She once had to attempt the impossible task of "making Jimmy Savile look good for TV", and knocked on his dressing room door with her box of tricks at the ready. He opened the door, took her hand - lowering his head as though about to kiss the back of it - and licked the full length of her arm while staring up into her eyes with a sinister grin.
    We laughed about it at the time in complete bemusement.
    100% true story. 100% truly creepy fucker.