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How Jim fixed it: the strange, dark life of Jimmy Savile

It is impossible to look back on the world of light entertainment in the Savile era and not come to the conclusion that it was strikingly weird.

Suit you, sir: to his adoring young fans, Savile, pictured on the set of Top of the Pops circa 1973, represented wacky style and wish fulfilment. Photo: Michael Putland/Getty Images
Suit you, sir: to his adoring young fans, Savile, pictured on the set of Top of the Pops circa 1973, represented wacky style and wish fulfilment. Photo: Michael Putland/Getty Images

In Plain Sight: the Life and Lies of Jimmy Savile 
Dan Davies
Quercus, 592pp, £18.99

Dan Davies, whose uneasy fascination with Jimmy Savile began when he was a boy, has said that, to a degree, his book tells the story of his childhood – that for those who grew up in the Seventies and Eighties Savile was a “Wizard of Oz-like figure” who “possessed the power to dispense happiness”. I don’t regard this as an exaggeration. I wrote to Jim’ll Fix It, the show that promised to make children’s dreams come true, twice. The first time – I would have been tiny – I asked to meet Cliff Richard. The second, older if not wiser, I wanted to edit a newspaper. I pictured myself behind a typewriter, furiously banging away at the keys. Savile’s air of menace didn’t bother me (like Davies, I certainly sensed it, even as I longed to sit on the arm of his “robotic” chair; doubtless many other children did, too). I wanted my moment. I wanted to feel that cheap ribbon on the back of my neck as he lowered a Jim’ll Fix It badge ceremonially over my head.

In the Seventies, children were ignored more than they are now; in families such as mine, northern and aspirational, “showing off” was a great sin. Adults were always right; children almost never were. It’s because of this that Jim’ll Fix It had such potency for us – Be an adult for a day! Show off all you like! – and it goes some way, too, towards explaining why in his lifetime the presenter was never unmasked as the prolific abuser he was. Again and again, Davies notes that when children did try to explain what Savile had done to them, they were met only with disapproval and disbelief.

Indignant adults, let alone furious ones, are thin on the ground in this tale; even those in possession of information they could not ignore were stymied by the attitudes of the times. Vera McAlpine, whose daughter Claire killed herself in 1971 aged 15, leaving behind a diary in which she revealed that she’d had sex with two radio DJs (Savile may have been one), later told the Guardian that she should have contacted the police when she first read the journal a month before Claire’s death. “But I thought they would be more severe with my daughter than they would with the DJs,” she said, a lament that is no easier to read for knowing that she was almost certainly right.

Oh, the times! It’s dumb and distorting to see the past only through the prism of the present. As Joan Bakewell told the writer Andrew O’Hagan: “You just can’t get into the culture of what it was like, transfer our sensibilities backwards from today. It would be like asking Victorian factory owners to explain why they sent children up chimneys . . . What we now find unacceptable was just accepted back then by many people.” (Savile, whom she found “repellent”, once tried to get her to go to his hotel room.) But still, it is impossible to look back on the world of light entertainment in the Savile era and not come to the conclusion that it was strikingly weird, and that this weirdness, which most of us relished and begged to be allowed to stay up late to enjoy, gave licence to, perhaps even slyly facilitated, a great deal of misery.

As I read Davies’s book, the term “light entertainment” suddenly struck me as the greatest joke. What a misnomer. It wasn’t light at all. It was dark and heavy: clod­hopping at best, sinister at worst. All the programmes I enjoyed most as a child came with heavy doses of innuendo, low-level violence, sadomasochism. There was Dick Emery, who dressed up as a sexually frustrated spinster – at the time I didn’t know what frottage was, except I sort of did, thanks to her – and as a toothy vicar whose pious exterior made for a sharp contrast with his visits to “naughty” strip clubs. (Davies, I notice, has a picture of this vicar on his Twitter account.) There were the two Ronnies, Barker and Corbett, whose show included peculiar serials such as “The Worm That Turned”, a dystopian fiction starring Diana Dors, in which women ruled the world (mostly in hot pants and jackboots) and men wore women’s clothes and kept house, and “Band of Slaves”, in which an all-girl orchestra was sold into slavery. Rod Hull and his puppet Emu performed a tango of aggression so convincing, you couldn’t help but rub your upper arms as you watched, imagining the bruises on those of their victims. Benny Hill was forbidden in our house – he was on ITV – but I knew the shtick. He chased girls. Round and round and round. (Hill, incidentally, made a shrine of his dead mother’s clothes, just as Savile did with those of his beloved “Duchess”.) Somehow, Ben Elton’s con­troversial attack on Hill – the comedian’s routine, he suggested, incited rape and other acts of violence against women – doesn’t seem quite so over-the-top now as when he made it in 1987.

Where were all the women stars? Do you need to ask? This was the era of Lena Zava­roni and Bonnie Langford, of little girls who were expected to act like women but who looked very much like . . . little girls. The two met at the Italia Conti stage school in London, and both were winners of the talent show Opportunity Knocks; Zavaroni suffered from anorexia. A certain coquettishness was the order of the day for them, just as it was for the rest of us.

I remember this nascent flirtation very well: the ordeal of being made to kiss particular adults; of performing for the coins they’d press into your hand; of accepting compliments for one’s nine-year-old physique (“Your eyes get bigger and bluer every day,” a man used to say to me, somewhat intensely, in the days when I still wore knee-high white socks). But the grown-ups thought this was fine. Mothers encouraged it, if anything. How lovely to have a pretty, accommodating daughter. Before paedophilia – a word that, as Davies reminds us, was hardly used in the Seventies – it was faceless strangers you had to fear, men in long coats who offered you sweets, not your father’s associates (or famous DJs, should you be lucky enough to meet one).

Lechery was a running gag. When a man who was married to a friend of my mother tried it on with me when I was 17, she didn’t give him a piece of her mind; we laughed about it together, with her doing comedy “jazz hands” and chasing me round the kitchen. “Slimy” was a word we used a lot. It meant: touchy-feely, dubious, avoid. The only trouble was that it sometimes felt as though slimy men comprised the lion’s share of the male population. They were on the telly, and they were round the corner. They were part of the deal, if you wanted to be an adult.

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So, it wasn’t through the prism of the present that I read Davies’s book, but through that of the past. My own past. Perhaps this is why I seem to have been a touch less surprised by the substance of it than some of the big male beasts who reviewed it for the newspapers – though I wouldn’t for a minute want to suggest that In Plain Sight doesn’t make for sickening reading. It is truly foul, and therein lies its power.

Davies, who doggedly interviewed Savile several times and over a period of years, has done an exemplary job. His great achievement is to have wrested the story from the impossible-to-fathom numbers of news reports (thus far Savile is known to have committed 214 criminal offences in 50 years; there are 31 allegations of rape, half of them against minors). He does this by two means. First of all, in more than 500 pages, he gives only one full account of an assault by Savile: in a chapter entitled “Your Porter Hurt Me”, the brutal yet matter-of-fact rape in 1977 of a 12-year-old girl in a television room at Stoke Mandeville Hospital. This decision leaves no danger at all the reader will grow desensitised. The particular stands for what was, in Savile’s life, the general, to deeply upsetting effect.

Second, there is the way Davies deploys detail, layer upon layer of it, the better to show his subject’s character. Savile was unknowable: ratty, obfuscatory, self-mythologising, a liar even when no untruths needed to be told (for instance, he wildly exaggerated the number of years he spent down the mines as a Bevin Boy). Yet Davies makes him vivid, his nastiness laid out like guts on a slab. He once owned a flat whose every wall was painted black. After sex, of whatever kind, he would clean himself with TCP. His genitals stank, something his victims remember. He wore tracksuits with elasticated waistbands and no underwear for a reason. As the manager of the Mecca-owned Plaza dance hall in Manchester, he employed as his henchmen Hungarian “lads” who had worked in German concentration camps. Even after he became a millionaire, he would sit in darkness.

Arriving in any new place, Savile’s first move was to ask where the hospital was. Once on the wards – he worked as a volunteer porter – his favourite time was three o’clock in the morning, the hour when often someone died. At the age of 75, and still sexually active, he continued to refer to women as “it”. Combine this with the period trimmings – the awful clothes, the flat in Scarborough, the caravans, the nightclubs, the pirate radio stations, the tired old entertainers whose names are now almost forgotten – and what you have is, as Davies succinctly puts it, “a Chapman brothers re-imagining of a postcard caricature from the golden days of the British seaside”.

Davies runs his life of Savile from Leeds childhood (the son of a spivvy bookmaker’s clerk, he was the youngest of seven) to pillar of the establishment (adored by Margaret Thatcher and the Prince of Wales alike, he was knighted in 1990 at the former’s behest) alongside a pretty definitive account of the BBC’s decision in 2011 to pull a Newsnight investigation into the allegations against the recently deceased star. It’s easy to get bogged down in the detail of this – who said what, when and why – but it also affords the reader a strong and terrifying sense that we might never have discovered the truth about Savile. If it wasn’t for the fact that Meirion Jones, a Newsnight producer, had an aunt who was once headmistress of the Duncroft Approved School for Girls in Surrey, to which Savile was a frequent visitor – he expected the students to give him oral sex in return for various “treats” – Savile’s pulverised headstone might still be standing in a Scarborough cemetery. (Jones remembered certain things about the school, things that made him believe the allegations by former pupils when he first came across them.)

In the days after I finished the book, it was this – what you might call the precariousness of the trail – that haunted me, even more than Savile’s cruelty to and disgust for other human beings. Because the only thing worse than knowing what he did would be not to know. In my mind’s eye, I kept seeing that vast piece of granite, inscribed with those mocking words, “It was good while it lasted,” shiny and whole again. I wonder whether the man responsible both for this stone’s creation in 2011 and for its destruction less than a year later is haunted by it, too. According to Davies, Robert Morphet, now of Joseph A Hey & Son of Bradford, also wrote to Jim’ll Fix It as a boy. He wanted to be a funeral director for a day. His letter, though, was never answered, and he met Savile only when the Yorkshire disc jockey’s body was cold and the smile had been wiped forever from his face.