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19 June 2015

A terrifying, sweaty memory: Alistair McGowan’s dark turn as Jimmy Savile

McGowan's performance demonstrates the combination of eccentricity and intimidation that allowed Savile first to lure his victims and then to disguise his abuse of them.

By Mark Lawson

An Audience With Jimmy Savile
Park Theatre, London N4

In the Sixties, when theatre scripts still had to be submitted to the Lord Chamberlain for censorship, British television was a place where dangerous drama could happen. Until 1968, between occasional panics such as the banning of Peter Watkins’s nuclear drama The War Game, the early work of Dennis Potter, Ken Loach and Tony Garnett shamed the pusillanimity of the stage.

Now, the situation is reversed. A combination of political regulation, BBC guidelines intended to prevent a repetition of controversies, and aggressive scrutiny from the right-wing press forms a sort of Lord Chamberlain of the airwaves. In theatre, by contrast, almost any speech or behaviour can be depicted.

So, it’s neat that the latest production at the Park Theatre in London – An Audience With Jimmy Savile – takes the form of an imaginary television programme, because this is a play it’s impossible to imagine being shown on TV. This is not only because the British broadcasting industry is ashamed of its long employment and hagiographic obituaries of the central character in the drama. In a medium where the audience may come across material by accident, the clear double risk of entertainments featuring child abuse is of traumatising victims in the audience.

Even in the theatre, where entry is elective, An Audience With Jimmy Savile arrives sandbagged with disclaimers. To avoid the risk of triggering flashbacks, all publicity photos of Alistair McGowan, who plays Savile, show him wearing rehearsal clothes rather than the gold tracksuit, white frightwig and clanking jewellery of his stage costume. And the writer, the TV journalist Jonathan Maitland, conducted a debate on Twitter about whether the play should go ahead, conceding in the programme notes that he would have stopped if “a critical mass wanted the project to end”. Yet it is hard to imagine those great challengers of public taste, Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg, offering theatregoers a pre-veto on Ghosts or Miss Julie.

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Oddly, while so bruiting its moral scruples, the production was slow to acknowledge a huge narrative debt to Dan Davies’s tremendous book In Plain Sight: the Life and Lies of Jimmy Savile (Quercus, first published 2014). The programme for the performance I attended referred only to the use of “books by and about [Savile]”, although, a few days after the opening, the writing credit on the theatre’s website was intriguingly amended to read “by Jonathan Maitland, containing research from the book In Plain Sight by Dan Davies”.

Maitland has shaped his own and Davies’s findings into an 85-minute piece that cuts between a hagiographic interview show, hosted by the fictional Michael Sterling (Graham Seed) – who presumably represents the culpability of the TV industry – and encounters featuring Savile and various friends, colleagues, journalists and police officers, differentiated with versatility by Robert Perkins and Charlotte Page.

The strongest presence apart from the posthumous defendant is Lucy (Leah Whitaker), a fictional character whose story is an amalgam of many recorded accounts of abuse at Savile’s hands. The play is generally most impressive when Maitland incorporates verbatim lines, especially those from interviews with Savile, conducted by Davies or by the detectives who questioned him in his lifetime, without prosecutions resulting. When the conversations are imagined they sound less real.

This is Maitland’s second play – it comes after Dead Sheep, an enjoyable doc-com about the resignation of Sir Geoffrey Howe – and the link between the scripts is Margaret Thatcher, who was seen in the first play and is heard in this one. As the late prime minister adored “Jimmy” (for whom she secured a knighthood) but despised Howe, history has not been kind to her moral compass. She was not, however, alone in either never suffering suspicions about Savile, or suppressing them. There are gasps from the audience as we hear the creepy tributes paid by HRH the Prince of Wales and Cardinal Basil Hume, whose Vatican bosses went even further, giving Sir Jimmy a Vatican knighthood to go with his royal gong.

As this double knight, McGowan delivers what, given the degree of technical and ethical difficulty involved, amounts to one of the most compelling and successful displays of stage acting I have seen. As we expect from such a talented impressionist, he is vowel-perfect, spookily reproducing Savile’s bizarre theatrical Yorkshire accent, in which the word “forty”, for instance, emerged as something rather like “fuckty”, possibly another defiant gesture against the broadcasting authorities.

I’d always suspected that the ridiculous delivery – with weird elongations of illogically emphasised words – was designed to disguise the verbal pallor of his act; he got by for more than 60 years on a handful of catchphrases, one of which consisted of alternating the words “now” and “then”. But as I listened to McGowan, it struck me that the wacky patter may have been planned to stop people realising how recklessly frank he sometimes was: on several occasions (as Davies’s book shows) he toyed aloud with the possibility that he had done evil. 

More surprising is McGowan’s genuinely terrifying stage presence in scenes where Savile scares journalists or victims into silence. In circumstances about which it is necessary to be vague (details have been passed to the proper authorities), I once, in a professional situation, had to interpose my body between Savile and a woman on whom he was attempting to force his attentions. I mention this here only because my indelible memory of the incident (obviously a fraction of the impact the victim suffered) was of brute strength, menace and subdued fury at being thwarted, radiating from a man who, at that time, was already close to 80 years old.

McGowan, with his slight build and background in comedy, seemed an improbable candidate to embody such physicality and danger, but he does so triumphantly. If the performance brought back a sweaty memory of Savile for me, one can only imagine what seeing it would be like for those whose lives he ruined. But his phenomenal acting justifies any potential distress because it demonstrates – in a way that even the finest writing cannot – the combination of eccentricity and intimidation that allowed Savile first to lure his victims and then to disguise his abuse of them.

“An Audience With Jimmy Savile” runs until 11 July. Info: