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5 October 2016

A singular malevolence

Rachel Cooke wonders why Louis Theroux feels guilty about Jimmy Savile.

By Rachel Cooke

In 2000 Louis Theroux made a documentary about Jimmy Savile in which he was shown to be a bully, a creep and a loner, but not, as you will recall, a rapist and a paedophile. During a car journey, Theroux did ask the DJ about the rumours that periodically swirled around him – difficult conversations are always best had in cars, the option to stare fixedly ahead being handy all round – but Savile batted it away. Why this should be a source of shame for Theroux, as he has insisted it is, I’m not exactly sure. What did he expect him to say? And why does he think that he could have succeeded where countless others also failed?

The two of them spent ten days together. Ten days. This might well be a long time in terms of access to a so-called celebrity – I tremble at the thought of spending more than a couple of hours with some of my ­interviewees – but for a man who had worn a mask for more than half a century, it was the blink of an eye.

Sixteen years later, Theroux asked himself what to do with his shame and anxiety in this matter, and the answer apparently came back: make a film about it. Again, I don’t understand his reasoning. It’s hard to imagine a better documentary about Savile than the one he made in 2000, which brought us, I feel, unexpectedly close to his singular malevolence. Plus, there are other places we can go now, should we be in search of factual answers to still troubling questions: Dame Janet Smith’s inquiry report, for one, or Dan Davies’s prize-winning book, In Plain Sight, for another.

I share his bewilderment: we all feel it, particularly those of us over 40, who grew up at a time when children were always disbelieved and frequently surrounded by touchy-feely men whose behaviour we were expected to tolerate, and even relish. However, I’m not at all sure that examining it in the company of Savile’s victims, as he chose to do in his new film (broadcast 2 October), was the right thing, morally or artistically.

Theroux couldn’t hope to un-muddy the waters, not in 75 minutes. Savile got away with his foul crimes for complicated, multifarious reasons, some of which are being explored rather brilliantly right now in Jack Thorne’s National Treasure.

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This isn’t to say that his film didn’t have some powerful moments. One woman described how Savile often assaulted her when she was an 11-year-old in the presbytery of a hospital chapel during Mass; to try to protect herself she wore three pairs of knickers and a tampon, though she hadn’t yet reached puberty. And when the issue of belief came up, its smell was rancid. Savile’s secretary of 30 years, Janet Cope, didn’t claim to have always liked her former boss. “He found friends an encumbrance,” she said. Nevertheless, she does not believe he was an abuser of women and children. His accusers are lying; they’ve made it all up.

Does this make Cope, in the loosest possible way, one of the walking culpable? ­Perhaps. Though I feel for her, too. In her denial are questions for all of us. What can we bear to believe? How do we balance what we see and feel with what we hear and read? When does the uncomfortable shade into the dreadful? When to act and when to stay silent?

Towards the end of his film, Theroux went to meet the journalist Angela Levin, who had interviewed Savile for the Mail on Sunday. A nurse had told her, she said, that the DJ interfered with disabled little girls but naturally this allegation did not find its way into her piece. Why hadn’t it? “Are you trying to blame this on me?” she asked, smiling tightly.

Oh, it’s all so difficult, isn’t it? Who could ever hope to unpick it? In recent years, more than one innocent man has been accused of similar crimes and yet Savile, who abused many hundreds of people, made it to his grave without being exposed. I don’t think Theroux was trying to blame anything on Levin. I think he was simply hoping to suggest, in his slightly clumsy way, that Savile’s brutal sense of entitlement – all his life he referred to women as “it” – found its greatest succour in our collective timidity, in our polite determination to let a deeply strange man be just that. 

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