The reasons why Jimmy Savile’s crimes were unpunished in his lifetime — undetected is the wrong word, since many people knew — are so deeply woven into the fabric of British culture they are hard to extract, and the situation may still be as kind to potential predators. Netflix’s new two-part documentary, Jimmy Savile: A British Horror Story, does not tell us why he got away with sexually abusing so many children. It may even, though obliviously, be an extension of that same culture that made people think Savile was a valuable public figure, even if — no, because — he talked drivel all his life. He never said anything meaningful. He had nothing meaningful to say. I spent two hours with him fifteen years ago in Leeds and he was a dullard, grandiose and jangling in the costume that impersonated a soul. He emitted patter, not speech, as you do if you are a psychopath and other people are unknowable. But the camera was always on him. It still is, with different emphasis.
A British Horror Story does some useful things. It offers Meirion Jones, the former Newsnight reporter, the opportunity to explain how the BBC came to pull his exposé of Savile in favour of hagiography. Savile had died and the BBC could not broadcast, Jones was told, “just” the testimony of “the women”. It offers a woman who Savile abused as a girl in the chapel of Stoke Mandeville Hospital the opportunity to describe his attacks on her. She would wear three pairs of knickers and tampons — though she was only eleven and did not menstruate — into the chapel anteroom in which he so glibly assaulted her. It allows the journalists Lynn Barber and Andrew Neil the opportunity to revisit their interviews with Savile. None of the BBC and NHS workers who knew far more about Savile’s crimes than them offer themselves up for interview, however. I would have liked to see them.
Despite these elements A British Horror Story still feels like entertainment, a continuation of Savile’s posthumous career in which he is no less famous. It reminded me of Toby Jones’s villain in Sherlock, Culverton Smith, clearly based on Savile, who, when caught, was thrilled: “I’m going to be so famous now. With this I can break America.” A British Horror Story is for a global audience.
To watch this is to insert yourself into a nightmare that cannot harm you and will probably teach you nothing — so why watch it? What documentary about child rape would be at No 1 on Netflix without Savile’s branding? With archive footage — behold the monster! — it allows the viewer to imagine themselves in collusion with Savile, co-conspirators all. How could we not know? Didn’t he tell us? On a show called Clunk Click he tells Paul Gadd (aka Gary Glitter), now detained in HM Prison the Verne for assault and attempted rape, “We’ve got some [women] on the bean bags lined up for you.” During a TV interview a woman is carried towards him. We do not see her face. “Put it down,” he says, “let me have a look, turn it round, yes, later, later, take it away.” He tells Ian Hislop he kidnapped women and sold them. He tells another journalist: “You punish yourself because you are such a villain, and you should be kind to them, and you are not kind to them, and you squeeze them and make them go ouch.” He made these confessions not because he struggled with his sins — the more he raped, the more money he raised, said one pundit — but because they pleased him. They made him feel even more powerful.
This is a common theme with Savile: we are all complicit. But that is really expiation for some. If everyone is responsible for Savile’s crimes then no one is. I understand the allure of his story. He pretended to make dreams come true but instead ruined lives: Jim‘ll Break You. That’s an archetype we can all fear. But I did not know he raped children when I went to his flat in Leeds for a “national treasure” profile for a tabloid newspaper. If I had, I would not have gone. If I had suspected it, I would not have listened so politely to his thrown-together homilies about rags-to-riches and how he couldn’t marry because he loved women too much and he hated women too much. As Hislop says, they were rumours, not facts. I knew he had a secret, but I could not fix him. He bored me.
Some people, however, did know. The definitive book on Savile is In Plain Sight by Dan Davies, and he carefully chronicles the opportunities to stop Savile. They were many, because people did tell or, rather, they tried to. One girl, raped by Savile in a day room as he impersonated a hospital porter, wrote two letters to the nursing staff. They ignored them, or those higher up did. A female police officer who knew Savile slept with an under-age girl was encouraged not to report it by her colleagues. A boy who reported an assault to the police was told to go away and forget it. The BBC did nothing meaningful when Claire McAlpine, 15, killed herself after dancing on Top of the Pops where, according to her friends, she was fed to Savile. He didn’t groom the nation: that is too forgiving. He groomed institutions. Ian Skidmore, the late Mirror journalist, thought that Savile paid off senior policemen. Charles Hullighan, the head porter at Leeds General Infirmary, died a rich man.
It is impossible to imagine Savile thriving in a culture that was not thick with misogyny (though he assaulted boys too, it was the attacks on women he boasted of). The fragments of film in the documentary are cartoonish in their contempt. As Selina Scott fends off his advances on a sofa, and tries to change the subject, Frank Bough demeans her too: “Stick with it, girl.” Girl. Did she have to take it? Of course. That is what she was for.
I doubt anyone is safer for this new work on Savile. I doubt the intensity of our gaze on him will protect a single child. It will do nothing for the provision of child services, or for the poverty in which abuse ordinarily thrives, or to educate disbelieving police officers. Savile comes ever closer not to case study but to myth, and that is not helpful. The camera is still on him, and it shouldn’t be. It always was.
This article appears in the 20 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Law and Disorder