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9 October 2023

The BBC’s Jimmy Savile drama is entirely gratuitous

The Reckoning exposes a rotten culture that serves up stories about abused women for entertainment.

By Rachel Cooke

I was two and a half hours into The Reckoning, the BBC’s new drama about Jimmy Savile, when I began to feel as if I might be hallucinating. In part, this was due to simple enervation: a tiredness born of a weird combination of boredom and fascination, as well as the situation in which I found myself watching the series (I’ll come back to this). Mostly, though, it was because, by this point in the tale, Savile had become the presenter of Jim’ll Fix It, the Saturday-night TV show in which, during the 1980s, he made the dreams of kids come true, and thus it was now my childhood up there on the screen. It was almost too much: the euphoric theme tune; the big armchair with its various secret compartments; those longed-for “Jim Fixed It for Me” badges, which hung on the end of red satin ribbons, and were put around your neck like a medal by the famous man in jewellery and a tracksuit. In my seat, restive and queasy, I began to wonder how much more of all this I could take.

You will want to know: what is he like? Does Steve Coogan triumph – if that’s the right word – in the role of Savile? To which my answer would be: yes, he does, mostly. The prosthetic chin can be distracting, especially when Savile is supposed to be younger; it belongs to a picture-book witch. But everything else is just about right, whether it comes courtesy of the actor, or the costume department. The eyebrows, hair and clothes all look highly flammable. The peculiar stoop-on-wheels walk is at once lolloping and courtly. The faux-chivalrous voice is ribboned always with menace. Above all, Coogan somehow captures the fathomless emptiness inside Savile; the way his smile would suddenly disappear, as if at the flick of a switch, at which point it was possible to register the uncommon deadness behind his eyes. I don’t know how he does this. It feels like the actorly equivalent of automatic writing. But it chilled me to the bone, a corpse now on screen twice over.

[See also: The Woman in the Wall turns the Magdalene laundries into offensive melodrama]

And yet… Let us not get too carried away. The producers of The Reckoning have cut their dramatisation – the career is related chronologically, in a series of long flashbacks – with clips of the real thing, and thanks to this we see that the near facsimile, however vividly realised, won’t quite do. In the end, it’s far more agitating to see old footage of Savile manically driving his horrible camper van across the Pennines – even as his hands grip the wheel, we picture the fold-down bed just behind the driving seat – than it is to watch Coogan’s Savile assaulting a dead woman in a hospital morgue, a noxious and misjudged scene that leaves nothing to the imagination. And, thanks to this, I really can’t buy the line that fiction, in this instance, takes us to places documentary cannot – a notion peddled by everyone associated with the series. If the Netflix documentary Jimmy Savile: A British Horror Story (2022) is far more informative than The Reckoning, it’s also infinitely more disturbing.

The Reckoning was written by Neil McKay, whose previous work includes Appropriate Adult (about Fred and Rose West) and See No Evil: The Moors Murders (about the crimes of Myra Hindley and Ian Brady), and produced by Jeff Pope, who has in the past made a drama about the Yorkshire Ripper, and who wrote the award-winning film Philomena, which also starred Coogan. (McKay and Pope have collaborated before, notably on Four Lives, a drama about the serial killer Stephen Port.) It was commissioned by Charlotte Moore, the chief content officer at the BBC, one of several institutions that enabled Jimmy Savile, a predatory sex offender, to assault hundreds of women and children over many decades. It has taken two years to bring it to screen, though this, we’re told, had less to do with nerves over its subject matter than with scruples. Deep research had to be done. Victims had to be talked to, and supported.

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I know some of this because I attended a panel discussion in which all four of these people (McKay, Pope, Coogan and Moore) took part the week before The Reckoning was to go out – the conclusion of a bizarre and incredibly lowering day. Like other journalists who were present, I’d been informed that those who wanted to see The Reckoning ahead of its transmission would not be able to watch it at home on their laptops (in 2023, this is how TV critics ordinarily review things). Rather, they would need to travel to the BBC’s London headquarters Broadcasting House, where it would be shown in the comfort of the BBC Radio Theatre. As if taking a flight, we were asked to join the line for security in good time. The screening would begin at 3pm with the first two episodes. There would then be a break, refreshments provided, before the show would resume with the last two episodes. This would be followed by a Q&A, which would finish by 9pm.

Several years ago, I saw Philip Glass’s five-hour opera Einstein on the Beach at the Barbican in London, and thanks to this, some of what I experienced during the screening was familiar: a necessary stoicism; an aching back; the commingling of curiosity and languor (the storytelling is slow and horribly repetitive). This is where I live now, I felt at a certain point, as if I might never be allowed back out into the world. But there was something else in this case: the conviction that what I was watching was entirely gratuitous, neither art nor important investigation.

McKay has based his screenplay on In Plain Sight, Dan Davies’s prize-winning book about Savile. Having read it, I can tell you that the only new “information” provided by the series is wild speculation: conjecture born of a misguided desire to “explain” Savile – something that simply cannot be done (the former DJ died in 2011, before his crimes were exposed). Savile was a cradle Catholic, the son of a devout woman (“the Duchess”) to whom he was ardently devoted. Two scenes, then, take place in the confession box. In the first, Agnes Savile (Gemma Jones) tells the priest she cannot properly love her son. In the second, Savile asks his confessor, on behalf of “a friend”, whether mortal sins can ever be forgiven. What kind of “deep research” brought McKay to write such awful cod-psychology? Has he been communing with God himself?

It’s the habit, these days, for film-makers to sign off their more dubious projects by deploying victims, whose “permission” they’ve conscientiously sought. A similar tactic was used by those who made The Long Shadow, the ITV drama about the Yorkshire Ripper which is now running concurrently with The Reckoning (that both these series are being screened at the same time makes its own case: crafting entertainment from crimes committed against women and children is a trend, just like any other). In The Reckoning, four victims – Darien, Susan, Sam and Kevin – are interviewed on camera, their experiences bookending each episode. At the panel discussion, McKay and Pope spoke of them admiringly, insisting on the “duty of care” they felt towards them. But to me their appearance only draws attention to the reality that – as McKay eventually half-admitted – many other victims must be horrified by this drama, regarding it as a further violation.

The series is well cast, even if does come with some cartoons – Michael Jibson as Bill Cotton, the BBC’s head of light entertainment in its glory days; Fenella Woolgar as Mrs Thatcher, Savile’s friend and supporter – and some actors are carefully used. Siobhan Finneran plays Beryl, a real person who knew Savile and saw through him, and her role is crucial: here is a woman’s voice, and a woman’s eye. McKay, who tracked down Beryl and interviewed her, rightly noted this during the Q&A. But alas, the optics on the night worked against his diligence: four men and only one woman out to bat for the defence (softball questions to the panel were served up by Boyd Hilton, the entertainment writer). In my seat at the back of the auditorium, I couldn’t get over it. Hadn’t it occurred to anyone how this might look? Couldn’t the press office at least have asked a woman to chair the event? (Charlotte Moore, incidentally, seemed prickly and defensive.)

But then this press conference was, it finally struck me, Britain in microcosm, male voices still the loudest. Nostalgia plays a powerful role in the fascination Savile still holds for some, and nostalgia is our national pathology. Then there’s the media. Several journalists each from the Daily Mail, the Times and the Sunday Times were present, and their questions were focused not on the ethics of the drama, but of the BBC. They detected, based on no evidence at all that I could see, that The Reckoning was some kind of whitewash: not just a purgative, but a circumvention, too. One demanded to know why more hadn’t been made of the Newsnight investigation into Savile that was dropped in 2011. (The Mail has since reported the “fury” surrounding this supposed omission – an anger voiced, in its report, by the Conservative MPs Bill Cash and Iain Duncan Smith, neither of whom had yet seen the series.)

I listened to all this – and to McKay who, as the hour wore on, started talking somewhat fantastically of a man he’d met in Glencoe, where Savile owned a house, who had told him the DJ was frightened of “the bad men coming down the mountain to slit his throat” – and felt something close to rage. Here was the real whitewash. It was all so beside the point. How many more dramas like this will be made? Why don’t film-makers write fiction any more? What is wrong with our culture that stories about abused women are served up, like so much supper on a tea tray, week after week, month after month?

All episodes of “The Reckoning” are on BBC iPlayer 

[See also: The Sixth Commandment is a delicate dissection of human frailty]

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This article appears in the 11 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, War Without Limits