Diary entry: Saturday, 1 January, 1977
Made a Lego house in the morning. Watched Swap Shop. Watched Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory in the afternoon, after playing Monopoly. New series of Jim’ll Fix It and Dr Who. Watched Starsky And Hutch.
Jimmy Savile, or Sir Jimmy Savile as he officially remains for now, died less than a year ago, on October 29, 2011, two days before his 85th birthday. His body lay in state, in a gold coffin, at the Queens Hotel in Leeds, and 4,000 people lined up to pay their respects. When he died, his secrets died with him. Or at least, they did in theory. Unfortunately, since his death, a number of people have come forward to say that they were abused by him when they were children. Since ITV’s Exposure documentary aired on Wednesday, more have lined up to join them and add to the cacophony of complaint against his good name. I’m not a detective, but when such a broad catalogue of independent testimony corroborates itself in this way, it’s hard not to find the evidence compelling.
The disturbing picture emerging is of a depraved sexual predator with a penchant for girls of around 15 who used his power as a national treasure, a figure on the pop scene, and the host of television shows aimed at children to get what he wanted. By all accounts, he pulled the egregious trick of frightening his victims into keeping quiet, and filling them with shame for something he had perpetrated. By preying on troubled girls from an approved school in Surrey, he exploited a bond of trust between himself and the institution, in much the same way that paedophile Catholic priests use the sanctity of the church to have their way with altar boys.
I only ever sent one letter to Jim’ll Fix It. It was in 1976. I asked Jim – or “Jim’ll” as we jokily called him – to fix it for me to meet my hero, the Daily Express cartoonist Giles, so I could show him my own cartoons. (As related in my book, I even drew some Giles characters on my letter and used coloured pens on the envelope – as if no Jim wannabe had ever thought of that before.) It was all for nothing; I never got a sniff. But then neither did my brother Simon and he’d asked “Jim’ll” to fix it for him to visit the Action Man factory, which ought to have been right up the programme’s street with their appetite for subliminal advertising.
In later, more self-conscious years, I identified Jim as an establishment figure of whom I did not approve, when, after the video of the late Sid Vicious performing Something Else on Top of the Pops, Savile warned the nation not to ride a motorbike without proper protection.
It turns out that he was the one who we should have been warned about. The BBC is under fire, from the usual anti-BBC quarters, for its part in “turning a blind eye” to what Savile seems to have been doing on their premises, in dressing rooms at Television Centre when Jim’ll was the king of early evening BBC. No chatter about how different our attitudes to paedophilia were then, in the 60s and 70s, can lessen the gruesome impact of what we’re now learning. This does not mean anybody covered it up. Savile was a superstar in the 60s and 70s, his creepiness all part of the eccentric nature of his persona – which, if later documentaries about him, particularly Louis Theroux’s, present a realistic picture, were extensions of his actual character. He did an awful lot of work for charity, and this seems to have been his cloak of protection. It’s entirely possible that people he worked with simply couldn’t believe he’d put his hands where they weren’t wanted.
I never met him. But when I first worked at the BBC, in the early 90s, I heard “rumours” about him that were pretty ugly. Funnily enough – or not very funnily enough – the rumours I heard were different from the ones that are now coalescing into testimony and possibly fact. I wouldn’t say they’re worse, but they are equally repellent on an entirely different level. They don’t involve under-age girls. When people say it was “an open secret” that he was a bit of a pervert, this incriminates anyone who heard the whispers. The entertainment industry has its own folklore of dirty stories about well-loved celebrities; with the way the tabloids have worked for the last few decades, you do sort of think: well, if they’re true, they’d have come out by now, surely? I never heard the stories about Savile’s penchant for under-age girls.
If you can assassinate a dead man, that’s what happening right now. Savile’s legend has been rewritten. Those who always found him creepy – which is most of us – can now congratulate ourselves for having spotted that he was a wrong’un, and yet, how brilliant are we for doing that after hearing first-hand accounts of his wrongdoing? It’s interesting that Kenny Everett, another much-loved and wacky Radio 1 and Top Of The Pops DJ, has been celebrated this week, and depicted as a man haunted by the “shame” of his own homosexuality, although I assume that in liberal corners of entertainment, this was not condemned, but accepted. Concerning this “open secret”, we posthumously sympathise with and applaud Ken for battling on, because it was he who was damaged by Victorian attitudes to a legal lifestyle choice. (I say “we” applaud him; I’m sure a lot of purple-faced, Mail-reading colonels in the home counties still think being gay is an affront to nature, but who cares about them.)
If Savile was a serial molester of children, then he deserves to have his plaque and his statue taken down, for he died without ever being found out or punished for ruining so many lives. We didn’t even use the term paedophilia back in the crazy 60s and 70s, although I vividly remember Public Information Films about not talking to “strangers” who promised to show you puppies. Pop star Alvin Stardust and footballer Kevin Keegan, however, approached kids and showed them how to cross the road correctly in similar films. The moral being: if someone famous comes up to you, it’s fine. If Jimmy Savile had come up to them, it would have been fine.
It’s awkward having to readjust your view of the world. I have been thoroughly enjoying BBC4’s repeats of Top Of The Pops from 1977 and, currently, 1978. They are fascinating social documents, when shown in full. Will they still show the editions hosted by Savile, with his mating yodel and his hands all over the 15-year-olds? I suspect not. Although they did show one with Gary Glitter on earlier this year.
A final thought: when I was about 12, the same age as the diary entry above when Jim’ll Fix It was a fixture and Willy Wonka considered a benevolent bachelor proffering sweets, I made a papier maché Jimmy Savile puppet in art at school. Oddly, I made a “horror” version of Jim, with blood coming out of his mouth and eyes, and an evil face. That’s what childhood is about: innocent fun. I’m glad he never answered my letter.