Bad men

LenFaircloughtrial - Version 3

In July 1983, when I was 18, Peter Adamson – the actor known to and loved by millions as Len Fairclough on Coronation St, a character he’d played since 1961 – went on trial for the indecent assault that April of two eight-year-old girls in a swimming pool. As you can see from the blunt-instrument graphic used by the Sun newspaper, the lines between Adamson and his fictional persona were deliberately blurred. I remember the trial well, as I was an avid viewer of the soap at the time. I stuck the above graphic into my diary on Thursday July 21, mid-hearing, alongside this doctored collage from the same newspaper:

LenFaircloughtrial - Version 2As you may be able to see, I wrote “GUILT” in pencil over Adamson’s suit, so I would be able to add, “He’s got guilt written all over him.” This was my 18-year-old’s idea of a joke. A casualty of trial by tabloid – and the red-tops were pretty despicable then, in their early-80s pomp – I had passed judgement before the court had. (It’s a shame I wasn’t more sensitive, but we cannot rewrite our own history.)

In the event, on July 26, the jury found Adamson – and by dimwitted association, Fairclough – not guilty. But it was immaterial; he’d already been tried and convicted in the public mind. Although he lived until 2002 and managed to get some theatre work, he was never again seen on Coronation St, having been written out back in February, before the arrest, ironically for selling stories to the tabloids. A sad figure by all accounts, he struggled with a long-standing drinking problem and died penniless after a 1991 bankruptcy.

The clinical term “paedophile”, although well established, was not in general use in 1983; it was certainly too long a word for the Sun. I suspect, as well as “dirty bastard”, Len will have been branded a “pervert”. I bring up his story partly because it has stayed with me, and partly because at least two equally well-loved Coronation St stars are currently embroiled in court cases over alleged sexual assault: Michael Le Vell, who’s played Kevin Webster since, coincidentally, 1983, and William Roache, the longest-serving Coronation St star of them all, having been Ken Barlow since the first episode in 1960. Le Vell goes to trial in September for 19 charges, including alleged sexual assault and the rape of a minor; Roache goes to Crown Court next month for the alleged rape of a 15-year-old in 1967. Both men deny all charges.

These big tabloid stories interest us – and, one assumes, appall us – because they are men in the public eye. In the wake of Jimmy Savile, which I wrote about at the time, and Operation Yewtree, the truism is to say that each week discredits another previously loved celebrity from the 60s, 70s and 80s (which covers a lot of our childhoods). If any of these multiple, often historic accusations turn out to be true – and when Stuart Hall pleaded guilty to indecent assaulting 13 girls, aged between 9 and 17 years, between 1967 and 1986, he became the first to cross over from lurid speculation to actual admission of despicable deeds – then it will say dark things about society in the not-too-distant past.

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I’m not really here to talk about “the culture” that permitted a now unacceptable degree of “harmless” fun between powerful men and often much younger women, and children, nor about how boundaries have been more clearly drawn in the more enlightened decades since, as to do so often risks sounding as if you excuse the bottom-pinching that was the tip of a much more sinister iceberg. If an ex-Radio 1 DJ is accused, historically, of groping a female work colleague in the 70s, we should not excuse it just because it was time of Carry On films and Benny Hill, any more than rape should be excused because the victim was wearing a skirt. It’s very likely that the victim either didn’t come forward because she feared he or she would not be believed (that’s certainly the case with Savile’s victims), or that he or she did come forward and wasn’t believed.

This past week, Stuart Hazell, who was not a celebrity but achieved a level of ubiquity through his disgusting deeds, was imprisoned for a minimum of 38 years for the murder of his partner’s 12-year-old granddaughter. At the trial, some pretty disturbing insights into this 37-year-old man’s character emerged. With barely time to catch our collective breath about the prevalence of this kind of abuse and murder of children from within families, we saw seven members of a “sex grooming ring” in Oxford convicted at the Old Bailey of abusing six girls, who were targeted, drugged and suffered “sadistic abuse” while aged between 11 and 15. The details are too horrible. I won’t repeat them. Difficult debates are being had about the ethnic background and religion of the men, which largely matches that of the nine convicted last year after a Rochdale sex trafficking ring was exposed. However, there’s a much bigger coincidence, which links Stuart Hall to Stuart Hazell and every other sex offender in between: they’re all men.

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Suzanne Moore has been writing passionately and controversially about this subject in the Guardian from a long-range feminist perspective (today’s column was particularly furious). Her concern is not just the seeming ubiquity of male sexual assault, whether historic or current, it’s the failure as she sees it of men to do something about it. She has harsh words for the authorities, social services, the police, the media, for failing to act, but she asks, legitimately, why women seem to be more enraged about it than men. Does that make all men culpable?

This line unfortunately takes us down the hardline Andrea Dworkin route (the uber-feminist wrote, in a 1987 paper called Intercourse, “Physically, the woman in intercourse is a space inhabited, a literal territory occupied literally”), and is not helpful, especially when most men – surely! – are not potential rapists, respect and like women, and know that a child is a child.

I’m quick to say that society is to blame, but that’s not to let individuals off the hook. If you talk about “a crisis of masculinity” it suggests you wish a return to the good old days when men were breadwinners and “masters of the house”, and I have no love for those Victorian values. The pressure on men today is not to be “the man” but to be a more caring, open-minded, feminised member of a family or social group. You might say that men are not born this way; to be the leader is somehow in the DNA of the hunter-gatherer, the physically stronger sex, the Martian (if we really are from Mars). But society changes, for the better, usually, and to fail to adapt is to die.

I re-educated myself in the 80s, taking onboard new information, discarding orthodoxies handed down to me from less enlightened times, and adjusting my behaviour and my thinking accordingly. This was not unique for the time. (I also went to art school, a more effeminate choice than most, and was in a minority as a male at my halls of residence and at college, which can only have had a good effect on me. I also looked effeminate, by choice, and was called a “poof” often in my teens, which galvanised my instincts about sexual equality.) I really do worry about subsequent generations who have grown up with available 24-hour porn, and especially those young enough to have come of age in the post-Loaded era of Nuts and Zoo. Those boys are going to have to do a lot more adjustment than I did.

Anyway, there’s a link between casual, seemingly benign sexism among male friends and unspeakable acts. I am not a psychologist, but the need to wield power must lie at the heart of sexual assault. To abuse, to rape, to threaten, to kill, are all acts of power. Stuart Hazell wanted something that was forbidden under the laws of the land, but he could not stop himself from taking it. Once the switch flicks, men are capable of bad things. We all do and say things we regret, and relationships break down all the time, and we can find ourselves saying unkind things to people we love, but all of this takes place within boundaries. To raise a hand is to cross that boundary; to break the law is to cross another one.

I don’t think you should hit women, but I don’t think you should hit men, or children, either.

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Tabloid headlines never tell the whole story. They paint men as “evil”, and quote relatives of victims who wish to see them “hanged”. The headlines above from the April Jones and Tia Sharp cases are designed to lure us in on our basest instincts. The “goodies” and the “baddies” are clear cut in the blunt-instrument tabloid narrative, but the stories also offer voyeurism, and that’s where a lot of the bad stuff starts: looking at things you shouldn’t look at, or looking at things that you should look at, but looking at them in a funny way.

We do not yet know if Rolf Harris, or Michael Le Vell, or Max Clifford, assaulted anyone, although we do know that their careers are likely to be over, even if they are acquitted. We live in suspicious times. (Anyone else see Paul Shane’s name the other night and think, “Oh no, not another one”, before sighing with relief when you found at that, no, he had only died?) The historic cases and the contemporary ones tell a sad story about men. I am, at heart, a self-hating man, in that I have no great love for my gender. I am not perfect, but I do consider myself a feminist and have a pretty sensitive radar to everyday sexism.

I felt very uncomfortable about the fact that, for no real narrative reason, and in a 12A certificate film, Alice Eve stripped down to her underwear in Star Trek Into Darkness. This was a Nuts moment, pandering to the young male’s worst instinct, which is to ogle and objectify. It’s not a trivial matter. Stamp this sort of thing out and you get to the root of the problem: some men hate women and don’t even realise it.

C.R.E.E.P.S.H.O.W.

I mention this only as a matter of record. In November 1973, when I was eight years old, our Friday afternoon art project at Abington Vale Primary School was to make a papier-mâché puppet. If I remember correctly, we moulded the head around a balloon with strips of newspapers and glue, let it harden, painted it, decorated it, then added the hand-puppet body using rudimentary dressmaking skills, which actually seem fairly sophisticated for an eight-year-old boy, especially the padded hands, although I suspect we had assistance in this.

This brief was fairly typical of the modern, co-educational thrust of comprehensive education in the early 70s: boys and girls mucking in and blurring the distinctions between gender-specific crafts and activities.

As noted in my 1973 diary on Friday November 16, “Today it was art and we are making puppets out of papier-mâché. I am making Jimmy Savile but I haven’t put his hair on yet!”

Thanks to my own adult predisposition to archiving (otherwise known as “hoarding”), I can present physical evidence of the completed Jimmy Savile puppet, with the trademark hair, fashioned from string. The key creative decision, aged eight, to make Jimmy Savile “evil” was, I have to admit, less a prescient appreciation of the darker side of the nation’s favourite kids’ TV host (as previously stated, we loved Jim’ll Fix It in our house), more a reflection of a general boyhood obsession with horror films, as filtered through Monster Fun comic, Aurora glow-in-the-dark kit models, Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s Monster Mash (a reissue of which 1962 novelty tune was a hit that October) and Denis Gifford’s Pictorial History of Horror Movies. I equated blood running out of nose and eye as “evil.”

Who knew? (That is the question.)

Dear Jim

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.