True Crime Tuesdays: Jimmy Savile: A British Horror Story
Helen Archer | On 12, Apr 2022
Rowan Deacon’s rather shallow dive into the depraved crimes of Jimmy Savile, a once-lauded figure whose imposing presence was ubiquitous for decades in light entertainment, is subtitled – aptly – A British Horror Story. Like a Grimm fairytale, Savile was a Pied Piper who lured the children of the village away but, unlike the fable, no one missed them, there was no uproar; instead, the villagers waved them off cheerfully. Those villagers included the monarchy, the government, the police, the BBC and Fleet Street, all of whom were complicit in the systemic protection of a predator who exploited the most vulnerable and powerless in society. Over 50 years and in more than 50 institutions, from children’s homes to hospitals, Savile was given carte blanche because of his charity work, his fame and his powerful connections.
While this two-part documentary has a running time of almost three hours, it still feels as though barely half the story is told. The biggest absence is in the lack of acknowledgement of his victims – only one of them, Sam Brown, is featured here, towards the end of the series, giving extraordinarily moving testimony. There is, too, a lack of detail in Savile’s early biography – specifically, his time as a wrestler and as a doorman of Glasgow clubs, where he cultivated his “hard man” image. Most glaringly, his predilection for necrophilia is omitted completely – although the fact that he spent five days with his mother’s body after she died is mentioned in passing, without this knowledge it becomes an aside, rather than a deeply concerning piece of information.
Instead, the programme focuses on Savile’s celebrity, which rises with the aid of his charity work – most notably for Stoke Mandeville Hospital, which specialises in spinal injuries, and where he volunteered as a porter – allowing his crimes to go unacknowledged and unpunished until after his death in 2011 at the age of 84. We join him, in archive footage, at the height of his fame – and he was very, very famous for a very long time, fronting the kinds of programmes that children interacted with enthusiastically, from Top of the Pops to Jim’ll Fix It.
The programme features a parade of sad faces – journalists, colleagues, and acquaintances of Savile’s line up to tell us they couldn’t possibly have known what was hiding in plain sight. Indeed, throughout his career, Savile took a blasé attitude to the rumours swirling, gloating live on air about his access to children, while behind the scenes threatening to sue anyone who attempted to publicly out him. His overbearing and downright threatening manner is evidenced time and again in old clips, as he’d sexually harass both the general public and celebrity presenters such as Selina Scott, who would respond with discomfited giggles and coy glances. Horrifying footage of a lesser-known BBC show, Clunk Click, is unearthed, showing Savile and Gary Glitter surrounded by kids – at least one positively identified as one of Savile’s victims – as the men joked about what they’d do to them on bean bags or backstage. Years later, sitting next to Ian Hislop on Have I Got News for You, Savile is seen cracking jokes about how he was feared by every schoolgirl in the country.
Only one journalist comes out of this well: Meirion Jones, who had personal experience of seeing Savile take girls out of Duncroft, an approved school where his aunt was headmistress. Jones spent many years attempting to publicly unmask the man, contacting victims via Friends Reunited when social media, still in its infancy, allowed some of the rumours to surface. The programme he made about it was pulled, at the last minute, by the BBC, and was buried until Savile was likewise.
Roger Ordish, Savile’s long-time producer on Jim’ll Fix It, comes under more scrutiny from Holly Willoughby in a short clip from This Morning than he does from the production team of this documentary. Lamenting that people want someone to blame since Savile died, he sideswerves any accusations of complicity. Excuses abound, as well as a lack of self-reflection. Andrew Neil confesses that “as a profession, as journalists, we failed the country”, before asserting that “the nation failed itself.. the nation created Jimmy Savile”. Apparently Savile’s viewers – and his victims – have themselves to blame for his unrestricted access to them, and for his abuse of that access. No one wants to put their hands up to say that they helped enable this.
Meanwhile, quick shots are shown of people discussing Savile on the gossip site Popbitch, with one user writing that a friend had been abused by Savile years earlier, had never got over it, and ultimately committed suicide. These are the untold stories of devastation that Savile left in his wake – still untold, as the establishment continues to cover up their part in allowing his crimes to continue.
“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there,” wrote LP Hartley in the opening of The Go-Between. As a society, we now know more about safeguarding and abuse, the kinds of communities predators target, and the way in which people hide ill-doings behind a veneer of philanthropy. And yet the reason Savile was protected for so long, his crimes covered up by the highest echelons of society, seems destined to remain something of a mystery. In that respect, by the evidence of this documentary, the past remains a familiar country, and we do things no differently here.