Jimmy Savile: A British Horror Story

Here’s a Halloween monster for yer. I obviously don’t celebrate Jimmy Savile (1926-2011) but it resonates that his birthday was October 31, when horrors traditionally walk abroad in full view of everybody with sanction and impunity.

When scandal broke following Savile’s death a decade ago most Americans had two questions. The first was: “WHO?” We were informed that Savile was a “British institution”, but usually we hear about those across the pond and get to partake in them as well. But there are plenty of local British institutions that don’t make it over here. In the course of doing this blog I discover them all the time, from the days of music hall to rock acts that never charted in the U.S. or TV shows that never played here, and it’s normally delightful. Savile, as you’ll see, was obviously one of those.

The second question we had, those of us who made the effort to study the Savile story more closely, was: “WTF? How could an entire country NOT know that this seedy, sketchy, weird old creep was a serial pedophile?!? He’s got everything but a sign tacked to his forehead”. Yes, yes, benefit of hindsight and all that. My knowledge about Savile and his crimes comes almost entirely from the Netflix two-part series Jimmy Savile: A British Horror Story, which was released only about six months ago, and the show seems to quite carefully compile all of those “we should have seen it” moments, in which Savile comes off as a psychotic to rival The Joker. It might have been more illuminating to have included a certain amount of footage of him not looking like the one man you kick out of the homeless shelter for trying to hump the dude in the cot next to him. Maybe there isn’t any such archival media — his weirdness seems to go way back.

As for the “British institution” business, my fellow Americans, I’ll cut to the chase. Savile was initially a sort of English Dick Clark. He was a live DJ in his native Leeds at dance halls, then on radio, and finally was one of the hosts of a show some of you may have heard of (as I had) Top of the Pops, on which many important British rock and pop acts performed over the decades. Savile hosted the first Top of the Pops in 1964 and the last in 2006 and many of them in between. The other show he was associated with, Jim’ll Fix It (1975-1994) might be even better known to British audiences, and was undoubtedly his highway to hell. The premise of that show was that he would grant wishes, usually to children. And so many people apparently looked on him as a kind of Santa Claus. Kids would write him touching letters, and he would bestow dreams. Except…

Except. Well, picture a leering, cigar-smoking Santa Claus tricked out in a stained track suit and pimp bling, winking and making suggestive and lewd comments all through this. I mean the guy LITERALLY looks nightmarish, like a cross between Mr Hyde and the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Sure, back in the day, when he was a DJ he was more of a run of the mill greasy sleazeball, of the Oily Man type. In the old clips you see the foundation of his appeal. He was from the North Country, had worked in mines. He had the common touch. His off color remarks delighted old working class ladies. This aspect reminds me a little of Richard Dawson, who managed to bring a similar quality to American audiences on Family Feud. Anyway, that early period apparently gave Savile his start macking on teeny boppers and groupies. But then he pushed the envelope young and younger. Jim’ll Fix It, and the charities he funded and promoted as an outgrowth of the show gave him access to young CHILDREN. And so by the time of his death, there were literally HUNDREDS of allegations of child sexual abuse. The nearest American equivalent I can think of is Bill Cosby’s dozens of date rapes (it’s the wrong term since often they weren’t dates, but it comes closest to Cosby’s M.O.) A character who is widely thought of as the essence of benevolence having a secret career of predation. Though in Savile’s case he looked and acted the part of the predator and STILL no one was the wiser. It’s confounding.

And yet it isn’t. The crux of the story of Jimmy Savile, my main takeaway from the Netflix doc, and the lesson of our times, is that stories like his differ from lots of similar misbehavior only in scale. The amount of damage they can do depends only on the power they wield. Invariably, such people are protected on two fronts. On the one hand, powerful friends and institutional protection mean that complaints against people like Savile and Cosby and Harvey Weinstein go unexamined and ignored for as long as possible. Savile’s friends and benefactors included the present King of England, for God’s sake. As far as I know, Savile’s OBE still hasn’t been revoked!

On the other hand, there is the obstinacy of the public, and this you must realize is not just a socio-political issue but a biological one. Human beings are only partially creatures of reason. I’d go even farther than that — many human beings are not creatures of reason at all. It’s not hyperbole, it’s a phenomenon we have witnessed time and time again, in cult behavior, and in personality-based political movements from Mussolini to Trump, where empirically incontrovertible facts become irrelevant in the face of emotional attachment to some public figure. It’s mysterious, but not if you consider it as the animal behavior it is. A social group picks a leader and then behave as one unit at his behest. Theoretically, humanity is supposed to be about being ABOVE susceptibility to that, about measuring right and wrong for oneself, and making choices based on what’s happening in the world around them. What’s really happening, not what they’re told is happening by the razorback. The problem for humanity, both as a matter of criminal justice and of politics, is how can we transcend animal nature? How can we protect people, taken as a whole, from the worst amongst us, when the worst amongst are disguised as our designated protectors?

A galling thematic trope throughout A British Horror Story are chilling clips of Savile delivering one of his popular catchphrases “My trial comes up next Thursday.” Well, as it happens, in America, his trial comes up next Tuesday. Please think about it. It’s not just a British horror story, but ours as well.