According to those who specialise in manufactured outrage, it may still be "too soon" for a play about Jimmy Savile. Normally in the media, the undefined "they" who believe this are never quoted directly. Normally, it is simply passive-voice inferred that "controversy" is brewing, though sometimes, the idea is backed up with a quick phone call to a victims' rights charity for a heavily angled quote about how "hurt" or "troubled" many abuse survivors might be by seeing their attacker back in the media. This – with as much respect to real-life victims as the outrage-manufacturers show – is bullshit.
The only moment at which it would be "too soon" for a play about Jimmy Savile would be in 1960, when the Leeds-based nightclub impresario and alleged founder of the twin-turntable approach to DJing would have been barely starting out on his long career of molestation, rape and novelty medallion-wearing. Then, it would simply have been time for a short trial at Leeds Crown Court, followed by Jimmy seeing out the 60s jerking-off to Famous Five covers on his bunk at HMP Leeds, rather than spending the golden age of sexual intercourse doing real-life Benny Hill with credulous teens.
Then, there would have been none of the rapey-panky his sexually over-frank 70s autobiography mentions in "Jesus fucking Christ, what are you all, braindead?" levels of detail. About hosting camp-outs with Girl Guides. About multi-teen orgies in his caravan that ended with "concerned parents" knocking on the door, as Jimmy shoved his bodyguard into the cupboard French farce-style.
No, the time is over-ripe for a play about Savile, and Jonathan Maitland, author of this one, must've been floored to discover that our victim-obsequious culture meant that no one had yet made such a piece. We need to talk about Jimmy. And the fact that we've expended so many words on him without really feeling like we're more than scratching the surface suggests that we now need to switch-up to a more artistic response.
I went to see the play by Maitland, who is an ex-BBC TV hack himself, at the press night on Thursday evening. When I spoke to its creator beforehand, he told me that the seeds of the play were a broader attempt to look at the twisted world of the Beeb. "It's essentially benign but corrupt. This place full of often very intelligent, pleasant, educated people, who end up, because of the way it is over-structured and over-bureaucratised, treating people appallingly: it's often creatively cowardly, and has a bad habit of using public money for purposes it was never intended, for example paying people off."
This, then, was originally meant to be a play about the consequences of that sort of indolent arse-covering culture. Instead, he hit upon Savile after a friend gave him the title: "He said: I've always wanted to see a play called 'An Audience With Jimmy Savile', and after that, I was away."
If only Maitland's play had gone more than halfway into fiction. As a jobbing TV journalist, he says he writes plays to get to those parts that journalism can't reach. Yet this piece stands up more as a decent slab of journalistic research and essay than anything else. More than half of it is just exposition – Savile being interviewed about his life by an arse-licking This Is Your Life-style host, facts courtesy of Wikipedia and biographies.
The other half "dramatises the issues" with all the subtlety of a telenovela – a victim of Savile (whose story has been assembled with details from real-life victims), confronts her dad, the police and eventually Savile himself, in search of answers as to her rape at the age of 12. The detail that she tore pages from a bedside Bible, wrote help messages on them – and posted them in the hospital letterbox – was culled from a specific case.
In spite of a dry narrative, what entirely redeems An Audience… is simply having to spend that long in the presence of Savile. Nothing quite prepares you for Alistair MacGowan striding onto the stage in his silky-green tracksuit and silver-white fright-wig. MacGowan even does his stiff-backed un-pivoting walk to a tee. Casting the cuddly rubber-faced Radio 4 guy as your monster is devilish, especially as MacGowan, of course, was one of those suckered into paying tribute to Savile on the news after he died. You get the feeling there's some personal sense of revenge in his portrayal.
The 90-minute running time is trying not so much because the subject matter is rape and organisational complicity. It is trying simply because Savile is such an enormous, interplanetary-sized monster. His tediously scrambled syntax: "them wot's done this thing to Jimmy", his endless nauseating stream of half-inched dad-jokes, the puffing, preening narcissism and corresponding transparently fake humility of everything he says. Maitland and MacGowan lace together the true psychology of the man with great attention to detail.
Of course, no one will ever come away understanding the "meaning" of Savile because there is no meaning in that sense: he was a virus, a series of flipped switches, a rogue shark swimming in the human gene pool. But their picture does help explain how he got away with it: the combination of bullying and charming by which he managed to keep the lid on a life so buckshot with extreme risk.
A year ago, I went to watch the Rolf Harris trial. Rolf took a lot of big risks too in doing what he did. But the extreme nature of what he'd done in many ways made it seem more plausible. Why would someone stick their hand down a child's pants in the middle of an autograph-signing session? Why would you molest a teenager in the backroom of a Maltese bar who'd only been made known to you minutes earlier because she was looking for help with a cut on her boyfriend's foot? It doesn't make any sense. Until you consider that it also makes a perfect argument for plausible deniability.
Likewise, only a psychopath could pull off the sorts of stupidly random attacks Jimmy seemed capable of. Of taking the sort of extreme chances that make people say "only a complete loony would do that", without ever considering the possibility that, yes, they might simply be dealing with a complete loony.
And only a psychopath could be as mercilessly bullying to his victims as Jimmy comes across in the moments when MacGowan lets the mask drop and that other voice – not folksy-screwball, but a steely core of eyeless rage – comes through. Only a psychopath would turn his life into an art project in putting together the trappings of goodness. The endless fun runs. The constant agitating for a knighthood. The patent lies about how he "spent every Christmas" with Margaret Thatcher at Chequers. The book he published about his religious faith: God'll Fix It.
But even a psychopath needs to act in accordance with a sense of himself as one of "the good guys", and so, to justify it all to himself, as Maitland points out at the play's climax, Sir Jim established a very Catholic system of moral weights and pulleys. When someone had what Savile self-diagnosed as "an excess in certain glands", they could pay off that kind of debt by doing good works: putting ticks on the plus-side of their moral ledger. Unfortunately, in Savile's case, this essentially summed to: "Marathon, rape, marathon, rape, marathon" (as Maitland has the female lead put it).
How did he get away with it? In part, that's made clear when Savile comes in furiously bullish in a scene culled from real-life transcripts of a 2007 interview with West Yorkshire police. He threatens the officers with losing their own jobs. He makes sinister reference to his litigious nature. He throws carts of muck at his accusers ("wrong'uns at a posh borstal") and generally gives not an inch, locking his jaws onto the interview in a way that utterly turns the tables on the hapless jobsworth cops. There, in a nutshell, is how he survived. He had more will than anyone else. His whole life is testament to that.
What An Audience… barely gets onto is the real monsters who stood right behind Jimmy, egging him on. Us. We watched him "now-then now-then" about like a haunted scarecrow, or tell Louis Theroux that he was "a wrestler – feared in every girls school in the country". And we just ate the shit that spewed from his mouth with a spoon. Savile was a light entertainer who brought in TV audiences of 22 million – almost half the UK population at the time.
Kurt Vonnegut wrote that the German nation's greatest crime was "unstinting obedience to authority". The Great British public's greatest crime is unstinting obedience to the fanciful notion of publicly licensed eccentricity. We love a good weirdo. It feeds into our belief that we are a nation set apart – in the genius of thinking differently. Then we get upset when said weirdo thinks differently about sexual consent with ten-year-olds.
Of course, the voices neither the play nor the media will ever hear from now are those of the other girls. There are now 450 sex assault cases now linked to Savile. In his lifetime, Savile claimed to have slept with "over 3000" women. Even trebling for the true numbers of victims, that still leaves over a thousand girls who went voluntarily – and Joan Bakewell has acknowledged there were many of those. In all the endless reporting, none of them have so far come forward with their stories. Yet clearly, they may have the most of all to say about why, for so long, so many of us worshipped his balls.
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