My Six Years with Jimmy Savile: An Interview with His Biographer
Dan Davies interviewed Savile over six years in order to write his now award-winning biography, 'In Plain Sight.'
"He said to me that he didn't have normal feelings, that he didn't have friends," says author and journalist Dan Davies. "He" is Jimmy Savile, and those words are a gross understatement. Knowing what we know now, any of us could have made that assumption of Savile. But Davies has the dubious privilege of having heard that admission from the man himself—as Savile's biographer, Davies spent a great deal of time with Savile interviewing him over six years. Of course, it was only after Savile's death, in 2011, that the truth of his life was revealed.
"He studied what his impact was on other people. He calculated how he could manipulate that and use that to his own end," continues Davies, whose biography of Savile, In Plain Sight: The Life and Lies of Jimmy Savile, recently won the Gordon Burn Prize. "He used to boast to me about having this power to make people laugh. That you couldn't help but laugh. It gave him power over people."
I'm talking with Davies in a café in London's Soho, just around the corner from numerous venues Savile frequented during his life. We are four years removed from Savile's death, three away from the moment the allegations against his sexual offenses were taken seriously. I want to ask Davies about Savile, but also about his own journey—from "hating" Savile as a child to his adulthood obsession with a man who would posthumously become known as Britain's most public monster: the onetime Knight of the Realm, famous charity worker, and sexual offender of more than 450 people.
I recall seeing Savile in a 1999 episode of Have I Got News for You. A monstrous Teflon man with a shock of white hair and customary cigar, he sat there and casually made jokes about being "feared in every girl's school in the country." It was event television for the morbidly curious. Savile wasn't the only one to make jokes about himself, either. Over the years, people such as John Lydon, David Baddiel, Frank Skinner, and David Mitchell have publicly touched on Savile's depravity. It felt like a very public secret. "How he got away with it, God only knows," says Davies, "but it's a salutary lesson of how power, celebrity contacts, and public appearances can deviate truth."
Davies started interviewing Savile in 2004: "It started out as one man's quest to find the dark heart of Jimmy Savile," he says. "Originally the book was called Apocalypse Now, Then. He was Kurtz and I was Willard, traveling up the river into the center of his jungle. I was trying to get to the bottom of why I was fixated with him for so long. What was the mystery behind him? What secrets did he hold?"
Davies's interest in Savile started young. As a nine-year-old, he attended a recording of Jim'll Fix It with his mother. "I was really spooked out by [him]," he says. "I didn't know why—but that feeling stayed with me. Then I read a series of interviews with him in the Sun, which painted this totally alternative picture of him from what most people thought. He seemed dark, controlling—a violent character who had been spewed forth from the dancehall scene of Leeds."
They first met properly in 2004, when Davies worked for Jack magazine—and it swiftly became apparent who was in charge of these encounters. "I was thrust against the wall by two guys, one who was a police officer and both of whom were members of of his Friday morning club. And Savile told them to frisk me. It was meant to be a joke, but it established a power structure."
If—for example—Davies attempted to nail down Savile on the specifics of the rumors surrounding him, he would be rebuffed. On dates it was often, "How the fuck should I know? 1644?" And on questions he didn't want to touch upon: "'You ask the questions, I'll tell you the answers.' They were the rule of the engagements, here." A master of deflection and evasion, Savile was exceptionally skilled at "slipping out of" any awkward situation.
And yet Davies was intrigued by "Britain's favorite odd uncle," certain that despite a reputation as "a happy-go-lucky minstrel that danced across the British landscape sprinkling fun and laughter as he went," there was something off about Savile, that the nine-year-old Davies had been on to something.
"Savile's life is the story of our society in the last fifty, sixty years," Davies says. "He went from Depression-era Leeds, through the War in the mines as a Bevin Boy, to the forefront of British pop music in the late 50s and early 60s, into institutions like the BBC, hospitals, royal families, prime ministers... And everywhere. You can tell all of these stories through this weird flickering beam of life light that was him," Davies says, slightly shaking his head. "The thing is, I didn't realize it would illuminate such fucking dark truths and hidden corners."
Savile would often wine and dine people from the highest echelons of society—those who, in retrospect, were tools of his deception. "Tony Calder, who worked with the Rolling Stones, said to me that he remembers that Savile used to wine and dine senior police officers," says Davies, "and they'd be telling him that he needs to 'cut it out.' But it wasn't explicit about what 'it' was." When people tried to go public with what they knew they were shut down. The BBC's Meirion Jones claims this was the case when his documentary about Savile was allegedly black-listed by the channel.
"He was one of the golden geese laying the eggs," explains Davies, "so [the BBC] had no reason to confront it. And he seemed to have the police in his pocket, as well. I wouldn't be at all surprised if he had something on people."
Back in the early 70s, Davies says, Radio 1 and 2 sent Savile's press office to lunch with all the major Fleet Street editors to find out if they had caught wind of the rumors about Savile. They all said yes. "And the next question was: 'Are you going to do anything about it?' And the answer was no... He's a popular guy. He's got an OBE, he does all this charity..."
"What I've subsequently found out is that hinting what he was up to was part of his defense mechanism," says Davies. "He got them into print or out as a joke—things that really happened—but in a way that sort of said, 'And I picked up this lovely lass, and one thing led to another, nudge-nudge-wink-wink. I'm a single guy, and I have these normal male urges.'"
Savile, of course, was not a normal man. He was a ferociously cruel monster—a molester of children, a violent manipulator, an egotistical knife to the back of every one he encountered. What is hard for people to balance is the idea of Savile as the ubiquitous entertainer and what he was in reality. Nicknamed Saint Jimmy, he reportedly raised an estimated £40 million for charity—funding hospitals, like Stoke Mandeville. He then abused the patients. He built up and destroyed lives.
"If someone wanted to take him down," says Davies, "Savile's response was: Do you want me to take all the money out of Stoke Mandeville? Do you want me to shut this down? Do you want to be the person responsible for doing that?"
Savile—"a very, very clever bloke" with an "almost animal cunning"—learned his tricks at a young age. "He called it the power of oddness," says Davies. "As a Bevin Boy, he worked the mines. Once, he claimed that he got to the mine late for his shift after a night out and didn't have time to change, so went down in the mine with his suit and a newspaper under his arm. When down there, he stripped off, worked all day, washed himself from his water can at the end of his shift, put his clothes back on, which he'd wrapped in his newspaper, and came out spotless. He had this power to keep people guessing, a power to manipulate and control his own image."
Power was central to Savile's life. From speaking to Davies, there's an implication that Savile derived little pleasure from anything other than power. It's a word Davies uses time and again to describe Savile's motives. "He talked about when he first played a record to make people dance, it wasn't the thrill of everybody losing themselves in the music," adds Davies, "it was the power that he had over those people to make them move to his tempo."
What about his offenses against children? Were they, I ask, motivated by sexual desire or a desire to exert power over people? " I think the testimonies of his victims suggest the events were very quick and emotionless, which suggests it was power rather than instant kicks," says Davies. "He groomed parents and he was capable of being charming in this overpowering way. The danger of discovery, maybe, made it more exciting for him."
I ask Davies if Savile ever showed any implications of guilt. Was he—for instance—a psychopath? What about his devout Catholicism and charitable work? Did they suggest that he was aware that he had committed awful crimes?
"He talked about his life being on a scale," says Davies. "On the one side there's all the bad stuff he's done, on the other hand is all the good stuff he's done. The fact that he looked at his life as a ledger between credit and debit suggests that he was conscious that there was stuff he had to balance out, but I don't think he sat up at night and worried about it."
Davies and I only had an hour together—but what is evident from our conversation is that this chance connection with one of Britain's most awful monsters has taken its toll. In Plain Sight is not just the story of Savile, but also one man's desire to find the real man behind the mask. It's never easy to peel back the curtain and stare into the eye of the wizard. Sometimes, the wizard stays with you.
"I'm hoping this is the end," says Davies. "Every time I was stood outside my back door having a cigarette I would say to myself: Don't think about it. Don't think about it. But I couldn't. Recently, I've boxed up all my research into nine massive containers, and I moved it out of the house. That was quite a cathartic moment."
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