In 2006, I took the lift to the penthouse of a pale modernist block on Roundhay Park in Leeds to listen to Jimmy Savile. The reason was the end of Top of the Pops. I didn’t know then, of course, that he only became a TV star to have access to children’s bodies; that paedophilia was his vocation, and fame was his enabler and disguise. I had heard the rumours. Lynn Barber told him in 1990 that people said he liked (she meant used) little girls. I didn’t believe it. I was credulous, and he deceived me.
The flat was thickly carpeted, and fusty. I admired his trinkets. I wrote that they blinded me. I noted he appeared to live on sweets. He recited his patter for the Dictaphone. I had heard it all before: pit boy, youngest of seven, then a terrible mining accident, then a glance at a Rolls Royce that changed everything. “And I was filled with a great joy because from where I was standing to where that kid was driving [the Rolls Royce] was only 25 feet. It was there. It wasn’t far to go. It had to be possible.” The patter was his first defence, because it was indecipherable, like smoke. Here is an example: “I don’t do anything for any reason. I do it because I do it. I do what I do and always have done. Just don’t offend nobody. So there.”
We spent a lot of time discussing why he didn’t marry. “You get trapped,” he told me. “You never get anywhere, and you are quite happy to wake up, open your gob, stick food in, close your gob and then die and leave everybody everything. I don’t want to get used to that kind of life because the life I’ve got is much better than that.”
He also said, “I fell in love with them all. I fall in love every day, even now.” He said he had 60 million friends, which, of course, means he had none. “I owe them nothing,” he said, “they owe me nothing.” He had enablers though, among whom I now count myself.
I have since read Dan Davies’s superb In Plain Sight, in which he recounts following Savile for years, trying to understand him. (No one would publish it in Savile’s lifetime.) Davies says that policemen came to the flat each week to drink coffee. Of all the institutions that protected Savile, the police, the NHS, and the BBC were the guiltiest because they knew. They received letters from his victims. One 12-year-old, raped in a hospital day room, wrote a note to doctors on the page of a bible after a nurse told her to keep quiet.
The BBC is no longer protecting him, but they are still selling him. No crime is exempt from the possibilities of mediocre art. They have commissioned a drama called The Reckoning starring Steve Coogan, whose best work until now has been the DJ Alan Partridge. Coogan is an uneasy man who has used prostitutes, but he is not stupid, and his inhabiting Savile is obviously an act of self-exploration and, perhaps, self-hating vanity. Some of Savile’s victims were invited to the set to meet Coogan in costume. The Reckoning’s writer, Neil McKay, who also dramatised Fred West in Appropriate Adult, said: “They wanted to do it, they’re fully prepared, so it will be interesting.”
I think they would do better to dramatise the experience of his victims. But this is not the way. A gaudy male is more interesting than a female victim: in this sense The Reckoning is, though obliviously, an extension of Savile’s real life. It is a tribute to his tactics of deception; his trust that women will be ignored. Why not dramatise how the 2011 Newsnight expose by Merion Jones and Liz MacKean was spiked because the evidence was, in the words of Newsnight’s editor, “just the women”?
There is already a definitive BBC portrait of Savile on film, by Toby Jones in season 4 of Sherlock, though he is called something else. He played a philanthropist — Savile raised £40 million — haunting hospitals to watch people die. Savile told Joan Bakewell he had to rush away from a broadcast: “I should make the hospital by one a.m. They don’t start dying till two.” He told the Daily Mail in 1972: “I find I’ve got an aptitude for dead people. When I’m holding somebody that has just died, I’m filled with a tremendous love and envy. They’ve left behind their problems; they’ve made the journey. If somebody were to tell me tonight, I wouldn’t wake up in the morning, it would fill me with tremendous joy. Sometimes I can’t wait.”
Our interview in Roundhay Park was transactional, and we both knew it. He was charming: not for me, because I am sure I did not exist for him, but for the readers of my story. He told unfunny jokes, philosophised and flirted courteously, as if I expected it. He said he still had my Jim‘ll Fix It letter from 1979: “But you didn’t enclose a stamped addressed envelope, you cheapskate.” I told him he had met my mother at Leeds in the Sixties: “I know, I’ve still got her earring.” Of course, I was, at 31, far too old for him. He dropped women at 18.
In a profile of Liz MacKean by Poppy Sebag Montefiore, a senior executive described MacKean as, “a very ordinary journalist. She wasn’t ambitious or sharp-elbowed. She didn’t fill the screen.” Sebag Montefiore said: “I put it to him that MacKean’s talents for listening to sources were one of the qualities that made her extraordinary. He considered this for a moment and said: ‘Listening wasn’t a quality we gave much credit to back then’.” Savile filled the screen. I give him that.
I did sense his dislike of adult women. He mocked and traduced them, pretending to be a twittering widow talking about her husband’s coffin: “My Harry, he loved pine and we gave him the pine box.” Or an old woman desiring a younger man: “He’s a bit of all right, that bus driver, ooh.” It was parody.
I knew he had a secret. That was obvious. In his ludicrous red tracksuit, he was wrapped like a parcel. I thought he was gay, and liked adult men, which was tough in Leeds in the Thirties. I wondered if the loathing he incited was about class. He sensed this and he talked for a long time about his deprived childhood. It incited my pity.
Psychopaths are hard to read. Even so, I know now, reading my original copy, that he told me a tale that didn’t add up. He told me he loved, “the freedom of the world outside. Up in the dales sauntering along you don’t need anyone else.” So why raise £40 million for charity? I wonder if, in that obvious contradiction, lies his sanctification: the one that seems so bitter now. We assumed perhaps that it was love. I wrote, “Jimmy needs people to be delighted to see him and I suspect it is gratitude that drives him — for the recovery from the accident and for the miracle of his wealth.”
He did give me clues, but they were impossible to read amid the smoke. For instance: fame “was just a means to an end”. As I left, he said that if I pinched his jewellery, he would kill me. “I’m ruthless,” he said. I now think it is entirely plausible that he killed people. “Tied them up, put them down in the boiler house until I was ready for them,” he said of the Teddy Boys at his Manchester club in the Fifties. “They’d plead to get out. Nobody ever used to get out of my place … I was judge, jury and executioner.” One man told Davies he saw Savile take a man’s eye out in a street fight.
The newspaper I worked for wasn’t interested in a portrait of ageing isolation and tepid misogyny, which is the best material I had. So, I wrote him up as a national treasure, though wistful. “He needs to be needed,” I concluded. The opposite was true. I couldn’t wait to get away. That should have told me something.