When Sir Jimmy Savile, OBE, died last year at the age of 84, the BBC broadcast no fewer than three tribute programs to one of its most famous figures, while both the national press and the Royal Family devoted long eulogies to him. With a public career that spanned 50 years, Savile was more than just a radio DJ or TV presenter or charity worker: he was a national institution, and the revelation that he used his role to sexually abuse minors tarnished many bastions of British society by association.
Savile shot to fame in the early 1960s, on the back of the Beatles craze and the explosion of youth culture, and introduced the first edition of the BBC’s iconic chart show, Top of the Pops, in 1964. Before then he’d worked as a radio DJ, professional sportsman, and coal miner. With his shock of long white hair, fast Yorkshire patter, and famous demotic catchphrase (“’Ow’s about that then guys and gals”) Savile carefully built up an image of postwar classlessness. He drove a Rolls-Royce and smoked Cuban Cohibas, but wore track suits, medallions, and trainers. He mixed with rock stars, prime ministers, and royalty, but always tried be down with the kids on the street or with hospital patients. His primetime TV show, Jim’ll Fix It, lasted 20 years and consistently gained the highest ratings. In it, Savile offered to answer the wishes of children in a fairy godfather–like fashion: for hundreds those youthful dreams turned into a nightmare.
Though the BBC stands in the dock for promoting Savile’s TV career, not to mention canceling a Newsnight investigation into his child abuse last year, the taint spreads much wider than the public-service broadcaster.
Savile was a tireless fundraiser, almost single-handedly creating the modern image of celebrity as charity worker. As a result, he was given unprecedented access to an array of public institutions. He had rooms at several NHS hospitals, including the famous spinal injuries unit at Stoke Mandeville, for which he raised $20 million, at the same time he allegedly abused helpless young patients. He was so popular at the country’s main secure psychiatric hospital, Broadmoor, that he called himself the institution’s “godfather” and was asked to head up a government task force to overhaul the management of the place in 1988, while he also sexually molested young, vulnerable inmates.
Savile’s mixture of Mr. Popular and Mr. Charity made him a welcome figure to politicians and prime ministers, and he led several public-awareness campaigns, most famously the ‘clunk click’ ads that explained the mandatory wearing of car seatbelts. He was a particular favorite of Margaret Thatcher’s; she reportedly invited him to 11 successive New Year’s dinners at the official country residence at Chequers. According to the historian Eliza Filby, whose social biography of the 1980s, God and Mrs Thatcher, is due to be published next year, “Savile was—as far I know—the only former miner to have dinner with Mrs. T.”
“No one found him threatening,” Filby told The Daily Beast: “He was the acceptable face of ’60s counterculture and even made it respectable.”
So respectable was Savile, a teetotaler and devout Catholic, that he was made a papal knight by the Vatican, and became a regular visitor to St. James’s Palace after meeting the Prince of Wales through his charity work. When Charles’s marriage to Princess Diana hit the rocks in the late ’80s, the prince astonishingly called in Savile—the renowned professional bachelor—to provide marriage guidance for both Diana and Sarah Ferguson.
As Diana revealed in the “Squidygate” tapes to her friend James Gilbey: “‘Jimmy Savile rang me up yesterday, and he said: ‘I’m just ringing up, my girl, to tell you that His Nibs [Prince Charles] has asked me to come and help out the redhead [the Duchess of York].’”
Prince Charles led tributes to Savile when he died last year. While there’s no suggestion the heir apparent had any clue about the celebrity’s predatory sexuality, Savile did host Charles at his Glen Coe hideaway with scantily clad waitresses. The same cottage, now daubed with graffiti calling Savile “a beast,” has been the focus of police investigations. But Savile’s self-mocking lewdness appeared to deceive most people: they took it as a joke rather than the strange form of postmodern irony it really was—Savile hid his predilections in plain sight.
Beyond the institutional failures then, several generations of television watchers and radio listeners were duped by the conman turned showman. That’s the shiver of recognition that has fascinated and appalled millions in the last few weeks as archive television footage is replayed: Savile manhandling underage girls on Top of the Pops, or jokingly divvying up adoring groupies with Gary Glitter on Clunk Click. The eccentric TV persona, with benefit of 20/20 hindsight, looks downright creepy. It’s so obvious now, but why wasn’t it then?
Because of the extent of his crimes, some people knew the truth. But while rumors abounded, even Britain’s feral tabloid press feared taking on one of the country’s biggest celebrities. In a 2000 documentary, When Louis Met Jimmy, Louis Theroux aired the unsaid, and directly asked Savile if he used the “I don’t like children” line to stop the newspapers pursuing a “Is he/isn’t he a pedophile?” question. “Yes, yes, yes. Oh, aye,” Savile responded: “How do they know whether I am or not? How does anybody know whether I am? Nobody knows whether I am or not." Savile addeds, almost as an afterthought, "I know I’m not …”
Scotland Yard’s current investigation into “Savile and others,” Operation Yewtree, has discovered 400 leads in the last month alone. It has bailed Gary Glitter for further questioning in December, and more arrests are still expected. It’s not yet certain whether, as alleged in last week’s Panorama, Savile was part of anything as coherent as “a pedophile ring at the BBC.” But his successful exploitation of vulnerable children for so long raises a bigger question of complicity.
At the heart of Savile’s corrupt power was the knowledge that the complaints of victims would be disbelieved, discounted, and repressed. Andrew O’Hagan, writing in the London Review of Books, blames the institutionalized ethos of the time, which both elevated and exploited childhood and youth. “The public made Jimmy Savile,” O’Hagan wrote. “It loved him. It knighted him.”
However, if some were knowingly complicit or turned a blind eye, most of the British public has been stunned and disgusted by the revelations of the last few weeks—a “tsunami of filth” as the head of the BBC Trust, Chris Patten, recently called it. It’s easy to see Savile as another Charles Manson or Fred West, the dark face of ’60s sexual liberation, which became an excuse for predatory men to exploit young girls. But as Eliza Filby points out, Savile was beloved of the conservative moral majority who so often decried the “permissive society” in its rock ’n’ roll manifestation. He was the “uncle” just as the BBC is affectionately known as “auntie.”
Savile molded public opinion, but he also clearly manipulated it. Without his TV fame and his role of gatekeeper to teenagers who wanted to meet rock stars or young children who wanted to realize their dreams, he never would have been able to offend so prolifically, and with such impunity. The Guardian columnist Deborah Orr was one of the first to make the connection between Savile’s public life and private crimes. “A paedophile’s grooming process is largely about persuading a victim to feel that it’s wrong to think badly of him,” she told The Daily Beast, “In that respect Savile groomed the whole nation.”
With 300 potential victims identified in the last month alone, Savile is the center of one of the biggest investigations into child abuse in British history. He allegedly abused relatives, psychiatric patients, victims of spinal injuries, and even members of his own family. Incredulity and astonishment enabled his abuse as much as complicity or cover-up. As Savile told Karin Ward, a pupil at a school for emotionally disturbed young girls, who threatened to go to the authorities: “No one will believe you.”