'Jimmy Savile was supremely controlling – of people and his myth'

Dan Davies, winner of the 2015 Gordon Burn prize, explains his long struggle to get to know the man behind the persona and write a true account of an appalling life

Jimmy Savile knew I wanted to write a book about him but over the six years I spent interviewing him – in encounters that lasted days at a time – he refused to even countenance the idea. When I asked him why, he replied: “I’d have to spend all my time correcting what you’d got wrong.”

He told me that when a journalist had tried in the early 1970s, he’d rushed out his autobiography, written in longhand in a series of exercise books. As I later discovered, getting his version of events into print first was a long-standing modus operandi.

That book, As It Happens, was the foundation for my long fascination with Jimmy Savile. I first read it in my mid-teens and the florid language he used to invoke its recurring themes of sex, power, death and self-righteousness served to reignite a flickering fear I had first experienced as a nine-year-old, when I sat with my mother in the studio audience to watch a recording of Jim’ll Fix It.

In the years that followed, I began collecting books, newspaper and magazine articles, and interviews in old annuals. I claimed – only half in jest – that one day this “dossier” would reveal what a powerful, dangerous man Jimmy Savile really was. It sounded ludicrous at the time, but so too did the fact Savile was a trusted confidante of popes, princes and prime ministers.

Eventually, in 2004, the editor of the magazine I was working on decided that I should put my theories to the test. That first interview in Leeds lasted a whole day, and marked the start of the second phase of my relationship with Jimmy Savile – a journey through the kaleidoscopic landscape of his life, or the version of it that he wanted to project.

In long sessions in smoke-filled rooms, he told and retold his stories, often word for word. I found him at turns intriguing, appealing and appalling. There was never any question in my mind that he was guarding secrets, just as there was never any doubt over who was in charge: “You ask the question, I’ll tell you the answer” was his stock response whenever I had the temerity to ask for qualification or specifics.

He was supremely controlling – both of the people around him and the myth he’d spun. I struggled with my conflicted feelings, both about him and the project, and I had to keep reminding myself that here was a man who had gone to such great lengths to become one of the most conspicuous people in Britain, and yet simultaneously remained utterly unknowable.

I now suspect he was trying to groom me – inviting me to his homes, taking me for lunch and even fixing it for me to join him on a short cruise on the QE2 – in return for securing in print his legacy, on his terms. It was a legacy that he surely must have known was destined to end up like his gravestone – smashed to smithereens, dumped in a skip and destined for landfill. Why else would he have wanted his epitaph to be “It was good while it lasted”?

Tiring of the same stories and his opaque responses whenever I pressed him on the rumours that enveloped him like thick coils of cigar smoke, I began working in concentric circles from the outside in. I wanted to find people who knew him from different points in his life, and who might be able to offer a different perspective. The plan was to travel independently up the river of his story before finally confronting him with what I had found along the way.

I had only progressed a short distance when he died, and publishers initially showed little interest. They told me there was no appetite for a book on a faded celebrity. In some cases, they recoiled at the light I was shining into the dark corners of a life that had only recently been celebrated in a three-day, quasi-state funeral; a life described by one minister at his requiem mass as “an epic of giving”. I carried on regardless, compelled by what those that knew him, and those who I would have never been able to speak to while he was alive, were now prepared to tell me.

As a result, I knew what was coming many months before the scandal broke. In the course of accumulating and poring over a mass of source material, a structure had emerged: three interlocking narratives – his long and multi-faceted life, our encounters and the arc of our relationship, and the devastating fallout from his unmasking. Nothing, however, could have prepared me – or Quercus, who were brave enough to publish, for the extent of what emerged.

Gordon Burn, a writer I admired hugely, not least for the way he immersed himself in his subjects, once told me that he could not bring himself to talk about Happy Like Murderers, the staggeringly detailed, visceral book he’d written about Fred and Rose West. It had taken too much out of him, he said. I now know what he meant.

Smoked out … A giant Bolivar cigar was a condition for an interview
Smoked out … A giant Bolivar cigar was a condition for an interview Photograph: Graham Whitby-Boot/Allstar/Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar

Extract

Savile showed me through to his kitchen, decorated in tiles of pink and brown, or “the colour of sex”, as he put it. He asked me what was missing but I already knew the answer: it didn’t contain a cooker. He liked to boast that none of his many homes had one. “It would give women the wrong idea – and that would only lead to brain damage”, he said. The “brain damage” caused by conventional relationships was something he had discussed with Louis Theroux. He opened the fridge to reveal a spartan range of assorted chocolate wafers, a half-finished box of After Eights and a pallet of long-life milk cartons held together with gaffer tape. He filled the kettle, flicked the switch and encouraged me to snoop around.

On the walls of the long living room in his penthouse apartment there were framed gold and silver discs and a black and white photograph of Savile squashed together on a sofa with the Beatles. He told me it was taken during the five weeks he spent compering the Beatles Christmas Show at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1964, a time when Beatlemania was erupting across the world.

Coffee made, he shuffled into the front room and sank into his black recliner which allowed him to lean back at a 45-degree angle. Lighting one of the three giant Bolivar cigars I had bought him – one of his conditions for granting the interview – he took a couple of puffs and announced that we could now begin.

More about In Plain Sight

“Having stumbled on what Davies calls the power of oddness, Savile was then exhilarated to discover he could compound his power by becoming a disc jockey. At once he relished the feeling of control, allowing people to dance, fast or slow, only as and when he wanted.”
David Hare: read the full review

Buy the book

In Plain Sight is published in paperback by Quercus, priced £13.99 and is available from the Guardian bookshop for £9.79.

Contributor

Dan Davies

The GuardianTramp

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