'I was gullible' – when Louis Theroux met Jimmy Savile again

For 15 years, Theroux has agonised about letting Savile off the hook when they first met. Now, he’s created a new documentary to make sense of his guilt – and meet the victims of the man he once called a friend

Asking celebrities to make a film about their own work is usually a recipe for self-congratulation. Louis Theroux, though, has created a remarkably self-denigrating new documentary, examining the extent to which he should feel responsible for Jimmy Savile escaping exposure as a paedophile.

Louis Theroux: Savile (Sunday, 9pm, BBC2) is a sequel to When Louis Met ... Jimmy, the award-winning film from the year 2000. Many praised Theroux at the time – and even more after the truth about Savile emerged in 2012 – for having the courage to ask him about rumours of child abuse, which he denied, though in a curiously convoluted fashion. Certainly, Savile emerged as creepy and chilly, especially in a late-night sequence when, unaware the camera was still running, he boasted of the brutal punishments he imposed on miscreants at nightclubs he ran in Leeds.

Now, Theroux seems to feel that he let himself down and let his subject off the hook in that first documentary. Certainly, admirers of the original may be shocked to learn that, after transmission, Theroux began what he calls “something like a friendship” with Savile.

Creepy and chilly … how Savile came across in Theroux’s original documentary.
Creepy and chilly … how Savile came across in Theroux’s original documentary. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

Understandably now agonised by this, Theroux also seems keen to disown the 2000 show that remains his best-known work. Trudging up the driveways of victims and former employees of Savile, underscored by the sort of soundtrack that plays before an execution in a movie, he asks each of them what they thought of When Louis Met ... Jimmy, and sits with a penitent grimace as they tell him.

“I thought: poor Louis – he’s really been hoodwinked,” says a woman abused by Savile as a schoolgirl, while Savile’s secretary for three decades declares that the documentary-makers were fooled by a “good liar.” After talking to a woman who was abused by Savile while a patient at Stoke Mandeville hospital, Theroux checks: “You feel that I was gullible and silly?” Yes, she does.

Less hard on Theroux is Sylvia, who spent much of her life working on Savile’s Stoke Mandeville charity appeals, although her equivocation is also self-protection. She still can’t quite believe her ex-employer was the monster he now seems to have been and keeps a shed of memorabilia, filled with photos and even a model of his face in Lego bricks. The place has the feel of a perverse shrine, and Sylvia admits that she sometimes speaks to the pictures, as believers might do to the icon of a saint, asking Savile why he doesn’t “do something” about the posthumous destruction of his reputation.

This is Theroux at his best, examining without cruelty the peculiarities of human psychology. More uncomfortable is an encounter in a cafe with Angela Levin, a newspaper reporter who once told Louis’s mum long ago of rumours that Savile was a sex criminal. As Theroux probes her about a possible counter-history in which she had gone to the police at the time, he is presumably cross-examining himself as well. But he goes too close to indicting her, to which Levin objects: “Are you trying to blame this on me?”

Fooled by a ‘good liar’ … Theroux berates himself for not probing Savile further.
Fooled by a ‘good liar’ … Theroux berates himself for not probing Savile further. Photograph: Richard Ansett/BBC

It’s true that Theroux berates himself for not having done more when two victims of Savile contacted him after the documentary went out. Curiously, though, the film omits something he did do. The Dame Janet Smith Report into Savile’s relationship with the BBC included Theroux’s testimony that, in 2001, he passed to the executive producer of his programme the information that one of the women who got in touch had been abused by Savile as a 15-year-old, but no further action was taken at the BBC. This means that, in the film, Theroux is being harder on himself than he needs to be and – perhaps more significantly – softer on his employers.

I admit to being more sensitive than average viewers on this issue. (As the Dame Janet Smith Report records, I witnessed a sexual assault by Savile on an adult female colleague in 2006, reported it to BBC management but, as with Theroux’s evidence, no action was taken.)

More objective observers, though, may find it strange that to date the BBC employees who have most publicly taken a fall over the Savile affair are Tony Blackburn (sacked by the Corporation over a disagreement about the meaning of a memo written in 1972), and now Theroux. If the BBC hoped the new documentary would bring to an end the history with their most notorious former employee, it only succeeds in raising further questions about the Corporation’s coverage of the story that so haunts it.

Louis Theroux: Savile is a bleak, strange, compelling film. But with regard to societal and corporate guilt, it feels like a cabin-boy taking the blame for a ship sinking.

• Louis Theroux: Savile is on BBC2 at 9pm on Sunday.

Contributor

Mark Lawson

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Louis Theroux webchat – your questions answered on Jimmy Savile, Islam and Scientology
The TV documentarist answered your questions, from his regrets about not exposing Jimmy Savile to vomiting and falling asleep during interviews. Catch up with his answers here

09, May, 2016 @12:41 PM

Article image
Louis Theroux to make second Jimmy Savile documentary for BBC
Film-maker to revisit subject after 15 years to examine how the former Top of the Pops presenter was able to hide his crimes

Kevin Rawlinson

03, Nov, 2015 @12:54 PM

Article image
‘I liked Jimmy Savile,’ admits Louis Theroux on Desert Island Discs
The film-maker is ‘confused’ over how he found the sex abuser likeable and says the experience darkened his view of the world

Vanessa Thorpe

12, May, 2019 @8:00 AM

Article image
Louis Theroux: 'I worried I might be mansplaining motherhood'
As he tackles one of his most harrowing subjects yet, the documentary-maker talks about parenting, psychosis – and his secret beard

Gwilym Mumford

08, May, 2019 @2:59 PM

Article image
Louis Theroux: Savile review – from awkward to seriously uncomfortable … and extraordinary
Theroux sets out to explain how he, and everyone else, failed to uncover Savile’s rape and child abuse in a brave, bold and honest film

Sam Wollaston

02, Oct, 2016 @9:15 PM

Article image
Louis Theroux: Selling Sex review – employment, empowerment or exploitation?
With the sex economy booming, Theroux sensitively shadowed three women at its coalface – from a hard-up student to a woman married for 44 years

Lucy Mangan

12, Jan, 2020 @10:00 PM

Article image
Louis Theroux: Life on the Edge review – 25 years of oddball odysseys
This new four-part series sees the documentary maker revisit the highlights of his long and varied career, from cornering hucksters to run-ins with neo-Nazis

Lucy Mangan

06, Sep, 2020 @9:00 PM

Article image
Louis Theroux: Surviving America’s Most Hated Family review – a deeply uncomfortable watch
This follow-up film about the supremely intolerant Westboro Baptist church finds plenty to be outraged by, but it also veers into exploitation

Lucy Mangan

14, Jul, 2019 @9:00 PM

Article image
Mothers on the Edge review – Louis Theroux, more perturbed than ever before
This fascinating documentary explores a rare and woefully little known phenomenon of new motherhood – and leads Theroux to interrogate himself

Lucy Mangan

12, May, 2019 @9:01 PM

Article image
Louis Theroux: The Night in Question review – an incendiary look at campus rape
Theroux is, as ever, compelling in this exploration of sexual assault on US college campuses. But this was a troubling and problematic film

Chitra Ramaswamy

04, Mar, 2019 @10:00 PM