The awful truth of Netflix’s Jimmy Savile documentary: he gaslit an entire nation

The global success of Jimmy Savile: A British Horror Story has brought the BBC figure’s crimes to the attention of the world. The spotlight is now on how he groomed a whole society

Around the age of 11, I came close to being on Jim’ll Fix It. I was keen on cricket and my dad wrote to the Saturday-evening TV show asking if I could spend a day practising with the world-beating West Indies team, who were touring England at the time. The producers were apparently keen on the idea but in the end, the West Indies’ busy schedule prevented Jim from Fixing It for me.

This would almost certainly have been a treasured childhood memory. But now, it feels more like a narrow escape. Watching Netflix’s Jimmy Savile: A British Horror Story, it’s impossible not to reflect upon the meaning of Savile, his place in recent British culture, and the impact – ostensibly benign then suddenly, corrosively toxic – that he had on so many lives.

Rowan Deacon’s documentary has clearly been made for a worldwide audience. But the backstory is so detailed that it’s surprisingly illuminating, even if you are already broadly familiar with these events. This points to an essential truth about Britain’s collective relationship with Savile. Savile groomed and gaslit not just his victims but an entire culture. And he did this incrementally, over an incredibly long period. As a result, while it was happening, very few people processed how deeply abnormal it was. So what transpired after his death in 2011 was, for many, like being shaken rudely awake after a long, disturbing dream. In hospitals, in remand homes, in his various residences and god knows where else, Jimmy Savile had been sexually abusing children, for decades, on an almost industrial scale. Of course he had. Deep down, so many people knew this. The astonishingly brave testimony of Samantha Brown – one of Savile’s victims – in A British Horror story is an unbearably vivid evocation of the misery he caused.

For several decades, Jimmy Savile was everywhere. He DJ-ed on “the nation’s favourite” radio station, BBC Radio 1. He presented Top of the Pops, the virtual musical watercooler around which about a third of the country gathered every Thursday evening. He ran the London Marathon for charity. He was onstage at concerts, introducing the Beatles or the Stones. You would see him glad-handing Prince Charles or Margaret Thatcher. And, of course, he made children’s dreams come true every Saturday teatime.

This, obviously, was part of the plan. Savile was covering all bases. And the sad thing is, as the film reminds us, Jim’ll Fix It – where children’s dreams were helped to come true on national television – was a brilliant idea for a TV show. There’s a genuinely charming clip in episode one of the documentary where a schoolboy takes his favourite teacher out for afternoon tea at a fancy restaurant. Another goes on the set of Star Trek and, eyes wide with wonder, meets Captain Kirk. These moments were, it turns out, simply the bulwarks of child abuse. It’s now impossible to separate them from what Savile did.

In the UK’s pre-internet days, where there were only three TV channels, the UK’s national broadcaster did a lot of heavy lifting on behalf of the inner life of the nation. As per the injunction of its founder, Lord Reith, the BBC was supposed to inform, educate and entertain – after all, there were fewer options back then. Children of the 70s and 80s are familiar with cultural scarcity. But they are familiar with cultural collectivity too – the experiences that the BBC helped the UK to share at that time. Not for nothing was it nicknamed “Auntie”.

But it’s harder to think of the BBC in those terms now. As the film emphasises, the burying of Meirion Jones and Liz MacKean’s initial Savile exposé is one of the most shameful episodes in the BBC’s history. But the horror, finally, is more abstract, more philosophical in nature. Eventually, it always circles back to matters of power and trust; the trust children place in adults, the trust the BBC placed in Savile, and the trust and power conferred upon the BBC.

In the film’s plentiful archive footage, Savile is constantly surrounded by young women and children. A few are interviewed as adults and when they watch clips of themselves, it’s possible to sense their confusion. They’re momentarily thrilled to see their younger selves on TV. They smile. Then, they remember. Savile’s insistent and coercive lasciviousness is constant, blatant and revolting. Every touch – and, trigger warning, there are many touches in this documentary – now feels like a violation. He’s a huge star and he’s doing this because he can. He reduces everyone in his orbit to the status of a supplicant.

And really, everyone was. Every kid either watching or participating in Savile’s Saturday evening light-entertainment Trojan horse was hopelessly under his spell. In the context of everything we now know, the power imbalance is grotesque beyond words – and so are the implications of it. To watch this documentary is to be reminded that Jimmy Savile made many of Britain’s childhood memories. Then, he made a whole country desperately want to forget them.


Phil Harrison

The GuardianTramp

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