I thought that the Netflix documentary on Jimmy Savile reasonably answered the question “What happened?” but struggled to address “Why did it happen?” Savile’s manipulation of those in power and the famous over decades was recorded. That the famous used him to confer a sort of glory by association we saw. Savile was famous, he was (apparently) doing good – so Margaret Thatcher and the Prince of Wales and the BBC and the rest wanted some reflected glory for themselves.
But did all the middle class worshippers at the Savile shrine really want to suggest that by links with the working class Savile they themselves would acquire some of his common touch? His origins were plebeian, but his lifestyle and behaviour certainly were not. The famous acquiesced to his rules and his eccentric norms – in a way we all did just by watching the TV programmes. The class element of those norms was there, but Savile was hardly a working-class hero. His nominal allegiances – Class, Yorkshire, Catholicism – were almost incidental.
Jimmy Savile was a member of MENSA which means that his intelligence was in the top one percent of the population. How he applied that intelligence was not really addressed. He created an identity which churned cash for himself but also for others. The “others” included those that exploited him commercially as well as the charities which benefited from his efforts. He called himself “tricky” – we might call him conniving and mendacious. But he got away with it, and some.
One missing element was an explanation of why he was what he was. No criminal psychologists explored his mind or his behaviour. No man is entirely a “one off” – even Savile. Another omission was an in depth examination of management failure – how on earth was it allowed to happen, for so long and in so many different places? I’m none the wiser.
It was as recently as 2006 that the “Me Too” movement started and this triggered revelations about many sexual offences committed by many in The Arts, some very well known. And in Britain in the world of pop music, in which Savile moved for much of his career, sexual relations between the famous and their fans, sometimes underage, was common and had been for years.
The case of DJ John Peel is relevant. In The Guardian in 1975, Peel said of young women, “All they wanted me to do was abuse them, sexually, which, of course, I was only too happy to do…one of my, er, regular customers, as it were, turned out to be 13, though she looked older.” Peel said that he “didn’t ask for ID”. Ten years earlier a work colleague of mine had endured his teenage daughter attaching herself as a “groupie” to a well known pop group – it was not an innocent attachment.
The point about Peel and countless others is that casual consensual sex between the famous and their fans was the norm for decades. That Savile was part of this is no surprise but, of course, his behaviour went way beyond brief liaisons in a dressing room after a gig, and much of it was far from consensual. The scale of Savile’s criminality was extraordinary and long-standing. How did he get away with it for so long?
One victim in the Netflix documentary said when asked why she didn’t blow the whistle on Jimmy Savile “Who’d take our word against the word of someone so famous and establishment he’s even close friends with the royals?” This I think gets to the heart of it. James Levine was the Director of the Metropolitan Opera when he abused young men. Rolf Harris was famous and had painted a portrait of the Queen. Gary Glitter was a high profile rock star. Harvey Weinstein was an Oscar winning producer. Kevin Spacey a well known actor and director when at The Old Vic Theatre. In every case like these there must have been to some extent a conspiracy of silence.
So I think that the answer to my question “Why did it happen ?” is in part ignorance and in part cover up. It also takes courage to complain especially when you suspect that those you complain to may choose not to listen. It was interesting to watch Selina Scott on the programme. Savile was very creepy with her and she was embarrassed. But, as far as I know, she didn’t complain. In public Savile was outrageous as well as being borderline confessional at times. The signs were there, but nobody chose to pick them up.