Jimmy Savile: he was very, very strange and utterly familiar – a living double take
Dan Davies has written a detailed, scrupulous and assiduous book, but even it can’t illuminate the darkness at the heart of Savile’s crimes
Jimmy Saville at the Central Remedial Clinic, Clontarf, Dublin, when he attended a testimonial luncheon in his honour given by the Variety Club of Ireland and the Central Remedial Clinic. Photograph: Paddy Whelan
In Plain Sight: The Life and Lies of Jimmy Savile
In 1972, I went on a charity walk from Dublin to Baldoyle, in aid of the Central Remedial Clinic. I would like to claim I did it out of pure beneficence, but the main attraction was that there was a rock concert at the end of it, featuring a much talked-about new band called Horslips. Leading the walk was, of course, the man off Top of the Pops, Jimmy Savile, wearing, if I remember rightly, a white shell suit open almost to the navel and a huge gold medallion bouncing off his hairy chest.
The odd thing, in retrospect, is that no one was in awe of this exotic creature from off the telly. He had, rather, a presence that was genuinely unique – a one-off compound of the hideously embarrassing, the acceptably freakish and the merely ubiquitous.
He had created for himself a niche of mundane weirdness. He was a living double take: the first glance told you there was something very, very strange about this man; the second reminded you that he was also utterly familiar. The second thought cancelled out the first. In its own sick way, this was a kind of genius – one of the great performative constructs of popular culture in the late 20th century.
Most psychopaths play at being “normal” and conceal their awful urges under a surface of ordinariness. This implies a narrative of eventual discovery: the evil will out. But Savile reversed the process, making – through the projective power of TV – his weirdness into a kind of normality.
The genius lay in the understanding that in this there was no narrative of eventual discovery: the evil is already out. Let’s remember that it worked: Savile was dead before he was “caught”. On his death, the BBC hailed him as a great popular entertainer and he was buried by the Catholic bishop of Leeds with a guard of honour of Royal Marines. Savile won.
In Dan Davies’s gripping book about this “entertainer” and serial sex criminal, he recounts a story Savile liked to tell about his time as a coal miner in South Kirby. (He was a “Bevan Boy” doing wartime work to replace men at the front.) He once accidentally arrived late for work dressed in his suit, so late that he had to go down the pit in his Sunday best. He stripped naked and wrapped his suit in his newspaper. In the evening he washed his hands and face in his canteen water and emerged from the pit looking immaculate in his dapper clothes. The effect on his fellow miners, he said, was “electric”: “I just realised that going back clean would freak people out, and it did. Underneath the clothes I was black as night. But I realised that being a bit odd meant that there could be a payday.”
The metaphor is almost too readily available: clean on the outside, black as night underneath, relishing the power of oddness. But it doesn’t quite get the true nature of Savile’s persona. In his celebrity pomp he didn’t, of course, wear good clothes – he paraded around in those hideous shell suits. And he didn’t really cover up the blackness either. Part of the thrill of being Jimmy Savile was the way the nasty bits were allowed to dangle out there in public view, as if he was constantly daring someone to point them out. Savile played out a version of the Emperor’s New Clothes, in which no one dared to point out the obvious. The twist was that Savile wasn’t, like the emperor in Hans Christian Anderson’s story, a dupe but rather the orchestrator of the whole act.