I was going to post the next extract from my 1973 interview with John Lennon today but decided instead to throw a curved ball and post this book review instead. More John tomorrow.
On the cover of this impressive biography of Sir James Savile OBE is a picture of the subject as an old man reclining in an armchair in a flat that overlooks Scarborough’s South Bay sea front which is clearly identifiable through a large picture window. This is the sea front that I describe elsewhere on Just Backdated in a Beatles-related post that recalls the summer of 1963, the summer of ‘She Loves You’; the sea front where I strolled with a girl on my arm and where Savile strolled on many occasions with his beloved mother, ‘The Duchess’, for whom he bought this flat when he became rich.
Thankfully this is the only parallel I can find between Savile and myself though I have also posted about two close encounters with him that led me to conclusions not unlike those shared by most everyone following the revelations that have surfaced since his death in 2011, and which readers of this bulky 600-page book will also undoubtedly reach. To wit: Savile was a thoroughly nasty piece of work; shifty, vain, duplicitous and possessed of a genuinely vicious streak that he cleverly suppressed when mixing with defenders he needed to nurture, most notably HRH Charlie Wales and Thatcher PM but also numerous shady senior policemen and scatter-brained clerics. All these and more seemed in thrall to his overbearing personality, like rabbits caught in the glare of a particularly bright headlight. That he was a serial sex-offender was probably suspected by many but never acted upon because he was a big celebrity who hid his crimes behind a massive wall of charity work. Also, cunningly, he often joked about his predilection for ‘dolly birds’ so that he became perceived as a sort of benign ‘Jack the Lad’ figure when he was nothing of the sort. He was a grade-A pervert, rapist and paedophile, almost certainly the most prolific sex offender this country has ever seen.
The more he sinned the more he expanded his charity work, evidently believing that, as a practising Catholic, when he reached the Pearly Gates his debit and credit columns would cancel each other out and he’d be allowed through. He had all sorts of weird ideas about religion and, visiting Israel, walked in the desert with a wooden staff in the footsteps of Christ or so he believed. On the same visit he attempted to broker a peace deal between Israel and Palestine, just as on another occasion he tried to do the same thing between the loyalists and republicans in Northern Ireland.
All this and more is told in this superbly researched but only tolerably well-written book by an author who admits to being obsessed with Savile for a very long time. Davies evidently knew him well and interviewed him on many occasions, not that the interviews ever revealed much as Savile was a liar and fantasist who invented and exaggerated in order to muddy the waters, or if he didn’t like a question simply clammed up and changed the subject like politicians on TV. Trying to find out the truth can’t have been easy and Davies admits as much as we move through his life.
The book opens with the destruction of Savile’s gruesome headstone at the cemetery in Scarborough where it had been unveiled amidst much pomp and ceremony just 19 days before. Thereafter it ramps up the tension through a non-linear narrative in which the upward momentum of Savile’s career is told between chapters that describe the author’s own meetings with Savile at his homes in Scarborough and Leeds, and the behind-the-scenes shenanigans at the BBC as details of his crimes begin to emerge after his death; their dilemma over whether to broadcast a fawning Christmas tribute show or a damning exposure on Newsnight, and the cack-handed manner in which they dealt with it.
The building blocks upon which Savile’s eccentric character was formed are carefully examined; the youngest of seven, childhood poverty and illness, minimal education, unskilled work, ducking and diving, grab all you can. Distanced from his father but adored by his mother, he saw dancehalls as an entry into teenage lives and became a DJ, first in Leeds, then in Manchester, moving from live work in Mecca nightspots to radio, firstly with Luxembourg and then the BBC. That he was a good decade and a half older than others in this line of work was somehow overlooked, largely because he disguised himself with outlandish clothes, bling and long hair dyed blond. Despite the concerns of a few sceptics at the BBC, he moved smoothly from radio to TV and by the time of Jim’ll Fix It he was simply too popular – 15 million watched it every week – to dump. By this time he’d become a big charity campaigner, most often by performing stunts of physical endurance, running and cycling marathons, which drew attention to him. He liked attention all right. He mixed with the Royal Family, acting as an ‘advisor’ to Charles and Diana when their marriage was failing, and became pally with Thatcher who, because of his fundraising for Stoke Mandeville Hospital, pushed through his knighthood in 1990 after several previous attempts and against the advice of wiser heads in the cabinet.
Along the way Savile amassed a small fortune through kick-backs and endorsements and systematically sexually abused teenage girls and the occasional boy wherever he went, at the BBC, in hospitals, in children’s homes, in his motor home, in hotels, anywhere and everywhere. The extent of this is staggering and discomforting to read, though the book never stoops to sensationalism. On only one occasion – aboard a cruise liner – did Savile’s addiction to pubescent female flesh come to the attention of someone in a position to do something, in this case the ship’s captain who was alerted to his misbehaviour and confined Savile to his cabin until such a time as he could disembark and fly back to the UK. Regrettably this went no further and the press didn’t report it. Towards the end of his life there was another episode in which Surrey police followed up complaints but Savile bluffed his way through the interview and no action was taken.
Eventually Saville dies, alone and unloved, virtually friendless too as he avoided personal relationships of any kind. Then, slowly at first but with increasing momentum, the shit hits the fan. It’s an appalling story, fairly well crafted in this book though there are some leads that could have been chased down further and the editing is a tad sloppy here and there. I’m not sure whether to recommend it and, I have to admit, the only reason I read it was out of lurid curiosity and to find out how this ghastly man got away with all that he did. I have a bit better understanding of that now but there’s no real explanation as to why so many people simply let him do as he chose. The only reason seems to be that it was easier to ignore him than confront him, easier to turn a blind eye than rock the boat. In some ways you can forgive the nurses who knew what was going on but were powerless to do anything but the same cannot be said about those in positions of power, supposedly people of good judgement, who were either taken in by him or, worse, let him abuse at will.
Incidentally, I was disconcerted to discover that on the one occasion I saw The Beatles, at Bradford on December 21, 1963, Savile was in the audience (and Rolf Harris was the compere). I also spotted two silly errors – a reference to Savile wrapping £20 notes around rolled up newspaper to give the impression he had a wad of cash in the fifties (£20 notes weren’t introduced until 1970) and Johnny & The Hurricanes described as a ‘popular singing act’!
Approach with caution.