Review of Jimmy Savile: A British Horror Story

A picture of Jimmy Savile, a white man in his late 50s, standing on a railway bridge wearing a dark suit and tie. Behind him (off the bridge) is a four-track railway in a cutting with an InterCity 125 train approaching.
Jimmy Savile in a British Rail advert from 1982

Netflix has released a two-part series on the British TV presenter Jimmy Savile, who over a decades-long career as a club DJ, radio and TV host, charity fundraiser and adviser to politicians and royalty, used his position, fame and connections to molest a number of women and girls both in media environments and in the hospitals he gained access to as a result of his fundraising and volunteering activities. While there were always rumours about this throughout his life, investigations went nowhere and the matter was only uncovered once he had died and could no longer sue for libel. This programme, I feel, does not tell us much we do not already know about the story.

In fact, it brims with Savile library footage; in the first quarter hour of the first episode, most of it was old footage of him and excerpts from his programmes. Most of the first episode was a career retrospective which hardly mentioned his abusive side at all. It almost seemed admiring; it gave the impression of a brilliant DJ and TV host who could be a bit weird and didn’t have much of a personal life but lived for the music and fame, but nobody seemed to suspect was actually abusing anyone. I get the impression that they would have done the same if they’d known him, or at least that they thought most people would.

The abuse angle is only handled in the second episode (and both episodes are about an hour and a half long and could both have been split in half). Most of the details are quite well known now: that he had a key to Broadmoor and was allowed unrestricted access to patients there; that he worked as a volunteer porter at the main hospital in Leeds; that he raised most of the money to build the new spinal unit at Stoke Mandeville hospital in Buckinghamshire, one of the UK’s main spinal injury rehabilitation centres which at the start of the 80s was falling apart with ceilings threatening to collapse on top of bedridden patients. Staff interviewed said that without Savile, the new unit could not have been built. Yet at all three institutions, he was molesting patients and, in the case of Stoke, children in the community as well, one of whom was interviewed for this programme.

I was less aware of the police’s poor response to accusations against Savile as they were in fact approached on a number of occasions. On one, approached separately by three women, they told each that their accusations were uncorroborated, knowing that in fact two other women had made similar accusations. The programme played a police interview with Savile in which he told the female officer, addressing her as “young lady”, that he was know for being litigious. He denied everything, but the charm we know from his TV and radio broadcasts was replaced by a contemptuous and threatening tone. Clearly, the police had put up an inexperienced officer to do the job which should have been done by a pair of seasoned officers who would not have been intimidated. The interview was cut short. Less relevant was an anonymous letter that was read out, from someone claiming to be an insider and accusing Savile of being a “committed paedophile” (which at the time meant, and technically still means, an adult with a strong sexual interest in prepubescent children, not adolescents) with no specifics or evidence. It is not surprising that this letter was ignored.

For the most part it is clear why people overlooked Savile’s obvious faults, his lack of qualifications and suspicions about his behaviour before giving him access to the newly paralysed and the mentally and physically ill: he was good for business, he was entertaining and there were a lot of people who loved him, not knowing what went on behind closed doors. He had cultivated friends across the British establishment, not only in the BBC but also royalty and the Conservative party. However, much as the NHS’s leadership were taken in by his celebrity also, this scandal says much about the dangers of making public services such as healthcare dependent on private charity. Perhaps at least one of these institutions would have been able to refuse his services if they had received adequate funding from the government.

Still, it’s non-essential viewing, and not recommended at all if you find the sight of Savile creepy because you’ll be seeing a lot of him. It doesn’t break much new ground and could be condensed into a couple of hours if they spared us the huge amount of library footage of Savile; they might have been able to fit in some more interviews.

Image source: SozLike, from YouTube.

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