Like many teenage girls growing up Britain in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I wrote in to “Jim’ll Fix It,” the popular BBC television show in which entertainer Jimmy Savile made children’s dreams come true. To my friends and I, Savile was a kind of funny uncle, like no adult we’d ever known—a man who lived a kid’s version of a grown-up life. He dyed his hair white, hung out with pop stars, wore crazy-colored clothes and presented “Jim’ll Fix It”, from a huge, gadget-laden chair, like the Fool King on his throne. I can no longer remember what I asked Jim to “fix” for me—my letter wasn’t chosen for the show—but I was sent a Jim’ll Fix It patch, which I wore with great pride.
Looking back, I realize Savile’s style of boisterous showmanship was descended from the British music-hall tradition, the same pedigree as saucy seaside postcards, the popular “Carry On” film series and comedians like Benny Hill, best known for the television show in which he was chased by a gang of half-dressed girls. The main element of this tradition, tame by today’s standards, is sexual innuendo of the sniggering, nudge-nudge wink-wink variety. In this kind of comedy, women have two roles. If older, they are nagging wives or screeching harridans. If younger, they are objects of furtive lust—and the younger the better. The most famous scene in the “Carry On” films is one in which actress Barbara Windsor plays a 16-year–old camper in pigtails whose bra flies off during an exercise class, and the long-running series of St. Trinians films featured the exploits of sexually precocious schoolgirls.
It is ironic that one of the first newspapers to brand Jimmy Savile a “twisted pervert” was the Sun, well known for its semi-naked Page Three girls, the most popular of whom—Samantha Fox, Maria Whittaker and Debee Ashby—all appeared topless at age 16. Another popular tabloid, the now-defunct Daily Sport, sometimes counted down the days until it could feature a teenage girl topless on her 16th birthday, as it did with model Linsey Dawn McKenzie in 1994. In 2003, the Sexual Offences Act raised the minimum legal age for topless modeling to 18.
Like similar British entertainers, including Ken Dodd and Benny Hill, Jimmy Savile embodied the puer archetype, the eternal child. None of these men ever married, all were deeply devoted to their mothers (oddly enough, both Benny Hill and Jimmy Savile—like Norman Bates—kept their mother’s bedroom exactly as it was when she died). It comes as a shock to us, then, when these boy-men, whom we’ve trusted with our children, turn out to have adult sexual needs of their own. Moviegoers were mortified when Charlie Chaplin, another entertainer of the puer type, displayed a predilection for teenage girls. He married his fourth wife, Oona O’Neill at 54, when she had just turned 18.
In retrospect, however, it should hardly be a surprise to learn Jimmy Savile liked young girls. If you’d asked anyone in the 1970s what they considered to be the perks of celebrity, teenage groupies would have been top of the list. In the 1970s, there were plenty of teenage girls eager and willing to have sex with pop stars and DJs, who were happy to oblige. Today, we refer to this behavior as sexual abuse. Young girls who happily bedded stars are looking back as adults, and realizing they were taken advantage of. I’m not talking about unwanted sexual advances, which are a different matter, but situations in which the teenage girl is an eager participant, even the initiator. It seems wrong to prosecute someone retroactively, for something that happened in a different cultural climate. We need to remember things as they were, not as they have been subsequently reconceived.
It seems almost too obvious to state, but the stars Savile introduced on Top of the Pops—teenage heartthrobs like Mick Jagger and David Bowie—surely had their share of fawning groupies. They have escaped censure because at some point they traded in groupies for monogamy and a more conventional life. Had Savile done the same, he’d still be saintly Sir Jimmy, knighted by both the Pope and the Queen, charity worker, hospital volunteer, champion of needy children. Instead, a year after his death, he’s been described as “one of the most prolific sex attackers ever,” a “cunning rapist and abuser.” His headstone was recently removed in the middle of the night, for fear of vandalism.
Jimmy Savile, it appears, had many willing teenage partners, and he also abused many underage girls. Neither fact makes the other less true.
Mikita Brottman is professor in Humanistic Studies at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, and a psychoanalyst in private practice. Her latest book is “Thirteen Girls.” She can be reached through her website.