His Masters’ Vice: Jimmy Savile’s England

“Freedom itself is a crime.”

– Durrenmatt

“Freedom itself is a crime.” – Durrenmatt

Jimmy Savile was always around. “Our Jim”, the people on the street say, but that is only a Northern expression. Our Jim was really located far above, in the broadcast towers and on the arm of Margaret Thatcher or Prince Phillip. He didn’t start off as a royal consort, though. He started down the pit, a miner in Leeds, until his machine-like drive yielded fame, first as a DJ and then a television host, and all the while an incubus demon. Never trust people with ambition. To be ambitious in a society like England is to claw, bash, brutalize and corrode. “In a criminal society, one must be a criminal”, said de Sade. Sade was a political animal. Savile, as he always maintained, was never political.

In Netflix’s Jimmy Savile documentary, Jim the humanitarian and Jimmy the outrageous personality are a seamless routine. And if the rictus of Savile’s thin face looks ever more sinister, it is only because now no one denies his outside capabilities. His loopy grins and bulging eyes marked the eccentricity of a time that lived easier for acting like it didn’t trouble with secrets. Savile was a glib and glitzy moppet who roamed far above his station while wearing its language and lurid fashions on his cuff (His friend Mrs. Thatcher dressed dowdy like the Queen and changed her accent from Lincolnshire to middling professional elocution, a shopkeeper’s girl who despised both what was above and what was below her). Savile’s Leeds beginnings are not investigated in the film, which is a shame. The Leeds club scene in the fifties might have ceded some street evidence; only later do we hear that Savile’s first brush with the law was in 1955. It never really brushed him again, until right before he died. In his declining years, the Leeds police frequented Jim’s Saturday morning socials. Since the 1960s, he had volunteered in the city’s General Infirmary, where he was surrounded with young and crippled girls. He also had an “unhealthy” interest in the hospital mortuary, according to a timely Dept. of Health inquiry, launched three years after his death.

Savile knows the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. He bounds on stage at Wembley Stadium. In 1964, he is the first host of the influential musical variety show Top of the Pops, and he lives long enough to go back and turn off the lights for its final broadcast in 2006. By then, the rumors of his ‘proclivities’ are ancient and the old man himself is going slightly senile. He makes odd allusions, is occasionally caught off guard, and his clowning finally starts to unnerve those who used to think him just randy. He has never had a girlfriend, but he talks of girls constantly and lets the girls know he knows all about girls. In 1983, he gave an interview to The Sun where he boasted that he can get anyone’s head kicked in. This comes off like American gangster chic, yet it’s true. Jimmy Savile, host of Jim’ll Fix It, can also fix you. He might be ours, but he’s really his own man.

An adaptive organism, Savile understood TV as intuitively as he understood the blind power of the airwaves and the narcotic of popular records. He multiplies himself and remains in control of the camera, using passive resistance and the old theatrical aside: if things get too hairy, he looks over his shoulder at the audience with a knowing wink or a bawdy self-depreciating joke. This crude music hall trick works every time. Savile admits that he’s tricky, but he is not clever. To be clever is to never doubt that you will prevail, but human certitude can’t beat time and the eventual overstep. Sooner or later, as he cleverly reminds, you get caught. To be tricky is to move with the tricks that try to trap you, to gain the power of those tricks and operate along with them. Besides, working class people can be tricky but they are never clever. They certainly can’t be brilliant, though Savile is constantly accused of brilliance (not just his gold rings and oversized specs). Who has recourse to this charge of brilliance? It is the press, who must shower him with praise because they refused or were ordered not to report his crimes for fifty years. Therefore, he is brilliant and clever. In declaring himself not clever, he knows himself and his surroundings. The press is incapable of such reflection.

Everyone knows about Jimmy’s tastes. He is one of Maggie’s “eccentric Britons” seen on This Is Your Life, adding color to a somber empire. His philanthropy – and it is certainly philanthropy – gains him the friendship of the Saxe-Coberg und Gothas, called The Windsors since 1917. For years, the luckless Prince Charles asks him for PR advice and the recommendations of the pale disc jockey become learned texts for the Royals’ public image corps. Jim can be found in the local Fish ‘n’ Chip shop, after all, nuzzling both the matrons and the comprehensive schoolgirls. Jim goes back to the mines to joke with the lads, while his good friend Thatcher calls them ‘the enemy within’ and smashes the trade unions. Does everyone really like him so much? Johnny Rotten gets banned from the BBC for calling out Uncle Jimmy’s “all kinds of seediness” and saying he wants to kill him on camera. The BBC will also shut down Meirion Jones’ and Liz Mackean’s episode of the current affairs show Exposure, called “The Other Side of Jimmy Savile.” The competitor, ITV, will broadcast it in 2012. Jones first encountered Savile at his aunt’s reform school, where, as a young kid he saw him walk casually through open doors to the delinquent girls on display. Kids and dogs can always sense when something is off. But Peter Rippon, the journalist’s boss at BBC’s Newsnight, was apparently senseless. Perhaps he was just being cautious, upholding the same standards of rigorous reportage that had confirmed Saddam Hussein’s biological weapons. And there are threats from powerful people, or rather recommendations. We can understand it, that losing one’s job is terrifying. We must be especially understanding, we are asked.

Now let us speak of victims. The extraordinary thing is that the BBC and the newspapers all consider themselves to be the main victims in Savile’s crimes. The notable exception is the conservative Andrew Neil, the most honest of them – even Private Eye’s Ian Hislop is merely contrite – and the most succinct. We failed England, and England made him, says Neil. One of Thatcher’s last acts in office is get Savile a knighthood (he already has an OBE), and this grubby little triumph makes him feel safe as houses. No one disparages a knight. But the accusations close in on him and when he finally gets a proper police caution, he uses it to threaten the female cop interrogating him. He has already retained England’s sleaziest lawyer, the waxen George Carmen, defender of the atrocious, a cold and effective commodity at the service of atrocity provided the atrocious can pay.

The police are also major victims. The tired, hangdog Michael Hames, former head of the kiddie crimes unit, sits alone in an empty café. His moral brigade is shown battering down the doors of low-rent offenders, but the TV screens flicker with the Father of All Short Eyes in council flats and hotel rooms, leering down at everyone with his phosphorescent grin. Did someone have a talk to Detective Superintendent Hames? Assume it. Meanwhile, the press has to rely on early interweb chat rooms to locate the million witnesses of Savile’s crimes. There is no Paul Foot or Jimmy Breslin around, no Gary Webb or Ruben Salazar. Removed from common knowledge of Uncle Jim’s half century of rape and torture, England’s dreaming media sector excuses itself with a sallow face while taking a little credit for the outcome, nervously but positively. Savile had ogled beautiful Selena Scott on TV’s Breakfast Time, her Scarborough accent covered but Jimmy’s eyes uncovering her curves on air. Jim’s arms encircle skinny Kylie Minogue. And Sam Brown, who was once a lissome girl like Kylie and who, still beautiful today as Selena Scott is still beautiful, felt Savile’s hands and eyes maul and fill her in the back of the hospital chapel? With no mannered suspicions ex post facto, without the self-consciousness of the pressmen, she tells what happened. Working class girls like Sam Brown had been trying to take Savile down for decades, but, as they tell the reporters who are still misty with the much-vaulted rights of the fourth estate, Sir James Savile is an institutional man and he has the gods and spirits on his side. The bourgeois press clings to its own miserable ideal, hangs its collective head at the defeat on the lips of victim after victim like it was itself the victim of victims. The press would like to think itself free, as guardians. It is free only to think what it wants. Savile is free in all his wants. And in the final analysis – and this analysis demands to be more ruthless, more pitiless than the predator himself – only Jimmy Savile and Sam Brown can say anything truly worth hearing.

Savile is a great one for volunteering. He raises millions to repair Stoke-Mandeville Hospital, whose roof is falling down like everything else in Thatcher’s United Kingdom. It is this entrepreneurial spirit she admires in him: no leeching off government – which is really public – moneys. Instead, the poor must trust in the giving of the rich, as the dark satanic mills shut down and Old England’s winding sheet is stitched by the music of Jimmy in the Children’s’ Ward. Pre-adolescent and adolescent, boys and girls and even elderly, maimed and mute and malleable of limb, the offscourings of the realm are exchanged at rate zero. Savile is also involved with the notorious Broadmoor Psychiatric Hospital, whose inmates he calls victims of their own minds or harsh circumstances. But under this liberal and compassionate view, is his hands and his mouth and his hand stuffed down a young girl’s throat. Though it is not in the film, he meets one his biggest fans at Broadmoor: Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper. Maybe they discussed their favorite pop records.

Savile is also a philosopher, the chief expert on himself, a self he readily compares to a ‘machine’ (Clips of the endless miles he spent jogging across country are cleverly inserted as a repeated motif in the film, training like Rocky, waving to fans, fit and trim and always on the go). Savile declares over and over again that his philanthropy is all a front. He declares, like one of Sade’s Friends of Crime: “I’m not in your world. I’m not constrained by anything… Let me tell you. You really are missing something. In fact, you’re missing everything.” That market freedom of Thatcher and Sir Keith Joseph was clearly expressed in broke city hospitals—for whose upkeep Savile finally bequeathed most of his £4.3m fortune—and in the back of a mobile home which Jim used for cheap promotion and natural selection. He was a volunteer porter at Leeds General Infirmary and kept an apartment at Broadmoor, where he oversaw the psychiatric unit and personally selected staff managers. He had his own set of keys to the asylum, though discretion was never a concern. Will does not exist there, in places under the sign of austerity and its rule by law. Drained of resources by the Iron Lady and of virgin flesh by Uncle Jim, such utilities are playgrounds for the great sell-off and the consolidation of a medieval central power. Control does not exist. Everyone is on their own. Society, as Thatcher reasoned, does not exist. There is nothing at all but an index of gratifications and your sovereign right to them, if you are able to know who you really are and know the right people.

One must also know where one is, which means what one is. This means too that you compel others to know who they are, what they must be, and why they are where they must be.

Don’t talk of evil, like the newspapermen do. Evil does not exist. There is only a deep nastiness, seen in Savile’s face in funerary glow. If you call this slithering ooze ‘Evil’, what are you are trying to conceal by naming it? It is too late to summon the Prince of the Air, the beguiler of monks and eater of saints. Was not Savile also a kind of saint? “But he has done so much good…”, as one of his old employees moans. Think of all his charitable works and the fact that he cared little for worldly wealth, always living modesty in apartments, a white pietist who could perform miracles and talked to the clouds. Even his body is holy in anonymity, the purity of the despised, buried with no marker and safe from desecration. So what is excused by epithets of Darkness and the Diabolical, other than a man who knew the rules of the game and because he understood these rules, he never hunted outside of his class? What exactly are the broadcasters, cops, cabinet secretaries and public servants trying to protect with yesterday’s fawning and the excoriations of today?

An arithmetic. The logic of late power naked and careless, at this particular time and in this particular place. And no question of an “Our Jim” must disguise who “Their Jim” was, as he was absolutely nothing in himself. And that they have no need of being identified because they have never tried to hide, nor have they demanded any proof of their actions benign or evil or matter of state. It has all been public knowledge, everybody knows. Jimmy Savile enters the grounds freely. Which is why there was never a cover-up and no dog barking in the night.

Martin Billheimer is the author of Mother Chicago: Truant Dreams and Specters of the Gilded Age. He lives in Chicago.