Unusually for someone who presented TV and radio programmes for six decades, Jimmy Savile is most significantly represented in the archives by shows he didn’t host. In When Louis Met Jimmy (BBC Two, 2000), Louis Theroux raised questions about longstanding rumours of paedophilia, which were rebuffed but later certified by Exposure: The Other Side of Jimmy Savile (ITV, 2012). Screened after the broadcaster’s death, that film triggered institutional investigations concluding he had sexually abused at least 450 people, 80% of whom were young people and children.
The 10th anniversary of Savile’s death in October will greatly add to the TV credits the presenter wouldn’t want to have. Discovery’s Jimmy Savile: The People Who Knew is the first; a Netflix two-parter is due later this year and a BBC docudrama, The Reckoning, is also in production. (Disclosure: I witnessed, and reported to the BBC, an assault by Savile on a BBC staff member in 2006, as recorded in the Dame Janet Smith report of 2016. I was interviewed for the Netflix films.)
Another oddity of Savile’s TV CV is that the most influential film about him has never aired. In December 2011, two months after Savile died, a planned BBC Two Newsnight investigation into rapes and assaults by the presenter at Duncroft House, a a school for emotionally disturbed teenage girls in Surrey, was pulled. The producers’ view was that the BBC feared a tonal clash with Savile tribute films in the Christmas schedule. A quasi-independent inquiry, the Pollard Review, broadly cleared managers of that charge, though it found their actions “flawed”; some editorial figures were moved by the BBC to equivalently paid alternative roles.
The Newsnight no-show led directly to 2012’s Exposure, which included some of the BBC-blanked data and witnesses. Almost exactly a decade on, this Discovery film has the feel of the Newsnight investigation reborn; a central testifier is Meirion Jones, lead producer on the censored show. (His talented colleague Liz MacKean died in 2017, having, like Jones, left the BBC.)
The documentary presents a devastating succession of victims or whistleblowers, who were disbelieved or discouraged. The freshest material involves Savile’s activities in Jersey and at London sex parties, bravely described by victims. Andrew Neil shows how Savile eluded his questions about sexual behaviour by turning the audience against Neil with some comic business involving a banana.
A measure of Savile’s psychopathy is that the Discovery film can be considered relatively restrained for ignoring the widespread rumours, reflected by Dame Janet Smith, of Savile also being a necrophiliac (his charitable service included working as a hospital morgue porter). The voiceover suggests there was a “huge multi-institution cover-up”, implicating Duncroft House, the Thatcher government, hospitals, prisons and the BBC. Jones argues that numerous managers at the Corporation “must have known”. (My own view, based on the prevalence of Savile rumours during 30 years working at the BBC, is that senior managers of the relevant periods, if they really never heard anything, should urgently book consultations with an audiologist.)
The weakness of this documentary is that it features only those who knew or suspected; there is no challenge to those who claim not to have noticed. Yet health ministers and officials who allowed Savile accommodation keys to, and a bedroom for his use at, Stoke Mandeville and Broadmoor (where multiple assaults took place) are still alive, as are bosses from Savile’s other places of predation.
It is likely they refused to speak to the film-makers, but the ease with which such potentially key witnesses can hide behind their PR teams and public pensions means that culpabilities in the case are likely to remain hidden.
Though claiming to feature the People Who Knew, this film includes only the most honourable of them – the victims and the whistleblowers. It may take many more shows yet to reach true accountability on Savile.