We’ve forgotten just how attractive Jimmy Savile once was

Jonathan Maitland’s new play, An Audience with Jimmy Savile at the Park, reminds us that Machiavelli had nothing on Savile. And Motherfucker with the Hat at the Lyttleton may be a Mamet knock-off but it’s a hit with the punters

27 June 2015

9:00 AM

27 June 2015

9:00 AM

An Audience with Jimmy Savile

Park Theatre, until 11 July

The Motherfucker with the Hat

Lyttelton Theatre, in rep until 20 Aug

Ho hum. Bit icky. Not bad. Hardly dazzling. The lukewarm response to An Audience With Jimmy Savile has astonished me. This is the best docudrama I’ve seen on stage. From the early 1970s, Britain swooned before Savile. Marketing pollsters found him the country’s best-loved celeb (bar the Queen Mum). He enforced his influence by winning over several establishments at once, the royals, the Beeb, the NHS, the media, the charity sector, Westminster. Evidence of his criminality existed but it never affected his reputation. He’s the nearest we’ve come to Hitler.

The show takes the format of a TV biography which is intercut with scenes from Savile’s early life and testimony from his victims. Alistair McGowan’s ownership of Savile’s persona is astounding. The gestures, the mannerisms, the voice and the accent have been studied and replicated with meticulous precision. Jonathan Maitland’s script performs a similar job with Savile’s distinctive mix of self-deprecating gags and folksy rhetoric. The man we first meet isn’t a louche and slippery pervert but a consummate entertainer. We’ve forgotten just how attractive he was. His easy wit and rough-diamond charm made him not merely appealing but also irresistible.

Enter the first victim. Now an adult, she recalls being befriended by Savile as he roamed Stoke Mandeville Hospital wearing a porter’s uniform, which he knew gave him an air of authority. He quizzed the little girl about her condition and lured her into the TV room where he assaulted her. She didn’t understand she was being raped because she was only 12. That night she wrote ‘Your porter hurt me’ on a page torn from a Bible, which she delivered to the hospital’s internal mail service. Nothing was done. Savile was more than a one-man molestation squad. He was deeply weird. He worshipped his mother (‘the duchess’) and he liked to snuggle up to elderly female patients as they slept. The nurses, accustomed to this foible, used to shoo him out of the ward with an indulgent warning. ‘Now, now, Jimmy.’ That was the sternest reproof he ever received.

The police were sufficiently concerned to include Savile, briefly, in the Yorkshire Ripper enquiry. But he never faced charges. This play explains why. Detectives confront him at home with a string of allegations which he rebuffs using a well-rehearsed confection of vanity and menace.

First he reels off a list of potentates who admire him. Then he likens his predicament to that of Gandhi and Jesus, both saints like himself, who were defamed by envious small fry. He denounces his victims as frustrated groupies (‘slags’), motivated by sexual jealousy and avarice. He vows that if he appears in court he will commission the nastiest legal minds in the land to humiliate his accusers in public. Finally he claims that his downfall will destroy Stoke Mandeville Hospital which subsists entirely on his fund-raising energies. What a masterstroke of hypocritical manipulation to use his prey as a human shield to protect him from exposure and to secure further years of sexual abuse. Machiavelli had nothing on Savile. This disturbing and fascinating play has become a word-of-mouth hit. And it must have gone beep on the radar systems of West End producers. But there’s a snag. It’s hardly a ‘great night out’. As an anniversary treat it’s a non-starter. Coach parties from the shires? Forget it. Americans? Ditto. My advice is, see it here.

Another day another Mamet knock-off. Stephen Adly Guirgis’s play is a ghetto comedy that features needy losers creating an ersatz family from their man-on-man relationships. Exactly like American Buffalo (Wyndham’s) and The Red Lion (Dorfman). What’s new here is that the chums, Jackie and Ralph, are part of a rehab programme. Jackie is a lovable dimwit released from prison and battling the temptations of powders and liquor. His sponsor, pompous Ralph, has himself served a lengthy novitiate under an addict-turned-ascetic in order to qualify as an expert in the catechism of self-denial. It’s a modern version of the Catholic church and Adly Guirgis tackles it in a spirit of affectionate mockery. Jackie and Ralph have hot girlfriends and both are tempted to pick the other man’s flowers. One succeeds, the other fails, and as these complexities work themselves out they seek comfort in their enduring friendship. The script is funny but the language is relentlessly coarse and ultimately dispiriting. If you take teenagers to this show you’ll find it embarrassing. So will they.

Ricardo Chavira is captivating as Jackie, the thick, well-meaning hunk, but the top honours go to Yul Vazquez (Cousin Julio). He first appears on stage as a bendy misfit carrying a tray of scented beers but he develops into a steely thug with a tasty line in intimidating patter. Great performance. The audience, whose enthusiasm far exceeded mine, applauded at the close of each scene. That means one thing. A hit.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • Sean Grainger

    No, no, no. As on as I laid eyes on him eating his lonely dinner nightly in the InTime club in Leeds in 1969 I thought Gordon Bennett. One of the most worrying aspects of the scandal was how many commentators referred to Jim’ll Fix it with affection.

    • James Masterton

      Well the odd thing is that I made his acquaintance in the 1990s and was mentored and given some profound career advice by him. This is why I along with many others reject the unproven smears that have enveloped him in death. I find the staging of a play that continues to besmirch his name rather abhorrent.

      • GraveDave

        Are you a Tory?

      • Tom Hughes

        I think Dan Davies’ book makes it rather clear that he did some horrible things, which sadly many were prepared to ignore because like you, they see people as either good or evil. He was an excellent charity fundraiser and from the sounds of it a great mentor, but let’s be frank here was disgusting around children

        • milford

          and dead bodies apparently.

        • Dan Davies quotes a book by a chap called Bob Bevan, but davies makes sure NOT to quote the passage wherein Bevan remarks,

          “At this time there was much speculation about Jim’s sexual preferences… some thought he might be gay, others had darker stories. Personally – and there were many subsequent trips and meetings – I came across no evidence of his either having anything other than a healthy interest in adult ladies of various legal ages.”

          Bevan is making these comments against the background that a rather well-set-up lady charity worker (Bevan refers to her as a “Blue Stocking”) has offered her healthy female body to Jim, who promptly acquiesced to her desire. It’s amusingly written as bevan is in a chalet at a holiday camp they are promoting and through the thin walls he describes how the “blue stockings” flew off. It might have made a good scene in Maitland’s play but of course Maitland has done all the research of a compliant playwright working for the DDR in 1972.

      • Suzy61

        James, why does his abilitiy as a mentor detract from the accusations?

    • Gibletbreath

      And I remember having a meal with you and others in the Indian restaurant over the Merrion Centre bowling alley with Savile mocking the Indian waiters. Hope you’re well, Sean, and still scoffing at the boys in white.

  • Precambrian

    He’s always been creepy.

    And the Lyttelton Theatre should be ashamed for allowing that title.

  • R Fairless

    You have to be joking!

  • Eu Realist

    I never liked the man and always thought he was a bit iffy, Just goes to show how easy it is to fool people in power, can`t they even spot a wongun anymore or do they just ignore their own warning signals.

    • GraveDave

      it was never the people in power who were fooled. In fact as we now know, they (The BBC and certain friends of his in Conservative party circles) were protecting him. Just as they were protecting others like him in their own corridors of power.

  • Sue Smith

    I’ve only looked at footage of Jimmy Saville and am not from the UK but the first thing which came to my mind when I did see some of his TV work was “OMG, why do the English go for such common and vulgar people?” I guess these are one and the same people who support tabloid journalism – and there are armies of them.

    My question largely remains unanswered.

    • jim

      Fact is there are an awful lot of creepy types on British telly. Saville was just one in a seemingly endless line of trannies, very effete men, female impersonators as well as an alarming array of headbangers,neurotics and weirdos. Brit telly is crawling with them. Saville fit right in.

      • Gilbert White

        Are you suggesting Larry Grayson was a bit gay and the BBC knew about it?

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        See above.

        • jim

          Always a bit unsettled around smilingblacks. Especially on a day like today.

      • Sue Smith

        Yes, and of course Rolf Harris (Australian) and he has exactly the same characteristics you describe; an effete, highly ‘feminized’ personality (I never regarded him as having any ‘personality’, so there you go). I’ve always loathed him because he was ‘creepy’. What a surprise, then, that he should gravitate to Jimmy’s circle. NOT.

        I think you’ll find Jimmy did what he did to try and prove his ‘manhood’ to himself and offended the world in so doing. But he was certainly no man. There are some things these dysfunctional types do which are a direct giveaway, such as a all-consuming over-interest in the culture of the child. You sense infantile, narcissistic behaviour right away. But the people just aren’t all that intelligent and they certainly do not have any taste – that’s for sure.

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      Still can’t spell Savile, Sue Smith?

      • Still can’t stop being a hectoring idiot?!

      • Sue Smith

        That’s my sin; what is yours as a member of the British public?

    • It would be interesting to know where you are from. The appeal of commonness and vulgarity (though often faux examples) are popular in many cultures. In the US, there is Larry the Cable Guy, the entire country music industry, etc… Saville’s problem wasn’t that he was common and vulgar, it’s just that he was plain weird and actually made a virtue of his dysfunctional nature. We are all asking ourselves how we gave this man so much credence. I can remember watching one of his shows in which he read out a letter from a viewer. It started with some general points and then praised Saville as a living saint, does a lotta work for charity, doesn’t like to talk about it etc. Having got enough of the praise out to make the point, Saville pretended to be embarrassed at the content and stopped reading as though he it was a complete surprise to him. There is just no way he hadn’t seen that letter before broadcast. I knew then at about the age of about 9 that the guy was a charlatan.

      • Sue Smith

        You’ve just unwittingly proven my original point. Thanks. The UK has ‘industrial strength’ coarse vulgarians for it to admire and these leave the USA in its shade. And the UK is uniquely infamous for its gutter press, seemingly consumed with relish.

        Sure, these criticisms hurt but now is the time to change for the better. More people than ever before are university educated and yet the attraction towards grunge and low-life persists.

        • Shouldn’t that be Lady Sue Smith?
          * chortles like a chav *

    • William Murphy

      For some extra insight, read Andrew O”Hagen’s fascinating essay in the London Review of Books:

      The BBC had its share of extremely dodgy characters for decades before Savile. Even more interesting than O’Hagen’s essay are the comments below his contribution. Especially the contributor from Reading University who notes that the BBC’s own Audience Research at the start of Savile’s career revealed that many viewers detested Savile. It was not a matter of mere dislike -some could obviously sense that there was something radically unwholesome about him. I suspect this researcher accessed the BBC written archives, which are stored at Caversham Park on the north side of Reading. But such feedback from the luckless paying public obviously had no impact on Savile’s unending rise to riches and fame.

  • William Murphy

    According to one report, the captain of a liner confined Savile to his cabin for the rest of the voyage after he made sexual advances to a 14 year old female passenger. So at least one person in authority had the guts to stand up to him. But of course the captain had no authority outside his ship.

    • Gilbert White

      Forgot about this it was reported but didn’t everybody put it down to exuberance in the end?

    • Ken Codger

      As I mentioned above, Savile was actually put off the ship – on a cruise to the Med – at the first opportunity – Gibraltar if I remember correctly.

  • Mr B J Mann

    But has anyone come up with any evidence yet (remember that?)?

    And no, “there’s no smoke without fire” / “I always thought he was a bit funny” / “thousands of people have heard the rumours” and even “hundreds of people have come forward to claim comp….. he assaulted them” doesn’t count as evidence.

    There are also thousands of people that claim that they have had weird things done to them by weird people.

    Who fly on broomsticks.

    Or even in flying saucers.

    That doesn’t make it true!

    I heard a (totally unrelated) Radio 4 medical ethics documentary just before all this kicked off that was investigating the problem of keeping people, especially children or those with learning difficulties under anaesthesia long term, was it better to keep them under continuously or to keep bringing them out.

    One of the problems was that, apparently, 50% of the time people coming round would experience hallucinations so vivid and realistic they couldn’t distinguish them from real life.

    And in half of those cases they would be of a sexual nature.

    So, given Savile’s status and celebrity and idiosyncrasies, and the fact that he spent a lot of time in surgical wards, how many rumours would be expected to be circulating even if he was entirely innocent?!

    And how does that compare with the number that were circulating!!!

  • Tom Hughes

    Having seen it, the performance the Alistair McGowan is the best of a docudrama on stage but rest is rather humdrum. In some ways it is a very entertaining play as McGowan really hams Savile up in what is almost a condensed greatest hits of all his mannerisms and catchphrases in one show.

    I also thought the artistic licence to get his victim to confront Savile was weak, because sadly, nobody ever did. Him hitting her and going nuts seemed utterly absurd. May as well gone the whole hog and simple had a fictionalised arrest and conviction for the 2nd act.

    • There seem to be only two crimes Savile hasn’t been accused of. One is of being racist and the other is using violence. The worst that has been said in regard to the latter is that he “used his strength” as a wrestler… Jimmy was barely five foot eight – hardly Big Daddy.

  • Neil Saunders

    Savile was never “attractive” – millions of ordinary people, myself included, hated the very sight of him long before the details of his vile private life emerged – but he did have a demonic hold on the pampered, out-of-touch dolts who run our society, all the way from the BBC to Saint Margaret of Grantham.

    • milford

      Yes everyone knew he was a dirty old man.

  • milford

    We live in a society that puts on profit-making entertainment about a paedophile and necrophiliac who abused vulnerable children, dying children and the dead. It’s in the most awful taste imaginable. But hey who cares these days? Anything goes.

  • Ken Codger

    Sorry to say he was never ‘attractive’. I loathed him from the start, but even before the rumours [later revealed as actual crimes] – in the mid-70s – he came across as very creepy. I heard the story about the cruise to Gibraltar from a BBC radio dj in 1978, when I visited him to buy his record collection.

  • Jackthesmilingblack