Arts feature

Is the life of Jimmy Savile a suitable subject for drama?

Translating the story of Jimmy Savile to stage or screen is a creative minefield, says Jonathan Maitland, who knows from first-hand experience

11 September 2021

9:00 AM

11 September 2021

9:00 AM

One day in 1975 the Israeli cabinet found themselves being lectured on the most intractable political problem of our age — how to bring peace to the Middle East — by a peculiar white-haired British entertainer wearing a pink suit with short sleeves. His name? Jimmy Savile.

That’s how he told it anyway. Remarkably, witnesses back up the generality if not the specifics of the anecdote. Savile indeed visited the Holy Land in 1975. And he did talk to the Israeli president Ephraim Katzir, saying (so he claimed): ‘I’m very disappointed because you’ve all forgotten how to be Jewish and that’s why everyone is taking you to the cleaners.’

Jimmy Savile’s life was, in every respect, eye-popping, and full of pitfalls for the dramatist or director: how best to summon it all up, without letting his crimes and bewildering conduct become a form of cheap entertainment? By using actors? Or by getting someone who was there to tell the story?

This creative dilemma — how do you solve a problem like Jimmy? — has been exercising the minds of TV’s finest for some time as there are six shows about Savile, or featuring him, streaming or imminent: two dramas and four documentaries. That’s because next month it will be ten years since one of the most trusted, loved and admired broadcasters of his generation died. Trusted, loved and admired, that is, until the truth emerged: police say he sexually assaulted at least 450 women and children.

It’s not hard to see why the story still fascinates. It sounds incredible. A seemingly kindly, eccentric do-gooder gets away scot-free with half a century of vicious sexual offending, while bagging himself a knighthood and grooming a royal flush of great British institutions: BBC, government, church, NHS, royal family. The question then: how best to tell it, drama or doc? Happily — unhappily? — I have experience of both, as consultant to a new Discovery+ documentary and as writer, in 2015, of the play An Audience With Jimmy Savile.

Both forms have advantages, of course. Arguably, no drama could match the moment when Dawn, a contributor to the documentary, talks about what happened to her. Assaulted by Savile on a train as a teenager, she emigrated to Canada soon afterwards, unable to tell her parents about the attack. ‘It was hard to leave,’ she says. ‘I was running away.’ Her voice breaks a little but she keeps her composure. ‘It felt like… he robbed me of that pureness, that virginity. That’s why I’ve had two failed marriages, I think.’ It is powerful because it’s true. A real person telling a real story about a real, ruined life. It is stating the obvious, perhaps, but a documentary’s power stems from its truth, whereas drama’s inherent weakness is that it bends and sometimes even perverts it. Doubts are inevitable. How much of this is made up? Am I being manipulated?

But then to misquote the beer ad, drama refreshes the parts other documentaries cannot reach. In An Audience With Jimmy Savile a scene between Savile and two police officers, taken verbatim from a 2009 interview at Stoke Mandeville, showed how Savile used bluster, intimidation and a deep knowledge of the law to evade justice. ‘I have — how shall we say? — “friends” who take this sort of thing very seriously,’ he says. ‘And if this process doesn’t disappear… my people can book time in the Old Bailey. And if we do, you two will finish up as witnesses. But nobody ever seems to want to go that far because of the prospect of me on the other side of the court.’ No documentary can show this scene as cameras weren’t there: all we have are transcripts.

The risks involved in drama are higher though. Misjudge it and you’ll never work again. Before my play, a BBC executive told me I was crazy. Who wants to see a play about Jimmy Savile? A national newspaper — the Mirror — started a petition to have it banned. The gist of the objections was: this is not a suitable subject for theatre. I felt the opposite. This is just what theatre is for: to hold a mirror up to society. And although many people argued that they knew what had happened, we felt this was a story that needed to be told. Why? Because even in 2015, three years after the scandal broke, many more people were still asking the same question, over and over again: how on earth did Savile get away with so much, for so long? There was also, we felt, a deep, subconscious desire to give him the trial he never had. Indeed that is why Alistair McGowan, who played Savile, decided to take on the role, after initial misgivings. Only when a friend told him he was doing a good thing — by giving survivors something like a day in court — did he decide to go ahead.

Other outraged speculators — this was pre-opening night — thought it was a comedy. It wasn’t, although some scenes turned out blackly comic. But then the inconvenient truth is that Savile was funny, back then. That was why he could hide in plain sight. It was all pretty nerve-shredding. Hours before the first show, the artistic director was panicking that we had a multi-career-ending disaster on our hands.

Key to proving the catastrophisers wrong was McGowan’s performance as Savile. He gave, wrote Mark Lawson: ‘One of the most successful and compelling displays of stage acting I have seen.’ But most important of all were the verdicts of the survivors on opening night. Had any been seriously ‘triggered’ or disapproved, we might not have made show number two. Kat Ward, assaulted by Savile at Duncroft Approved School for Girls (who I interviewed for the play, with others who’d been attacked), sent this text afterwards: ‘If I’m truthful… full blown panic wasn’t far distant… but it [sexual abuse] needs to be brought out into the open continually. As long as these things are not discussed openly, the longer they will continue.’

Ward wondered, however, whether it would cause McGowan any trauma. Not really, he says. ‘It was harder for Leah [Whitaker] who played the role of victim. My performance was basically about denying everything. It was a performance of a man giving a performance, so I didn’t have to internalise any trauma whereas Leah did, every night.’ Opening night felt unlike anything he’d experienced in a career spanning four decades. ‘It was something like terror. All through the show I had this extraordinary feeling things could kick off any moment. It was like being at a football match where violence is in the air. I honestly had no idea how the play or my performance would be received. I was genuinely worried people might boo or even storm the stage and try and bundle me over or something.’

That central question — how far do you go and how much do you show? — extends to the physical being of Savile himself. So far, however, TV and film seem a lot more reluctant than theatre to depict Savile head-on in all his monstrous entirety. Creation Stories, the recent film about Alan McGee, also cast McGowan as Savile after director Nick Moran saw him on stage. But in the only scene Savile features — a dinner hosted by Tony Blair — he is filmed mainly from behind with no close-ups. Apart from a forthcoming BBC drama, the rest of the Savile programmes are documentaries. One is a Netflix production, which will concentrate on Savile’s relationship with the royal family and in particular how he duped Prince Charles, who called Savile ‘my health advisor’.

The BBC’s drama, a mini-series with the working title The Reckoning, is curious: it’s not clear how much, if at all, Savile features in it. The fact that his former PA has signed a contract agreeing not to speak until after the film’s transmission suggests it may concentrate on those duped or destroyed by him. But I can see the rationale for that. Sometimes a person’s malignity can be essayed more powerfully in their absence, simply by showing their effect. So it may be years before a full-on, pedal-to-the-metal dramatic Savile hits the screen, as opposed to the stage. But that’s hardly cause for complaint.

And as for the drama vs doc debate, all that really matters — as Kat says — is that the story gets told.

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Jimmy Savile: The People Who Knew is streaming exclusively on Discovery+. An Audience with Jimmy Savile tours nationally in 2023.

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