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Gotta Get Theroux This: Chapter 34

The Last Mention of Jimmy Savile

All the time I’d been trying to keep faith that we’d find a distributor for the Scientology film, I was also plugging away on Savile, and it was by a strange stroke of dark synergy, that that project finally came to air only a few weeks before the South Bank screening.

Understandably enough, the BBC ran a low-key publicity campaign in the lead-up. No photos were released, nor did they put me up for any interviews. I was ten thousand miles away in Australia when the programme, titled Louis Theroux: Savile, went out. Not by design – I had a long-standing commitment to a speaking tour – though there were strong arguments for me being out of the country when I had a show on: it relieved some of my anxiety, and I worried less about whether people were calling and texting, or whether they weren’t and why they weren’t. With the higher stakes of the Savile revisit, this was all the more the case.

The main theme of the reaction to the show was that it had been ‘brave’. The fourth or fifth time I heard the same word I began to wonder if it was code for ‘rash’ or ‘foolhardy’ or ‘self-incriminating’. One dissenting view came from the Mail. ‘One star’ was their verdict – and I’m not sure ‘zero stars’ existed as a setting on their critical meter. The reviewer was annoyed that I’d suggested his former colleague Angela Levin might have done more to out Jimmy Savile, given that she’d told me in an interview in the programme that she’d had credible information that he was an abuser. Angela herself had pointed out that she didn’t have the kind of evidence a newspaper would need before they’d risk printing such serious allegations.

Another brickbat came by email from Jonathan King, the convicted sex offender I’d been dallying with the previous year. ‘I was truly horrified by your Savile fiasco,’ he wrote. ‘Surely your position should have been similar to Sylvia’s – you had and have no idea whether the allegations and claims were true but all you saw made you consider him a friend. I only met him socially once (but must say I would never, ever have offered him a room in my home) – he struck me as a decent, hard-working saint. Here was the chance for you to be the boy who said the emperor was wearing no clothes. But your understandable mistake will have killed off your promising career, I fear. A terrible shame.’

There were also several letters in response to the programme, including one from an events organizer in Spalding who had booked Jimmy on several corporates in the nineties. The letter was full of bizarre punctuation and solecisms. ‘I cannot fail to see how you didn’t see from the word go . . . “Something isn’t right here!” . . . Or were you also “bowled over” by the man?’ he wrote. He’d known Jimmy was a wrong ’un when he came to the hotel room door in tiny black briefs. ‘He didn’t know us from “Adam”! It’s not normal behaviour!’ On another occasion he had taken vast numbers of boxes of the hotel’s branded chocolate and charged them to his room. He wanted them for a children’s hospital in Bristol. ‘He thought he could do “anything he wanted” and “get away with it”.’ Yes, the real story, which I’d missed, was the vicious and premeditated theft of hotel chocolates.

There were also the usual fruit-loop letters, one about a self-published book promoting world peace, and a couple that boasted of random trivial connections with Jimmy. ‘I worked as a cameraman on Jim’ll Fix It for three years and found him incredibly vain. It annoyed me that he’d only arrive for the final run-through and show, yet take the credit for arranging fixes (it was the researchers).’

But in amongst them was a more troubling one.

The woman only gave her first name. Across several close-written pages, she recounted a passage in her life when, aged thirteen, over the course of a year she and her family been groomed by Jimmy – in the letter she’d referred to him only as ‘The Man’ – under the guise of him helping her dancing career. He’d visit every six weeks, giving the girl’s mother fifteen pounds each time.

One night, after she turned fourteen, he’d taken her to a house, given her gin, and had sex with her, saying, ‘Never forget your first time.’ She’d become pregnant. The child, a girl, had been put up for adoption. The letter ended by saying, ‘She has always been in my heart and I have always said “Happy Birthday, I love you” on her birthday. She knows nothing of me and it must stay that way. I would so, so much love to see her and to find out if she is happy. God, I hope she is OK. She must never know about him. There can’t be anyone who wants to know he’s their father. I will worry till the day I die. Don’t worry about him. I think we know now that he was nothing but a narcissist and whoever was to meet him would be fooled.’

Maybe because I was working on the programmes at the same time, I found myself thinking about parallels between Jimmy Savile and L. Ron Hubbard. Both were mythomanes, inventing and exaggerating to embellish their own careers and pedigrees. Both had a magnetic quality that enabled them to persuade and beguile the vulnerable. Both amateur hypnotists, operating like stage performers prevailing and imposing upon the unwary either in the name of selling religious snake oil or to sexually abuse. In both I saw people whose qualities of charisma and intelligence were put at the service of exploitation and betrayal in ways they themselves were almost certainly not wholly aware of.

I also saw a great deal of common ground in the accounts of the victims, the survivors, the defenders, the friends: all sorting and interpreting overlapping experiences and sets of data. The spiritual bondage of being in the Sea Org – the long years of persuading yourself you were engaged in a mission of cosmic importance, enduring ill treatment, poor conditions, alleged episodes of physical violence – had similarities with those in the entourage of Jimmy Savile who imagined they were part of something glamorous and exciting, and hoped they were valued by him or even loved. And there was also the awkward grey area: a contradictory and confused middle ground, albeit possibly a small one, where the same facts were open to inconsistent interpretations, presenting certain survivors – the ones who hadn’t experienced the worst – with a choice. They could view their experience as abusive and a violation or simply an experience that was unpleasant, something to be shrugged off, something that was outweighed by other factors, like the good they felt they were doing: spreading the gospel of Ron, or Jim.

And then I would remind myself of the significant differences. The scores of people Jimmy Savile preyed upon who weren’t groomed: who weren’t part of something glamorous or exciting, but were taken by surprise, groped, wrestled, overwhelmed.

In the aftermath of the two documentaries, many asked if I was still being trailed by PIs and Scientologists. I was always a little sorry to have to disappoint them. Scientology basically left me alone. There was a rather thin hit piece on one of their websites, which mainly consisted of them alleging that I was a useless journalist since I had failed to unmask Jimmy Savile. But, compared with their smear jobs on other journalists, it was very anodyne. By now there were other exposés in the works, including Leah Remini’s American TV series Scientology and the Aftermath. I imagined Scientology’s attentions like the eye of Sauron, swivelling away from me and towards the latest assault on their reputation.

The ghost of Jimmy Savile proved a more tenacious adversary. I had hoped that making the second programme would help to exorcize him. It didn’t quite. Mainly the ghost took the form of my own questions and self-recriminations. I was conscious of not having said everything I wanted to say. At the same time it wasn’t quite clear what it was I did want to say. I felt alternately defensive, annoyed, apologetic, and self-critical. I was irked by the piety and self-righteousness of those critics who suggested I should have seen more. And I wished I had seen more. I felt proud of having unmasked him as much as I did in my original programme, and ashamed that I had begun to like him, and most of all that I hadn’t done more to encourage the two women who came to me to go to the police and raise the alarm – that in some way I hadn’t heard them.

There was also a feeling of irritation that he had become such a convenient and lazy shorthand for evil, for anyone accused of something or accusing someone of something. He had become the person someone is ‘not as bad as’: ‘All I did was grope them in the office and they’re making me out to be like Jimmy Savile.’ He was also the shorthand for the person someone is as bad as: ‘He is the Jimmy Savile of football/music/film.’ Jimmy Savile had become a figure of complete evil: his purpose was now to make everyone else in society feel OK that they aren’t him. He had become a thought-stopping device, and a way for creepy men to make themselves look better, to draw attention away from the myriad inequalities, small slights, acts of embarrassment and control.

At the same time, though I could say I had a rough idea of who he wasn’t – black hole of pure evil, devil incarnate – I still couldn’t say I had a clear sense of who he was. My ongoing project of attempting to make Jimmy into a single person still hadn’t quite happened.

Occasionally I’d be asked whether, with all my exposure to deviant people and predatory worlds, anything still shocked me. Nothing would spring to mind and I would recall the line from Jean-Luc Godard’s À Bout de Souffle, spoken by the small-time crook played by Jean-Paul Belmondo: ‘Informers inform, burglars burgle, murderers murder, lovers love.’ People do what they do. A world without crime, insanity, war – the dream promised by L. Ron Hubbard – now, that would be shocking. But was it shocking that people, given the chance, abused their power, gave vent to their darkest impulses, made themselves OK with selfishness and cruelty? It seemed the least shocking thing in the world. But then I’d catch myself and I’d recall the feeling of reading the reports into Jimmy Savile’s offending. The strange queasiness – which somehow never diminished – of realizing someone you thought you knew and sort of liked would manipulate and deceive in a way that was so out of keeping with who you took him to be, and that part of you, to begin with, had resisted believing.


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