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Savage Savile in The Reckoning: All cynic to the bone

I think I might have just watched the most disturbing dramatisation ever. Yes, I’ve just finished watching The Reckoning on BBC iPlayer, having viewed the first part last night and followed up with the remaining three today. 

While I’m not a huge fan of Steve Coogan I do think he is exceptional in this. You have to admire the fact that he’s even agreed to take on the controversial task of portraying paedophile Jimmy Saville and played it astonishingly well, in a portrayal that was both brilliant and unerringly, chillingly accurate.  

I found it both compelling and difficult and quite emotional to watch, knowing the horrific back story we are all now too familiar with. Even though it would have been a hard topic to discuss back then, I still find it extraordinary his depravity was kept a secret for so long by so many who must have known something about what was going on: the cynical and savage foulness that was behind Saville’s whole career, the arch manipulation, the wanton destruction of people’s lives and the way hardly anyone acted earlier. 

This is the problem I have with the programme’s narrative, though. There is some serious revisionism at play here, and way too many faux knowing perspectives trying to be wise after the event. 

As the series progresses, you’re led to believe that the net was closing in on him, and that by his twilight years in semi retirement it had become an open secret and was only a matter of time before he would have faced justice. I’m sorry but it wasn’t like that. It just wasn’t.

It was only after Savile died in October 2011 that hundreds of allegations of sexual abuse and recollections from witnesses surfaced.

Put it this way, as much as it pains to me to say this, I knew bugger all about Savile’s sordid proclivities, and if I didn’t then the vast majority of people in Britain outside of the television industry didn’t either.

For instance, by the time of Savile’s death I, a member of the media who’d worked at or for the BBC on several occasions, had been living with my partner, a Leeds native for four years, and he and his family had heard nothing — or owt, as Yorkshire folk like to say — either. 

My father’s cousin Malcolm Muggeridge’s nephew Douglas was controller of Radio 1 and 2 for the first seven years of my life and is even mentioned in The Reckoning. Did any goss filter its way down the family line? Not a jot.

Not only that but my mother and grandmother both worked at Stoke Mandeville to boot. In fact, until Milton Keynes General was opened, Mandeville was our local hospital for the first dozen years living in Buckinghamshire, and the location where I screamed the place down for what seemed like an eternity when the nurses stitched my head up after a freestanding mirror fell on tiny little three year-old me in the Bletchley branch of Woolworths in the early 1970s*

When the Netflix series Jimmy Savile: A British Horror Story aired in 2022 I called my mother and asked if she had any recollections of seeing Savile at the hospital. She had no stories, no sightings, no gossip, and if my gran had any then she went to her death two decades before Savile keeping them to herself.

Then again, being a very middle class Mantovani-listening Greek lady from Thessaloniki who, slightly inexplicably, found herself living in Aylesbury but still somewhat detached from British culture, and especially television, she may not have even known who Jimmy Savile even was. Lucky old gran.

In summation, far from being a sensationalist celebration of a life, this was a tastefully done dark story produced in collaboration with some of Savile’s victims — the story of a serial predator who was eventually if belatedly exposed by the brave souls who endured such wickedness at the hands of a man who preyed on the vulnerable. 

Steve Coogan got right into the mindset of the entitled Savile, the warped God’s Gift personality and the way he fooled everyone into believing he was someone to be revered, despite his oddball antics. If the person portrayed had been someone still loved and cherished it would be a sure fire BAFTA winner, but I’d wager it won’t be because it would be perceived by some sections of the press as almost bestowing an award to Savile by proxy.

And rather than giving flak to an actor doing a job — and a difficult one at that — I would also give Coogan the benefit of the doubt, on the basis that the programme isn’t tasteless sensationalism but might actually give a better understanding of the conditions that lead to what, in Savile’s case, was clearly a severe form of narcissistic personality disorder that found hideous expression in his long years of serial abuse.

Looking up Dan Davies’ book, In Plain Sight, the final paragraph of the blurb sums it up neatly: “Savile was not only complex, damaged and controlling, but cynical, calculating and predatory. He revelled in his status as a Pied Piper of youth and used his power to abuse the vulnerable and underage, all the while covering his tracks by moving into the innermost circles of the establishment.”

Coincidentally, today the 12th of October is four years to the day I was last in the Stoke Mandeville and Aylesbury area, seeing Midge Ure at the Waterside Theatre before spending a few days at my parents’ house.

Down the road from Aylesbury is, of course, the Prime Minister’s county house Chequers. Who was born on 13 October, 98 years ago? One Margaret Hilda Roberts, but you can call her Thatcher. And The Independent’s Charlotte Cripps is withering in her assessment:

“Their relationship was pretty close. He was writing letters to her, she had invited him to the prime minister’s country residence, Chequers. Stoke Mandeville is on the doorstep of Chequers, it was round the corner. Margaret Thatcher particularly liked Jimmy Savile because he wasn’t relying on what the state could do. His entrepreneurialism, his taking the initiative. Her vision of society, a thriving economy, relying on successful people who were then able to support people who were less fortunate than themselves.”

Pure savage.

Steve Pafford

*I can vaguely date the accident in Woolies to either autumn of 1972 or spring of 1973 as I recall hearing the ghastly Gilbert O’Sullivan over the shop’s PA — on investigation into his singles discography it could only have been either of his UK chart-toppers Clair or Get Down. Happily, freestanding mirrors in British stores were then outlawed as a result. 

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