Photo by Christopher Furlong / Staff

Now then, now then

Should there be a new drama about Jimmy Savile?

Artillery Row

When Jimmy Savile was alive, we all relished the rumours. Popbitch was possibly the first outlet to break the stories of necrophilia, but it would have been an innocent person who could look at Savile as he advanced in both wickedness and years, and genuinely believe that he was a kind-hearted soul who had devoted himself to charitable works. We all knew that he was a wrong ‘un. 

As far back as the 80s, the comedian Jerry Sadowitz had publicly, and accurately, described him as “a child-bender”, and said “that’s why he does all the charity work…it’s to gain public sympathy for when the case comes up”, before making the distressing but accurate comparison between Savile’s voice and the act of self-love. But the presenter was litigious, and used the threat of the millions that he had acquired for his various good deeds going on legal fees to warn off journalists and editors. Nobody wanted to be seen going after a man who was an intimate friend of the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Prince Charles. 

 Then he died. The truth came out, and all hell broke loose. Today Savile is regarded, rightly, as one of the worst figures in British public life: a monstrous abuser of children and the powerless, who covered up his unspeakable crimes underneath an exaggerated façade of bug-eyed mania. A disturbing and well-researched biography by Dan Davies, In Plain Sight, did a fine job of detailing his appalling acts, as well as the shocking inability of either the BBC or the police to hold him to any kind of account. His life and death when he apparently left this world with his fingers tightly crossed are rich in bleak event. 

Accusations of tastelessness and opportunism have been levelled at the BBC

It comes as no surprise that there is to be a new drama about his life. The Reckoning, scripted by Neil McKay and directed by Sandra Goldbacher, is said to focus on both Savile in his pomp and on the consequences after his death, in a decades-spanning account of how such a figure was able to exploit those around him and avoid punishment. It will be broadcast on BBC1, the channel most closely associated with Savile through his appearances on Top of the Pops and Jim’ll Fix It. Most controversially of all, it will star the actor and comedian Steve Coogan as Savile, allowing him to use both his dramatic and humorous skills to presumably chilling effect. 

Already, accusations of tastelessness and opportunism have been levelled at the BBC for commissioning the drama. Much of the criticism is directed at the corporation for both promoting and shielding Savile for decades, and now seeking to turn his grotesque life into prime-time, talking-point entertainment. The casting of Coogan raises other concerns. He has proved himself a fine and nuanced interpreter of such biographical roles as Tony Wilson in 24 Hour Party People, Paul Raymond in The Look of Love and Martin Sixsmith in Philomena. The spectre of his best-known creation, Alan Partridge, hangs heavy over his performances. With any Coogan appearance, Partridge’s catchphrase “A-ha!” lurks in the wings. 

In the earlier instances, it did not especially matter. Even in Philomena, the most serious role that he has previously taken on, Coogan managed to give a likeable edge of haplessness to Sixsmith that took some of the potential worthiness of the project away. But his decision to take on the role of Savile not only represents an acting challenge that even a Daniel Day-Lewis might have balked at, but also means that he has the unenviable task of having to cast off the baggage and associations that have made him a household name. If one watches Coogan-as-Savile in The Reckoning and expects him to start talking about the glories of Norwich FC, then it will be impossible to take either him, or the drama, at all seriously.

The assumption is that it will be played straight, rather than as the blackest of black comedies. Coogan’s statement that “To play Jimmy Savile was not a decision I took lightly…Neil McKay has written an intelligent script tackling sensitively a horrific story which, however harrowing, needs to be told” indicates that there will not be the giddy mixture of styles and tones that other projects of his, such as A Cock and Bull Story and 24 Hour Party People, have embraced. Certainly, the evil that Savile did has lived on after him, and it could be decried as the most monumental absence of taste to make a mockery of his actions. Yet black humour is often an effective means of satirising appalling men and their deeds. Armando Iannucci effectively took aim at Stalinism in all its horror in The Death of Stalin, and the cult German novel Look Who’s Back managed to take the high-concept idea of a resurrected Hitler up to his old tricks in contemporary Berlin and derive both laughter and horror from its premise. 

The Savile horror revealed how insidious determined ignorance can be

The other complaint is that there is no need to make The Reckoning, and that its very existence forms a strange eulogy to Savile and his actions. I disagree entirely with this. Already, a decade after his death, the most notorious DJ who ever lived is at risk of devolving into another inhabitant of a Madame Tussauds’s Chamber of Horrors, a grotesque white-haired devil with his cigars and catchphrases. It never hurts to remind everyone of what he did, and of the cowardly complicity that was engendered by politicians, broadcasters and others who should have known better. There are other figures in public life today about whom similar rumours have been swirling for years. They are garlanded with awards and adulation for their high-profile work, just as stories about their less savoury activities are passed on like dreadful secrets. Nobody wants motiveless witch hunts against celebrities to be the order of the day. But the Savile horror revealed how insidious determined ignorance can be. It must not be allowed to happen again. 

So The Reckoning should be welcomed, if regarded with justifiable caution. There is much that can go wrong in its execution, and if it does turn into a Grand Guignol farce, it will undoubtedly take its place amongst such horrific lapses of televisual taste as Heil Honey, I’m Home. The only consolation would be its making an excellent running gag in a future series of The Trip. But if it is done with the dignity that Savile’s victims deserve, then it will not only reveal a whole new side to a talented actor, but will remind us all of the sheer, unfathomable wickedness of Old Sodom himself, a man so steeped in sin that one can only hope that he is at this very moment (“Now then, now then!”) slowly roasting on a diabolic toasting fork in a very, very dark place indeed. And no, I don’t mean BBC Studios.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover