by Dan Davies
592 pages, Quercus
Review by Pat Black
I suppose, at some point, someone must have liked Jimmy Savile. No-one would admit to it now, of course. He haunts public discourse, and will for years to come, with a great clanking bell round his neck. More than three years after he died, people can hardly bear to look at photographs of him in his heyday. The gurning face, the beady shark-black eyes. He’s a spindly blond spider, forever crouched, ready to spring.
When it emerged a year after his death that the DJ and Jim’ll Fix It host was a predatory paedophile who abused hundreds of vulnerable young girls and boys, as well as hospital patients and disabled people, it was a shock, but not a massive one.
There were always rumours about Jimmy Savile. For a person who was so closely involved in youth culture, there was always something a bit wrong about him. “You wouldn’t leave him in charge of your kids” was a common pub refrain. He looked grubby. The p*ss-yellow hair appeared toxic, even in black and white, and his sartorial choices might well have triggered that ugly simile, “he was sweating like a rapist in a shell suit”.
The man looked like your idea of a paedophile, and he was – hence the title of Dan Davies’ In Plain Sight. Many used to doubt that Savile was a child abuser, reasoning that the tabloids or the police would have exposed him long ago. That they didn’t, despite lots of allegations being raised against him from the 1970s onwards, is still subject to final reports in official inquiries. A good portion of this book sees Davies ruthlessly exposing the incompetence and cowardice of some who turned away from the Savile story, especially when the bubble finally burst in 2012.
Dan Davies comes in at some time after Louis Theroux’s watershed documentary on Savile in 2000, which led to the first serious question marks being publicly raised over the DJ’s lifestyle. Davies admits that Savile frightened him as a child, but he went on to spend a lot of his professional life interviewing him, profiling him for magazines and newspapers, and finally writing this book.
Like many, Davies’ instincts were shrieking at him about Jimmy Savile. But In Plain Sight doesn’t just focus on Savile’s crimes. It is an exhaustive biography of the man, focusing on what might have formed his complex character and facilitated his deviant behaviour. It’s also an insight into how he managed to get away with it for a lifetime.
Savile’s offences are too many, too exhausting and simply too depressing to go into. The author wisely dials down the details, but gets into the reasons why Savile managed to hoodwink an entire nation. A highly intelligent man, the DJ was also almost certainly a sociopath with a gift for manipulating and influencing people. After becoming arguably the first superstar DJ (he claimed to have pioneered the twin turntable), he found an intoxicating blend of money and fame as British youth culture exploded in the early 1960s. The obvious corollary of this was access to star-struck girls, and Savile helped himself.
As Savile got older – he was in his thirties when the Beatles started topping the charts – the ages of the girls stayed low. It’s sickening to think of him approaching his fifties while he was presenting Top of the Pops, surrounded by schoolgirls, some of whom he undoubtedly abused.
Davies cherry-picks a telling admission from Savile. When he first dropped the needle on the record, and the dancefloors filled, the DJ recalls being filled with a strange power: the ability to control behaviour through the simple act of spinning a disc. Although he insists it isn’t “power” per se, Savile does a jolly good job of describing exactly that. What a thrill it must have been for someone desperate to have fame, renown and influence. It must be like a hit of the ultimate drug, the motherlode of manipulation.
Soon it wasn’t just young girls hanging around outside BBC dressing room doors that Savile was abusing – he was going into children’s homes, notably Haut de la Garenne in Jersey and Duncroft, the latter a residential school for “troubled girls”. This term could encapsulate a range of youngsters with a galaxy of problems. Savile promised the girls days out in his fancy car, and showered them with gifts and treats, with the full approval of the school’s administrators. What the girls got in return for their company was squalid abuse.
This forms one of the most depressing parts of the book. As some of the girls reveal to Davies, many of Savile’s victims went along with what happened, because, in their misery, it was their only way of escaping Duncroft for an afternoon. They saw a few minutes of molestation from a creepy old man as a price worth paying, so long as they got beyond the walls for a while. You can only hope that some of these people went on to discover that the world is not completely filled with wickedness.
It becomes even more unspeakable. Savile realised that the easiest pickings of all could be found trapped in hospital beds and wheelchairs. He had access to wards at Leeds General Infirmary, Stoke Mandeville spinal injuries unit and Broadmoor high security hospital. He raised millions of pounds for all these facilities, and as a result was often allowed to come and go as he pleased, working as a volunteer porter with access to keys and even accommodation.
Savile’s death obsession was, like all of his other perversions and depravities, something he admitted to with sometimes startling candour in newspaper interviews. This was often a “bait-and-switch” tactic to cover up what he was actually doing: feed out a little bit of truth, to throw off suspicion over the full picture, and make the concealment more compelling. For example, he would openly describe “going for tea” with the parents of young girls he had met.
Savile admits to having stayed with his adored mother’s body in her Scarborough flat for days on end leading up to her funeral, which he described as the “happiest time of his life”. He also spoke, in spiritual terms, of how much he enjoyed looking after the recently deceased in his capacity as a volunteer porter at LGI. He once spoke about the “privilege” of helping to lay out the body of an elderly man who had been burned to death.
With the child abuse rumours turning out to be completely true, the internet forum fodder of Savile’s alleged necrophilia are now all too plausible.
Broadmoor, where Savile had his own flat, and could come and go as he pleased, provides another point of intrigue explored by Davies. Savile met the facility’s most famous inmate, the Yorkshire Ripper, several times. His story and that of Peter Sutcliffe’s mingle in extremely disturbing ways. Savile once offered to act as an “intermediary” for the police if the Ripper was ever caught; why this would be necessary, and why he would choose to interfere in that particular case, is anyone’s guess. It’s possible that being the country’s most famous Yorkshireman might have given Savile some interest, given that this region was the killer’s main hunting ground.
But it turned out Savile was linked to the Ripper case in even more hair-raising ways. When one of Sutcliffe’s victims was found in Roundhay Park, near Savile’s flat, the DJ was pulled in by police to have a cast of his teeth made. The reason Savile’s name appeared on the list of suspects was because he was well-known by the vice squad in the area.
This simple fact explodes the oft-repeated lie that the police didn’t know a thing about Jimmy Savile’s activities. They knew enough to suspect him of being one of the worst sex killers of modern times.
Why did Jimmy Savile attach himself to Broadmoor? What was his fascination with Peter Sutcliffe? Davies theorises more than once that Savile’s mindless sexual urges might have found the ultimate expression in murder. Apart from a tenuous link to a business associate found drowned, Davies finds no suggestion that this might have been the case. It’s a compelling theory, though. My gut instinct agrees with him. Perhaps, in his attachment to Broadmoor, Savile sought to understand himself through the study of people similar to him. I would tend to see Savile doing this for pragmatic reasons. Perhaps he could learn how psychopaths got caught, so that he wouldn’t make the same error himself? Whatever the case, given what we now know, there was probably something other than altruism at the heart of Savile’s motives concerning Broadmoor.
Many people witnessed Savile’s behaviour and, like several of his victims, got in touch with the authorities - but nothing was ever done. Savile’s power and influence was spread far and wide. He regarded himself as untouchable; he even referred to himself as “the Godfather”. One serving police officer caught Savile red-handed, late at night in his car with a teenage girl. “We’re waiting for midnight and her 16th birthday,” the garrulous DJ breezed, when asked what was going on. The young constable did nothing, after Savile warned him he could lose his job.
He could be frightening, even violent as the occasion demanded. Savile did everything he could to stamp down on suspicion, control every situation, insulate himself from inquiries and insure his activities against anyone seeking justice. He openly bragged about having a “policy”, if he was ever confronted with accusations of unsavoury behaviour. When he was finally questioned about complaints raised against him a couple of years before he died, he put his “policy” into place, spewing forth a stream of deceptive nonsense and treating the investigating officers with astounding contempt. That they treated him with deference, and preferred to sweep the complaints under the carpet, should be a matter of shame for everyone involved.
Savile’s carefree attitude to sexual assault and its consequences is jaw-dropping. The book is thankfully light on detail, but one chapter in which a woman gives direct testimony about how Savile raped her on a hospital ward when she was 12, only for nurses and doctors to repeatedly dismiss her story, will haunt anyone who reads it. The man was obscene.
So why would I have you endure this book?
Simply put, we have to understand why he got away with it. Victims have to be given a voice, in the face of what was effectively state-sanctioned abuse of children. And we have to understand that institutional corruption still lurks in this country.
Davies’ exposure of how the establishment closed ranks over Savile before and just after he died is razor-sharp. He shows how, from his earliest days in the dance halls, Savile fostered close links with serving police officers in his Leeds power base and elsewhere, links that he continued to enjoy up until his death. Davies gets frisked by retired coppers when he first appears at Savile’s flat, with Savile making clear from the start that they were his minders, and that any behaviour he viewed as untoward would have consequences. This simple intimidation with the support of police, retired or otherwise, was a way of ensuring that Savile could do what he wanted, and that if he should ever get into trouble with a girl, it could be waved away by those charged with upholding the law. After all, who’s going to believe what a child says over the great Jimmy Savile?
Savile worked this ingratiating tactic into how he dealt with other authority figures. Simple toadying and flattery can go a long way, whether it’s with Joe Public or the heir to the throne, and Savile was especially adept at this. It certainly worked with the Prince of Wales, a man you sense was brutalised by the system that spawned him, and someone looking for an approving father figure. Jimmy Savile, of all people, seems to have filled that mentor role. The late Princess Diana certainly described him as such; Savile was even drafted in as a marriage counsellor to the royal couple after their relationship broke down.
Savile’s ultimate authority figure bedfellow was Margaret Thatcher. Stories of them spending several New Year’s days together at Chequers, with their feet up before the fire, are well-known. The grocer’s daughter who became Prime Minister claimed she saw something of the entrepreneurial, can-do spirit she so admired in Jimmy Savile’s journey from the backstreets of Leeds to the heart of British public life. For his own part, Savile – a born hustler - was a man who appreciated pounds in his pocket, and identified with the Conservatives’ drive to make the market the dominant force in British life. Before he was anything, before even the sex crimes, Jimmy Savile was a devoted capitalist.
It was a match made in hell.
It is true that Savile did a lot for charity. Charity did a lot for him, too. Although it can’t be disputed that Savile raised millions of pounds for good causes, he was always on the lookout for kickbacks. His “sponsors” on his various marathon runs, for example, could sometimes be called upon to provide Savile with holiday accommodation, or a berth on a cruise ship here and there, as and when Jimmy felt like it. Nothing was for nothing, in Savile’s world.
Savile’s reinvention as a secular saint, selflessly pounding the streets on sponsored walks and charity runs to help disadvantaged people, has complex behavioural roots. Savile was a devout catholic. Drawing on experience of some questionable authority figures in my own catholic background, I recognise Savile’s peculiar mix of apparent piety and sociopathy. The ostentatious selflessness may have had a redemptive quality – basically: “If I help my local hospital, I might be forgiven for the bad things I’ve done.” In more sinister terms, it may be a simple acceptance from Savile that he must appease an omnipotent, omniscient higher power. The idea of a vindictive and sometimes terrible deity is a deeply seductive one for some nasty people whose chief desire is gaining power and influence over others.
It’s strange. The notion of an angry, patriarchal Old Testament god doesn’t seem quite so silly, illogical or unpleasant when we consider Jimmy Savile being presented in front of him for judgment.
Savile’s efforts in having the national spinal injuries unit at Stoke Mandeville rebuilt on whatever cash the British public and private companies could spare, rather than the state, saved Margaret Thatcher from a red face. Her Conservative government’s cuts would have led to the facility closing down, a black mark for even that most pernicious of administrations. She never forgot this, and repeatedly called for Savile to be knighted in the honours list. Davies uncovers that she was repeatedly turned down, much to her intense, openly stated displeasure, with advisers and senior civil servants warning that Savile was not an appropriate candidate for such a high honour.
Although the reasons for this assessment were never explained, it does provide more evidence that people in authority had knowledge a little firmer than hearsay and office gossip which pointed towards Jimmy Savile being a pervert.
Thatcher got her wish, though, finally clearing the way for Savile to kneel before the Queen in 1990. It was the crowning glory for the working class boy from Leeds. But as he approached his 70th birthday, his career went into decline, with Jim’ll Fix It being axed in 1994 after 19 years. New boss Alan Yentob must take the credit for quickly scalping the man who was still viewed as something of a national treasure. Savile was out.
Although he was finished in terms of the big time, Savile was never far away from the headlines. He continued to appear at charity runs, bobbed around Stoke Mandeville, Broadmoor and Leeds General, and remained a very familiar figure in and around his native Leeds. He made the odd appearance on TV, including a “fairy godfather” stint in Celebrity Big Brother shortly before his death in 2011, aged 84.
Davies came into Savile’s life during this twilight phase. The author acknowledges that he was “groomed” in his own way by Savile, as the decrepit star offered him a berth alongside him on a cruise liner, presumably to guarantee favourable coverage. Davies’ portrait of Savile is memorably grotesque – his “talon-like” teeth, the disgusting eating habits… I may never look at a crabstick the same way again.
Despite his claims that he still “pulled birds”, it would appear that Savile’s offending tailed off as he got older. However, it is worth noting that the final complaint against him stems from 2006, just shy of his 80th birthday, when he allegedly groped a member of the audience on the final commemorative edition of Top of the Pops. Nothing was done about it.
No-one – either in the police, or the BBC – challenged Savile on his outrageous behaviour. The man had a mobile rape wagon parked outside BBC facilities, for god’s sake. It’s true that a mixture of toadying, “favours”, being seen as a modern saint and sheer, glib bullsh*t gave him an aura of invincibility. But we shouldn’t be so naïve to think that all Savile needed was a bit of patter and jangling jewellery to persuade authorities to forgo their responsibility to the public. Subsequent inquiries have shown that there is scant record of Jimmy Savile in police archives, either on index cards or computer files – when we know for a fact that complaints were made about him, and that he “helped police with their inquiries” during the Ripper probe. I’m assuming that computer hacking was not part of Savile’s skillset.
Much as it’s easy to poke fun at the patronage Savile enjoyed from the highest levels of royalty and government, they were duped as much as the rest of the country. They surely didn’t know about his proclivities. But through simple association they were, indirectly and unwittingly, complicit in how he was allowed to carry on with his behaviour. Can you imagine being a child Savile abused and thinking about telling someone, only to see his gurning face alongside the Princess of Wales’ in the newspapers a couple of days later?
The police and the BBC still have questions to answer in this case: why was a blind eye turned to rampant child abuse? Why were suspicions and complaints not acted upon? Like many other disasters, the Jimmy Savile affair must have at least one good outcome: systems and controls must now be put in place to make sure people like Savile never again find safe haven in our public institutions. He must be the example used, the bogeyman, whenever controls get too lax, or if people act suspiciously. His legacy in this regard is bearing fruit, through Operation Yewtree and other historical abuse investigations.
To his victims, I would like to say this: Although nothing can take away that man’s terrible crimes and their effect on you, there is a weapon you have at your disposal to help yourself, and to help others who may be enduring the same horror. You have the truth on your side; you can speak out, you can write about it, you can tell your story, and most importantly you can seek assistance. There is purity to this, a concept that Jimmy Savile could never understand. He feared the truth as a vampire fears the dawn.
If there is one thing creatures like Savile despise, it’s being confronted with what they have done, for their mists of deceit and obfuscation to be blown away with honest testimony. Always, always, speak up against abusers of every kind. Today, there are opportunities to talk to someone, whether that’s a counsellor, a friend, a family member or even the police, online or on the end of a telephone. You do not have to suffer alone and in silence.