Aaround the age of 11, I was almost in Jim’ll Fix It. I was interested in cricket and my dad wrote to a Saturday night TV show asking if I could spend a day training with the world-beating West Indies team, who were touring England at the time. Producers seemed intrigued by the idea but in the end, West Indies’ busy schedule prevented Jim from Fixing it for me.
It will almost certainly become a cherished childhood memory. But now, it felt more like a narrow escape. Watching Netflix’s Jimmy Savile: A British Horror Story, it’s impossible not to reflect on the meaning of Savile, his place in recent British culture, and the impact – ostensibly tame then suddenly, deeply toxic – that he has had on so many lives. .
Rowan Deacon’s documentary was clearly made for audiences around the world. But the backdrop is so detailed that it’s surprisingly illuminating, even if you’re already familiar with these events. This points to an essential truth about Britain’s collective relationship with Savile. Savile nursed and lit the fire of not just its victims but the entire culture. And he did this gradually, over a very long time. As a result, when that happened, very few people processed how deep the abnormal was. So what happened after his death in 2011, for many, was like being shaken violently awake after a long, disturbing dream. In the hospital, in detention, in his various residences and nowhere else, Jimmy Savile has sexually abused children, for decades, almost on an industrial scale. Of course he has. Deep down, so many people know this. The stunningly bold testimony of Samantha Brown – one of Savile’s victims – in A British Horror is an irresistible awakening from the misery it causes.
For decades, Jimmy Savile was everywhere. He DJs on the “nation’s favorite” radio station, BBC Radio 1. He presents Top of the Pops, the virtual music water cooler that about a third of the country gathers every Thursday night. He runs the London Marathon for charity. He was on stage at a concert, introducing The Beatles or the Stones. You’ll see him happily giving away Prince Charles or Margaret Thatcher. And, of course, he made the kids’ dreams come true every Saturday teatime.
This, obviously, was part of the plan. Savile covers all bases. And the sad thing is, as the film reminds us, Jim’ll Fix It – where children’s dreams are helped to come true on national television – was a brilliant idea for a TV show. There’s an absolutely captivating clip in an episode of one of the documentaries where a schoolboy takes his favorite teacher out for afternoon tea at a fancy restaurant. Another happened on the set of Star Trek and, eyes wide in astonishment, met Captain Kirk. These moments, it turns out, are just a bulwark against child abuse. Now it was impossible to separate them from what Savile did.
In pre-internet England, where there were only three TV channels, Britain’s national broadcaster did a lot of the heavy lifting on behalf of the nation’s inner life. At the behest of its founder, Lord Reith, the BBC was supposed to inform, educate and entertain – after all, there were fewer options back then. Children of the 70s and 80s are familiar with cultural rarities. But they were also familiar with cultural collectivities – an experience the BBC shared with Britain at the time. Not without reason it was nicknamed “Auntie”.
But now it’s harder to think of the BBC in those terms. As the film emphasizes, the early burial of Savile Meirion Jones and Liz MacKean is one of the most humiliating episodes in BBC history. But horror is, ultimately, more abstract, more philosophical. Finally, it always revolves back to issues of power and trust; the trust children have in adults, the trust the BBC has in Savile, and the trust and power it gives the BBC.
In film archive footage abounds, Savile is constantly surrounded by young women and children. Some were interviewed as adults and when they watched clips of themselves, it was possible to feel their confusion. They were momentarily happy to see their younger selves on TV. They smile. Then, they remember. Savile’s constant persistence and coercion, overt and rebellious. Every touch – and, triggering a warning, there are many touches in this documentary – now feels like a violation. He’s a big star and he’s doing this because he can. He reduced everyone in his orbit to applicant status.
And really, everyone has. Every kid who either watched or participated in Savile’s Saturday night light entertainment Trojan horse fell under his spell. In the context of everything we know today, the power imbalance is beyond words – and so are the implications. Watching this documentary is reminiscent of Jimmy Savile making many British childhood memories. Then, he made the entire country eager to forget them.