Whatever we think, ‘The Reckoning’ won’t fix it
Jimmy Savile’s crimes will always be the subject of both grim fascination and howling outrage
When he died on October 29 2011 at the age of 84, Sir Jimmy Savile was publicly eulogised in the British press and by many of his high-powered famous friends, including Prince Charles, as a “great British eccentric”; a man who for six decades had established himself as one of the UK’s most recognisable and beloved pop culture figures.
As the first and last host of Top of the Pops and the presenter of the make-a-child’s-dream-come-true show Jim’ll Fix It, Savile had established himself as one of the earliest and most successful examples of the now all too prevalent phenomenon of the celebrity who was famous mostly because he was famous rather than by virtue of any special talent he possessed.
His much publicised charity work, which saw him raise more than £40m for hospitals and other causes, only helped to galvanise his image among the British public as an exemplary Roman Catholic citizen who lived by example by doing the Lord’s work. It earned him an OBE, a knighthood, the public praise of Margaret Thatcher, Prince Charles and Lady Diana, and an audience with Pope John Paul II.
The façade that Savile had so carefully helped to create over the course of his lifetime lasted only a year after his death, when in October 2012 ITV broadcast a documentary in which a number of people were interviewed who recounted horrific sexual abuse at his hands. The resulting investigation eventually revealed that Savile had been one of the most nefarious paedophiles in British history, abusing hundreds of young victims over the course of his career and managing to continue doing so in spite of numerous flags being waved in the faces of his BBC employers.
A decade may seem enough time to have passed between the shocking revelations and the inevitable decision to turn them into the stuff of dramatic re-enactment, but when it was announced in 2020 that the BBC had greenlit a miniseries about Savile’s crimes there was outrage from commentators and many of the victims who felt that this terrible incident from UK history was better left untapped for entertainment purposes.
That the show would be shown on the BBC only added insult to injury for those who believed that the institution bore much of the blame for turning a blind eye to rumours and allegations against Savile that allowed him to carry on perpetrating his crimes for so long under its nose.
Since that announcement Savile has been the subject of a chilling four-part docuseries, released on Netflix in 2022. The BBC series, The Reckoning, written by Neil McKay (whose previous work includes the Bafta-winning Appropriate Adult, which dramatised the horrific crimes of Fred and Rosemary West) and starring Steve Coogan as Savile, was initially scheduled to air in late 2022; but after the death of Queen Elizabeth II, it was felt that reminding the nation of Savile and his crimes during a period of national mourning for the monarch would not be a good idea.
This week, almost 12 years after Savile’s death, The Reckoning was finally aired and reactions to it have been predictably divisive.
The show uses the interviews conducted by journalist Dan Davies with Savile over the better part of the last decade his life — which formed the basis for Davies’ 2014 book In Plain Sight: The Life and Lies of Jimmy Savile — as the basis for a narrative that jumps backwards and forwards in time to show the long history of Savile’s abuse. It also features a stern warning at the beginning of each episode and talking heads interviews with some of Savile’s real victims as it tries its best to use the tools of dramatic narrative to unravel the why of its subject’s actions.
There’s something to be said of the different type of power that dramatic re-enactment has in the reported reactions of many viewers who this week took to social media to complain that the experience of seeing Coogan inhabiting the slimy skin of Savile was too sickening to watch. While many have applauded Coogan’s performance, they’ve also questioned the purpose of turning Savile’s evils into the subject of dramatic entertainment with some commentators decrying the show as unable to “rise above the cheap lure of voyeurism”.
Though the show depicts most of Savile’s heinous crimes by implication rather than demonstration and attempts to do the right thing by including his victims within its depiction, it seems that for most of the British public it’s still too uncomfortably soon for the nation to have to relive the Savile scandal on the TV screens that he once so cheerily monopolised.
The issue of BBC complicity is also one that still sticks in the throats of both victims and the public, with some people pointing out that the revelations about the broadcaster’s complicity would themselves make for a TV drama all on their own.
Whatever the various and certainly heated opinions, the fact remains that like the man and his crimes which form its subject matter, The Reckoning exists and can’t be put back in a box. The sheer extent and awfulness of Savile’s crimes were always going to be the subject of both grim fascination and howling outrage, and that he escaped without a public accounting for them in his lifetime is a stain that will continue to haunt the UK public and its national broadcaster for decades to come.
A proper reckoning of Savile and his crimes may never be possible but as Davies told GQ in an interview: “The power of celebrity, the fact that if you deliver for organisations, whether that’s a broadcaster, or funds for a hospital that desperately needs money, all of those things, that sort of untouchability, all of those things still exist. I think it’s really important and I don’t think we can ever truly reckon with it.”
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