1:32 PM CST, November 4, 2012
In 1971, when I was 8 years old and growing up in Rochdale in the North of England, I'd occasionally get to ride in the front seat of my parent's Hillman Imp. “Clunk Click,” my dad would say, “Every Trip.” I'd laugh at that. And he'd help me buckle up, even though it was legally optional.
My dad was quoting from one of the most famous public service announcements in British history, one made by the ebullient British television personality Sir James Wilson Vincent Savile, aka Jimmy Savile, now unmasked, one year after his death, as one of the most notorious sex offenders in British history. Or so a torrent of personal testimony from Savile's youthful alleged prey would suggest.
There have been so many claims made against him — many of which entail stories of abuse involving girls, barely in their teens — that Savile's estate was frozen Thursday by bankers who have realized that they will likely need to pay compensation. If Savile's knighthood had not officially died with him in 2011, that would likely be gone too. His name has been stripped from buildings. An honorary degree has been rescinded. Even his gravestone has been broken up and sent to a landfill.
As with the Jerry Sandusky affair at Penn State University — with which the Savile affair has many horrible similarities — there has been a great deal of fallout from what appears to have been a multi-decade sequence of abuse by a TV star, cloaked in philanthropic good works, who had his own keys allowing him access to children's hospitals and so much power that nobody dared take him on. There is the question of why his bosses and colleagues at the BBC, many of whose careers are now besmirched, did not confront him, given the repeated rumors of his attraction to young girls. As at Penn State, Savile's bosses did nothing for, it seems, much the same reasons: It would be messy; it wasn't entirely clear, if you didn't want it to be; it might upset bigger bosses; and the brand of the organization (both, strikingly, are nonprofits) would be hurt by the finding out of the truth.
If the Sandusky affair revealed much that was disturbing about the culture of college sports, the Savile affair has done the same for the British media, especially in those tightly controlled pre-Internet days, when personal brands were carefully protected, bad behavior was laughed off as good showbiz fun and outside reporters could easily be manipulated or purchased. Savile, it now is clear, was a master of such manipulations, maintaining distinct private and public personas with formidable care. So potent was his brand and so associated was it with the unassailable, he just had to dangle a few threats about charities and money he raises for children, and the nosy reporter would look elsewhere for those rumors about underage girls. Ordinary pop stars didn't raise all that cash for kids. Easier to bring them down.
But to understand how much the Savile affair has shocked Britain, it is necessary to understand Savile's place in the culture of 1970s Britain, especially for those of us who then were kids.
It is true that Savile's roots were as a disc jockey (he actually claimed in his autobiography to have been the first guy to use two turntables and a microphone, in the late 1940s), but I was too young to watch his early years on “Top of the Pops,” the seminal British music show. But I never missed an episode of “Clunk, Click,” the variety show that came out of that safety commercial, and, for most of the 1970s, I surely never missed “Jim'll Fix It,” Savile's wish-fulfillment show, which would come on just as my parents and I were eating our tea on our knees. There were only three channels in our universe. Pretty much every 11-year-old in the country would watch, or so it seemed to me.
As here in the U.S., the U.K. media universe is obviously far more fractured now. It is inconceivable to think of such a host becoming so nationally famous for doing such a seemingly conventional thing. But Savile had the whole country to himself back then, especially those who were too young to go out on a Saturday night.
In “Jim'll Fix It,” people (usually kids) would write in — sometimes addressing their letters to “Jim'll,” being as they thought that was the host's name — and ask him to fix some problem, such as their wanting to go somewhere or meet someone again or get to have a unique experience. I sent a letter or two, trying to get to Disneyland. For the BBC, of course, this was often an opportunity to promote another of its shows, such as “Dr. Who,” and, for the corporations that “helped out,” a hugely high-profile chance to place their products on a broadcaster that carried no advertising. But you don't understand that as a kid. As a kid, you just see people getting their dreams answered.
Savile, whose outlandish personality included a taste for fat cigars, numerous catchphrases and chest hairs that poked through his broad collared shirts, was like a favorite uncle, much cooler than your parents and with the ability to solve anything. I remember contrasting him with my own uncle who, it seems, could not fix anything, including himself. And he certainly didn't have the famous “Star Trek”-like chair in which Savile would sit, as if waving a pre-Harry Potter wand and sending sick kids to meet Mickey Mouse. By cloaking himself in children's charities and hospitals, Savile achieved two things at once. He got access to vulnerable young people and made himself impervious to critics.
Looking back from this distance, you can see how carefully Savile negotiated this space — accessible but powerful, outrageous but benign, outre but family-friendly, a kids' advocate in a way that left him all the room he needed to do whatever he wanted. As Malcolm Gladwell outlined so well in a recent New Yorker article, sexual predators are often highly skilled at what they do and so very difficult to spot, but one clue is when they put themselves constantly in the company of children. I only knew Savile from the TV show (although I did see him once, when I was interning at a radio station in Manchester). Still, to a viewer's eye, Savile seemed like he came with all things you want an adult to come with (treats, power and affection) without the monochromatic dimension of conventional adults, who kept stifling you with rules. It was no coincidence that Savile was picked to get a nation to wear a seat belt.
To put all this together, most of us back then wished Jimmy Savile was our dad.
Thankfully, I had a much better dad than Jimmy Savile, one who I've always been able to trust and who, despite his lack of flash and stubborn refusal to fix some things I thought needed fixing, didn't obfuscate his true self to satisfy his own appetites. There are many lessons in this tawdry, depressing business for old Savile fans, I suppose. One useful start is to beware the broadly smiling salesman, even if he seems to be peddling an intoxicating mix of goodness and desire, and pay closer attention to the hand that's really fixing your seat belt.
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