Saturday, 29 October 2011

Sir James Savile OBE KCSG 1926-2011

Born into a television-watching household of the 1970s, I was aware of Jimmy Savile from a very early age, presenting (I think) Clunk-Click, but have clearer memories of Jim'll Fix It. I never particularly warmed to Jimmy Savile as a presenter - there was something too obviously artificial about his persona, an aggressively flamboyant projection of celebrity, self-confident almost to the point of indifference to how he was received, but also gripped by a dangerous nervous excitement. There was something oddly Victorian about Jim'll Fix It. Its treatment of children having their wishes granted had a sentimental edge reminiscent of those nineteenth-century novels about childhood innocence and hardship, which might have presented themseles as addressed to children, but which found their real audience in adults. There was something Victorian about Jimmy Savile's life story too, though it took turns which could only have happened in the mid-twentieth century, in the twin explosions of music-led youth culture and broadcasting.

Beneath what one of his former Radio 1 colleagues called his 'carapace' were glimpses of someone who had overcome early vulnerabilities by finding that the right mode of attack was the best form of defence. Poverty and disability were eliminated through the deployment of apparently unselfconscious self-caricature, from the palm-kissing with which women who caught his eye at dance halls were greeted, to the display of malnourished legs seen recently on a repeat of a 1976 Top of the Pops. Savile draped himself langourously across the set, his orange T-shirt, unnaturally brown hair and white shorts dressing him as the incarnation of that memorably hot summer through which Abba's 'Dancing Queen' celebrated the bittersweet vigour of teenage disco, but Savile dared the audience to think that he had been shrivelled in the heat. He conveyed this through the wild stare of a man who had overcome the would-be toughs in northern ballrooms and tied them up where they could cause no harm, while the music played on from his double turntable and the night's booked bands, of no interest to the hit parade-focused teenagers, no doubt spent the cash Savile had placed in their pockets in some corner far away where they couldn't spoil the party.

Rolling news outlets, focused on the immediate, seemed to have trouble placing Savile. Early reports of his death described him as an 'actor' - but the only part he played was Jimmy Savile. Savile's enjoyment of his wealth and the ostentation of his charity work attracted the mockery of the succeeding generation in particular, but there was no great insight offered into Savile by the sneers of the Smashy and Nicey era. Just over a decade after he had broken out of the dance halls (though being senior presenter across the Mecca chain was hardly obscurity), Savile's persona had already become bound up with public service. His Clunk-Click entertainment series took its title from the campaign Savile fronted to promote seatbelt use in cars, in the days before it was compulsory. His next major advertising campaign was for British Rail, impressing upon ITV viewers that this was the age... 'of the train!' In the 1980s scarcely a month seemed to go by without Jimmy Savile running another marathon, speaking about the work of Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire or St James's in Leeds. A self-promoter's charity involves annexing the objects of his concern to his own public image, but there seems to have been much that Savile did for his hospitals which passed below the media radar, and his leadership of the taskforce which reformed Broadmoor was praised this evening by a former chief executive of the secure mental hospital.

Venerable as a disc jockey he was. In being invited back to Top of the Pops to close the programme down in 2006, the BBC acknowledged that in 1964 they had been nowhere near the heart of what was hip and trend, and needed a star of Radio Luxembourg, with added northern authenticity, to present their new television chart show and lend the corporation some credibility. Radio 1, three years later, relied heavily on newer talent from the silenced pirate ships, but Savile was still there, well into the 1980s; in some undefined, unexplorable way he had shaped the course of the British pop music scene.
Venerable in another way he may become. Jimmy Savile's devout Catholicism has been commented upon. Despite wild speculation, his celibacy may well have been more consistent and pursued more wholeheartedly than that of many ordained priests. It would not be at all surprising if at some stage there were reports of miracles attributed to him. It would be somehow appropriate if a gold track suit, a gimmick-laden chair, and the remains of cigars were to become holy relics.

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