Nathan Rabin's Happy Place Literature Society: In Plain Sight: The Life and Lies of Jimmy Savile
There’s no one quite like Jimmy Savile, the disgraced radio and television personality who was feted in his native England as a living saint before it became apparent he was actually a monster. It’s good that Jimmy Savile was unique, because one Jimmy Savile was already one too many, as the dozens, if not hundreds of children, teenagers and adults he molested and raped could attest.
Yet if Savile was a true British original, his story echoes those of other disgraced celebrities who committed themselves equally to both good and evil, and who were protected by the sometimes malevolent interconnected forces of money, power and fame. Like Lance Armstrong, Savile became so synonymous with charity and fundraising that he was able to make attacks on his deplorable personal predilections seem like an attack on philanthropy itself.
Also like Armstrong, Savile hid behind his charitable endeavors. They became a smokescreen to distract from his horrific crimes. As with Armstrong, Saville devoted much of his life to seemingly selfless charity work, despite being closer, personality-wise, to a sociopath than an altruist. The great public good Armstrong and Saville did made it easier for them to commit even greater evil. For Armstrong, the trophies he won and the money he raised made it easier to bully and terrorize teammates and competitors, and to cheat flagrantly. Saville’s very public work for hospitals and disadvantaged young people similarly made it possible for him to use those same institutions as a personal harem full of vulnerable teenaged and pre-teen girls (and boys as well, though the book does not go into that side of Savile’s crimes, perhaps because’s it’s already so long and intense) too terrified of Saville’s enormous power to speak out after he sexually assaulted them.
Saville’s double life as a public saint and private devil similarly recalls the life and crimes of Bill Cosby but on a professional level at least, the American celebrity Saville resembled most is Dick Clark. Like Clark, Saville had an intuitive genius for understanding the needs and desires of young people and the business savvy to transform that gift into a lasting, lucrative and sustainable business.
But where Clark became a legend by being smooth and ingratiating, professional and slick, Saville was always regarded as a bit of a creep, but a theoretically lovable one. With his bug eyes and hawk-like beak, Savile looked more than a little like a white haired Marty Feldman. The cartoonish and flamboyant Saville was forever clutching a cigar leeringly and his manic banter was full of randy innuendos about teenaged girls. Like Michael Jackson, Saville fit the profile of the kind of rich, debauched eccentric who would take liberties with the children they surrounded themselves with to such an extent that people somehow assumed he couldn’t possibly be an abuser.
People imagined that if Saville were a child molester, then he would at least have the decency to make more of an effort to hide his criminal tastes. It was a crazy Catch 22 that allowed Saville to constantly drop winking hints about his true nature (including a memorable joint TV appearance with fellow pedophile Gary Glitter where the two men “jokingly” divvied up which teenaged girls in the studio audience they’d be taking home) while remaining forever out of reach of a law enforcement establishment more interested in honoring Saville than in investigating him.
Saville had lived several lives by the time he became a top radio and television personality. He was a coal miner, a competitive biker and a dancehall impresario but it was as a radio and television personality that he rose to extraordinary fame and power. Saville presented himself as a randy oddball with a heart of gold, a consummate English character whose antics were strange but harmless.
Hospitals and homes for troubled girls were so in awe of Saville’s power and money that they literally gave him the keys to their establishments and total freedom, despite his lack of educational or medical credentials. As Saville’s fame grows and he becomes something approaching a national hero as the star of Jim’ll Fix It, a smash hit about Saville and his TV cohorts making the dreams of children come true, his awful power within these institutions grew as well.
Like almost every other factor of his life, Jim’ll Fix It afforded Saville extensive access to the kinds of children and early teenagers he was sexually attracted to. Though his formal education ended early, Saville possessed a genius-level I.Q and Davies suggests that Saville was in fact something of an evil genius, a real-life super villain.
In his epic takedown of Saville (566 paperback pages before footnotes), Davies alternates between a chronological exploration of how Saville operated and more intimate, personal passages rooted in a series of interviews the author conducted with Saville late in his life. As a subject, Davies finds Saville deeply unnerving but also pathetic. Saville comes off as a sad old man, a leering geezer spouting the same old randy canned lines to a public that once worshiped him but later saw him as an oblivious dinosaur because he was an oblivious dinosaur. There’s a Sunset Boulevard quality to these exchanges between a sad old lion and a curious young scribe. Saville’s secret life wasn’t publicly exposed until after he died but there’s a sense here that while Saville was never punished legally, the emptiness and desperation of his final years constituted a form of psychological punishment.
In Plain Sight is scathing yet weirdly empathetic in its depiction of Saville, a man devoid of empathy himself, but in Davies’ account at least, strangely pitiable in his infernal loneliness and inability to experience genuine human emotions beyond lust, greed and anger. But it is even more scathing as an indictment of an entire society willing to look the other way rather than confront evil in their midst. Davies argues that Saville didn’t just groom vulnerable children and their gullible parents, he groomed huge segments of society and ultimately an entire nation that didn’t realize Saville wasn’t the selfless hero of the poor and disenfranchised he pretended to be until it was much too late and the only thing they could do, really, was dig up his fancy grave of distinction and move him into an unmarked grave unknown to the public, and consequently less likely to be desecrated. Hell, after reading this angry page-turner I had half a mind to fly to England for the sole purpose of urinating on Saville’s grave. He brings that out in people. If Saville fooled the public, it was partially because the public wanted to be fooled. They wanted to hold onto their comforting, soothing conception of Saville as an unlikely hero, particularly since it’s so rooted in the earnest, intense and sometimes defensive emotions of childhood nostalgia. A similar dynamic was at play with Cosby, before the sheer volume and consistency of the evidence against him (also like Saville) made it impossible to deny the reality of his crimes.
We like to imagine that if we were made aware of something as unforgivable as epidemic child molestation and rape, we’d do everything in our power to stop it. Yet much of Great Britain either knew, or strongly suspected, that the eccentric pop icon was voracious and unyielding in his sexual pursuit of young teenaged girls, and that somehow was never anywhere near enough to stop Savile. It was an open secret at the BBC, where he used tapings of his various hit shows to assault vulnerable women, and at hospitals where nurses and patients alike knew well enough to keep an eye out for their celebrity visitor and his wandering hands and adventurous tongue.
Yet the people in Saville’s life invariably found reasons not to try to stop him. It would create too many problems at work, or they were worried that no one would believe them. On that end, they were largely correct. In Plain Sight is full of heartbreaking accounts of girls who mustered up the courage to come forward and report being sexually violated, only to have their stories ignored or actively denied by people in power, who often had pragmatic reasons to protect Saville, who was not subtle about using fear and bribes to get what he wanted. Saville was “investigated” repeatedly in his lifetime, but his influential friends in law enforcement ensured that Saville never came close to being punished. He was above the law, a product in no small part of his ongoing, extraordinarily successful campaign to seduce police into doing his bidding.
Potential whistleblowers were understandably terrified of Saville’s ruthless and well-compensated lawyers, or believed, not without reason, that his connections to organized crime or the police would both protect him and harm the people making allegations. Saville’s ties went straight to the top. Fawning admirer Margaret Thatcher actively campaigned for Saville to become a Knight for years before succeeding in making randy Jimmy Savile into distinguished, respectable Sir James Savile. Prince Charles saw Saville as a mentor figure and in the kind of insane detail that characterized Saville’s too-strange-for-fiction life, Saville was somehow called upon to act as a makeshift marriage counselor for Prince Charles and Princess Di despite Saville priding himself on not having serious romantic relationships as an adult. Savile repeatedly quipped that marriage and all serious longterm romantic relationships caused “brain damage”, which is exactly the kind of quip Savile filled his banter with that seemed juvenile and immature yet harmless at the time, but now provides insight into how Savile saw relationships not based entirely on pragmatic calculation and co-dependency.
Late in the book, and before Saville had been exposed as a pedophile and rapist, Davies talks to a proud Saville protege and radio personality named Ray Teret who gushes about the randy innocence of the 1960s, when he and his over-sexed mentor had their pick of gorgeous young woman, but in a playful, fun and non-criminal fashion. Teret proudly describes himself as being his hero’s clone and for a brief moment, it seems like we’ll be transported back to the rare segment of Saville’s past that isn’t full of darkness and depravity, lies and terrible psychological damage.
That brief flash of would-be innocence proves a predictable illusion, however, and we learn that Teret really did take after his boss and hero in that he also was a longtime sexual predator who in 2014 was accused of an astonishing 18 cases of rape, including one where Teret and the now dead Saville were both implicated. Unlike the more powerful and connected Savile, Teret was convicted and will most likely spend his remaining life in jail. Liz Dux, an attorney for 169 of Savile’s victims (that’s right, 169), said “This is the closest the victims of Jimmy Savile will get to a conviction against their attacker - they will take some comfort from the verdict.”
I hope Savile’s countless victims derive some comfort from one of Saville’s proteges being convicted but I fear it’s cold comfort considering that Savile died not only a free man, but a national hero whose death was practically a national holiday. The crafty bastard pulled one hell of a con job on the world, one we didn’t figure out until he was cold in the ground and somewhere deep in the bowels of hell. So while this particular psychopath might be gone, the institutional structures and dynamics that allow powerful, wealthy men to abuse, use and exploit the powerless remain in place, making the possibility of more cases like this seem terrifyingly likely, if not downright inevitable.
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