In many ways, Jimmy Savile’s persona was one of studied implausibility: shouting, heckling, making off-the-wall remarks, all while dressed in outlandish costumes and smoking outsized cigars.
But, as we have been learning these past few weeks, in all the ways that mattered – both to him and, sadly, to his victims – Jimmy Savile was very plausible indeed. Hiding in plain sight, often in a sea of children, and on primetime television, he would successfully evade exposure as a child abuser right up until his death.
Understandably, in seeking an explanation for this, the British media and public have turned on Savile’s main employer over the years, the BBC. This is only right, for that employer, funded by British taxpayers, did immense amounts to create, and then burnish, the myth of Savile as a harmless fool. Yet we know that many others were taken in as well, in their own right and in ways that were, at most, only partly the fault of the BBC. Hospitals, schools, and countless charities were among the duped, and so, too, were many, many government ministers.
The decision by Edwina Currie, no doubt acting on the advice of senior civil servants, to appoint Savile to a taskforce in charge of Broadmoor secure psychiatric hospital, in 1988, has already hit the headlines. Savile is also said, by some sources, to have spent every single Christmas at Chequers, while Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister. There is no justification for saying that Currie or Thatcher were part of a conspiracy. They, like the rest of us (I, too, watched Savile as I grew up and never supposed he was anything other than weird), were taken in. It was plausible implausibility at work. And conspiracies, if they existed at all, can only explain a fraction of what he was enabled to do.
I know this subject is a bit of a departure for my blog. In the Cabinet archives that have been released to date (up to and including 1982), Jimmy Savile’s name does not occur. But, nevertheless, I wanted to look a little deeper into Savile’s connections and encounters with government ministers over the years. It seems to me that it is a vital aspect of this story as a whole, a story which I, like many others, have found deeply troubling.
In short, it really does appear that virtually everyone who had dealings with the man, throughout the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and even the 2000s – Cabinet ministers included – was looking for ways to give Jimmy Savile access to children, or to praise him for his proximity to them. It wasn’t just that he was seen as an appropriate person. For decades he was depicted as, pretty well, the most appropriate person to help vulnerable children and adults in the whole of Britain. Imagine being one of his victims and trying to summon up the strength to battle against that monumental colossus of a reputation. Sad to say, but the praise and endorsements of elected politicians – though they were given innocently – undoubtedly contributed to what was a terrible, national misunderstanding.
The excerpts below have been put together using the searchable archives of the Times, Sunday Times, Guardian and Observer and Hansard, as well as books as cited. The list is by no means exhaustive. I offer it because, in addition to finding people and institutions to punish in the here and now, we need to think carefully about the nature of celebrity more generally (in our country and elsewhere – think of Jerry Sandusky in America). Celebrity can cloud our judgement, we know that. It can lead us to suspend that judgement, too. When that happens in cases like Savile’s, clearly it is a disaster.
28 Febuary, 1973. The Times. ‘Heath fund aids tax men’s children’s treat.’ ‘A cheque from the Prime Minister was pushed under the door of Mr William Tyzack’s Tottenham terrace home yesterday as a donation from the Edward Heath Charitable Trust to the London Taxi-Drivers’ Fund for Underprivileged Children. […] With its money the drivers’ fund will finance another outing to Southend for East End children. Mr Jimmy Savile, the disc jockey, will join about 300 children in a convoy of a hundred London taxis headed by Mr Tyzack, the fund’s secretary.’
21 November, 1979. The Guardian. ‘Spinal injuries centre wins cuts reprieve.’ ‘The internationally renowned National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville has been reprieved from further cuts under the Government’s public expenditure plans. The reduction of beds and services is to cease, Health Minister, Dr Gerard Vaughan, said yesterday […] However the centre will need a private cash appeal – headed by disc jockey Jimmy Savile and backed by the Minister – to remain open.’
24 January, 1980. The Guardian. ‘Minister stands back as hospital cash floods in. By Melanie Phillips.’ ‘The Health Minister, Dr Gerard Vaughan, and entertainer Jimmy Savile yesterday launched a £10 million hospital appeal. The cash is needed to rebuild the National Spinal Injury Centre at Stoke Mandeville […] The Government has said there is no public money available for the scheme and has welcomed Mr Savile’s appeal as an example of the “partnership” between Government and public that it is hoping to promote.’
21 October, 1981. The Times. ‘Reception.’ ‘The Earl of Snowdon, Patron of PHAB (physically handicapped and able bodied) and Mr Jimmy Savile (president) were hosts at a reception and dinner held at the Mount Royal Hotel yesterday to launch the charity’s silver jubilee celebration for 1982. Among the guests were: Mr Hugh Rossi, Minister of state for Social Security and the Disabled […].’
6 November, 1981. Hansard. Speech by Norman Fowler, Secretary of State for Social Services. ‘One outstanding example of what can be achieved when the National Health Service, the community and voluntary interests are working together towards a shared goal is the national appeal which Jimmy Savile is mounting for the rebuilding of the spinal injuries unit at Stoke Mandeville hospital.’
6 May, 1982. Excerpt from the diary of Auberon Waugh, quoted in The War Diaries, eds. Alan Taylor and Irene Taylor, 2005. ‘Mrs Thatcher should use this [i.e. the Falklands War] as a golden opportunity to blow up the huge grain silos in Northern Argentina, containing all the wheat intended for Russia. In fact, I was urging her to do this long before the Argentinians invaded. But nowadays she listens only to Ferdinand Mount and Jimmy Savile. I might as well babble of green fields.’
2 January, 1983. The Observer. ‘How Britannia Runs the Shop: The Thatcher Phenomenon. By Simon Hoggart.’ ‘In the evening there might be a reception at Downing Street. Whisked between official residences in official cars, Prime Ministers soon become sealed off from the real world and begin to place exaggerated store by their meetings with ordinary people, whether across a factory bench or a gin-and-tonic. But nobody, introduced to the Prime Minister, is going to start by attacking her. Reality soon begins to disappear […] Which is more real, which (if any) tells you more about the British people: a girl in a chocolate factory, mumbling politely into the fondants; Jimmy Savile, paying one of his frequent visits to Downing Street […] or a crowd of yelling demonstrators? ‘You see, they all go mad, they all start hearing voices,’ says an MP who has studied several Prime Ministers.”
2 January, 1989. The Guardian. ‘Savile helps 60 Broadmoor patients to move out.’ ‘Sixty patients at Broadmoor are to be transferred to less secure hospitals under a scheme developed by television presenter Jimmy Savile. A new management team was established at Broadmoor last year by the then junior health minister, Mrs Edwina Currie. Mr Savile, a voluntary helper at the hospital for 20 years, was recruited to the team’s task force. A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said: “It is fair to say Jimmy Savile can take a lot of credit for this. Broadmoor has existed for 125 years and a lot of the procedures there are outdated.”‘
28 March, 2004. The Sunday Times. ‘Tony’s secret is to be the perfect chump.’ ‘[…] Alan McGee, the man who discovered Oasis, described to me a toe-curling dinner at Chequers. McGee was keen to talk class war but found himself next to Sir Jimmy Savile and Dame Judie Dench.’
McGee’s own recollection of this event, quoted in T. C. W. Blanning, The Triumph of Music, 2010. ‘When we drove up to the house, there were SWAT teams everywhere: guys crawling around on the grass, with guns. He [Blair] answered the door wearing jeans, with a pint in his hand. We went in, and that was when it got totally fucking psychedelic. Judi Dench was there, a guy from Psion computers, that author, John O’Farrell… and Jimmy Savile. I introduced him to Kate [McGee’s wife], and he started kind of sucking her fingers. It was all totally weird.’