British deejay and television host Jimmy Savile was a popular and enduring public figure. He has made the news twice recently: in 2011 he died, prompting friendly and generous obituaries for his colorful personality and extensive charitable work, especially with children. Now, it has been discovered that he used his position to be one of the worst serial pedophiles in modern history. Worse, it seems that at least some of his colleagues in the BBC were aware of this and a wider culture of sexual harassment and misogyny, yet did nothing about it.
I’ve been interested in Savile for quite a while, even before his death and recent vilification. Author of a genial and energetic autobiography in 1974, he received an OBE two years before, and was knighted in 1990. In an unfortunate move, the Roman Catholic Church also made him a knight commander in the Order of Saint Gregory the Great – a senior honour in the papal system. In his autobiography, he talks at some length about his experience of going to Buckingham Palace to receive his OBE from the hand of the Queen Mother – it was through this that I first came across him, and I was immediately struck by his style and candidness in describing the investiture (which was precisely what I was looking for).
His investiture served as the climax and the conclusion of his autobiography. This colorful memoir featured his postnominal letters prominently after his name on the front cover. While he acknowledged that his fast life (detailed energetically in other parts of the memoir) came ‘well, well down on God’s personal honours list and there are many people without medals up to whose shoulders I will never reach’, he was tremendously excited and comforted by the award ‘if only for one reason. Imagine being able to take your mother to Buckingham Palace for a [sic] lifelong recognition.’ Savile opened the letter from the Prime Minister one night at 2:30am at his home in Leeds, after arriving back from another part of the country. He was so excited that he telephoned his brother (who was unappreciative), then spent the rest of the night working off his excitement by wheeling around gurneys at the local hospital where he volunteered. The announcement itself and subsequent congratulations from friends and colleagues produced ‘embarrassment, guilt, pride and a mild form of agoraphobia’. Savile was torn between a desire to broadcast to the world that he would soon be OBE, and the secrecy demanded by the Prime Minister’s letter.
Savile called the day of the investiture itself ‘our palace day’, which he shared with his mother (whom he called ‘Duchess’) and his porter friend from the hospital, named ‘Joe’. The Duchess was ‘unbelieving’, and Joe treated the ceremony as if it were entirely in recognition of Savile himself. Savile portrayed his mother and friend as being in total awe, both bewildering and ‘like winning the pools’. By displacing part of the awe and sense of being overwhelmed onto his less worldly guests, Savile did present himself as being more sophisticated and less awed by the experience, but nonetheless he was clearly very impressed by the whole occasion. The ceremony was ‘of the order of magnificence that only 1,000 years of tradition could sustain’. After the ceremony and a celebratory lunch organized by Edward Lewis, a Decca Records executive, Savile proceeded to a dance hall in Croydon, where, still in his morning dress, and wearing his medal, he ‘weaved the spell over 2,000 teen-types’.
So much of this reads differently now. Take this passage, from when Savile first learned of his OBE:
The announcing of the honours list meant many headlines for me, and congratulations poured in from all over the world. At this point let me dwell on this award-getting business. Embarrassment, guilt, pride and a mild form of agoraphobia are the first feelings. Embarrassment because we are really all guilty but we happen to live in an odd society structure. Guilt because we know of many who deserve more than us. Pride, in its mildest sense, because most of human achievements are a little prideful, and a mild form of agoraphobia because all who know you, and in my case it was millions, have something to say about it so that takes you back to the start, of being slightly embarrassed.
Savile seems to have hidden in plain sight. He made it no secret that he was a bit of a sinner, who felt guilt, and people simply assumed that he was being cute about his rock and roll lifestyle. Isn’t he adorable, the little misbehaving scamp? Now, his ‘guilt’ takes on a more sinister note. In fact, the whole world of sixties and seventies rock and roll culture appears in a more sinister light with these revelation. As many others have pointed out, many famous bands of the era, including the Rolling Stones, sang about sex with underage girls.
Savile was friends with royalty, politicians and senior figures in hospitals around the UK. His celebrity and his fame as a fundraiser protected him from allegations (which were made in his lifetime, but always hushed-up) of child abuse. In making him a hero and investing in him as a valuable asset to the promotion of good causes, the media, Buckingham Palace and politicians were complicit in his abuse. The rise of celebrity figures being used to raise money for charities (rather than donating it themselves) provides an easy way for them to claim cultural credibility and defend themselves against accusations of wrongdoing. This is a very good deal for them, as their fame is redoubled and their status transformed in the eyes of a public who want heroes: they become superhuman, outside the normal realm of human weakness and (to use a religious term) sin. Then when they fall, they become creatures of pure evil, which is also not quite right.
So many works of ancient wisdom literature – in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, the Qur’an, the Stoics, Plato… – enjoin us to be wary of those who ostentatiously give of their wealth, and to ourselves give in secret, with discretion and an eye to ourselves and not the world. Yet we crave heroes. We continue to mistake public honor, for all its artificiality, with private virtue. Can we learn from the recent downfalls of Savile, Jerry Sandusky and Lance Armstrong (whose crimes, while lesser, were covered up with a similar appeal to his charitable work)? The entire industry of celebrity fundraising is a dangerous trade where honour is mistaken for goodness, even as it serves as a smokescreen for something much worse.
Source: Jimmy Savile, As It Happens: Jimmy Savile, O.B.E.: His Autobiography (London: Barrie and Jenkins, 1974)