We do love our pantomime villains – Fred West, Abu Hamza, Myra Hindley, Osama Bin Laden – individuals whose wickedness eclipses our own petty misdemeanours. No matter how selfish, dishonest or cruel we may have been, it feels good to be able to point at some legendary monster, and say ‘Compared to that, I am innocent’.
And an even greater pleasure is to witness the downfall of some saintly figure, who it turns out, has managed to deceive the whole world with a mask of virtue. The ultimate example of this must be the late Jimmy Savile, pop Disc Jockey, TV presenter and charity fundraiser; this is the man who was given two knighthoods – one by the UK Government, the other by the Roman Catholic Church.
But now, a year after his death, Savile has been accused of abusing dozens of women who encountered him during their childhood years. The newspapers, once so lavish with their praise for Jimmy, have eagerly embraced this drama and carry long interviews with the alleged victims. Some people bravely point out that there is no evidence to support any of the claims; others remind us that Savile was a highly influential character whose friends included Prince Charles and Margaret Thatcher. If anyone had made accusations against him while alive, he would have enlisted the finest legal heavyweights (Carman QC) to defend him. Perhaps it is difficult to accept that one individual can embody both admirable and vile character traits.
One of the more lurid claims in recent news articles is the story that Savile was interviewed by police investigating the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ case in the late seventies. In her book Misogynies Joan Smith gives Peter Sutcliffe a whole chapter, pointing out that the police acted more like his accomplices than adversaries. The West Yorkshire police were convinced that the killer was not a native of Yorkshire, but a Geordie; those damn foreigners could be capable of any wickedness. But even so, the female victims were dismissed as being prostitutes and therefore deserving of their grisly end. One of Sutcliffe’s victims was a respectable teenage girl; however, she didn’t fit the pattern constructed (confected?) by detectives, and therefore was excluded from the investigation. Likewise, a woman from Preston who was murdered in a savage attack was added to the roll call of Ripper victims simply because she was fond of drugs and had worked as a prostitute. And Savile? Jimmy Savile was a local, national, global hero who had provided high-octane support to numerous local charities and the Stoke Mandeville hospital. Not only that, he was a Yorkshireman; fine, upstanding, wholesome, incapable of any cruelty or wickedness; so when the police claim that he was interviewed as a suspect in this case, I snort with disbelief.
But perhaps in this matter we overlook the prevailing culture of the 1970s: gay people were regularly mocked in popular sitcoms (On The Buses; Man About The House) and effeminate caricatures (Larry Grayson, John Inman, even the hapless Frank Spencer) were considered suitable for family entertainment. In this environment, it is likely that employees of the BBC would be encouraged to avoid anything suggestive of homosexuality; and, in keeping with this, cheeky-chappie bottom-pinching lechery would have gained automatic approval. The idea of Jimmy – and most other male TV stars – leering at young girls would have appeared perfectly normal; indeed, it was so normal it would have gone unnoticed.