Friday, November 2, 2012


If the scandal brewing in Britain over the late TV host Jimmy Savile teaches us anything - and I'd like to hope that some lessons will be learned from it, but let's wait and see - it's that a common language and shared history are no guarantee that it's possible to understand another country's taste or discernment. Try to picture what a creepy, abusive, shameless pederast would look like, and tell me that your mental image doesn't match this one:

I didn't grow up with Jimmy Savile on TV every week - every day, if you include his very high profile as a celebrity and "philanthropist," not to mention his frequent appearance in public service ad campaigns - so I wasn't prepared for the first glimpses I would later get of him, in British music documentaries and on YouTube videos, introducing some band or another while leering at the young dancers uncomfortably bookending him in the shot. There he'd be with his too-tight t-shirts, lank white fringe and cigar, mugging ferociously and looking like someone's unmarried uncle, the one who always made a blaring entrance that even young kids would notice prompted barely disguised winces and eye-rolling glances among the adults.

The details of Savile's crimes are still emerging, with what might turn out to be hundreds of victims over at least four decades, but the real scandal - since nobody, really, is all that surprised by the truth about Savile - is that he was protected by his employers at the BBC, and a corporate culture that regarded his predilections  and those of other men there, as something that reflected badly not on Savile, but on anyone who might have the audacity to complain.

The general attitude that "that's just Jimmy" wasn't just the rule at the BBC, but seems to have become a public truism. Back at the height of their fame, the Nolan Sisters did Top of the Pops, where Savile plied his usual charm on 14-year-old Coleen Nolan. It was worth mentioning in an ITV documentary about the group made a few years ago, as part of a segment where they recall their occasionally shabby treatment at the BBC, and Coleen revisited it recently while appearing on Alan Titchmarsh's chat show:

Nolan recalls Savile's on-camera groping, saying that "in the '70s and certainly the early '80s you didn't talk about it. Everything is so much more in the open now." This sentiment has evolved to the point where writers like the Telegraph's Iain Martin are wondering whether we might as well put the whole of the '70s on trial, since the exploitation of young people seems, in the light of scandals like the Savile affair, to have been part of the zeitgeist of the era.

Martin's thesis is that in the wholesale pursuit of more freedom - political, artistic, cultural, emotional and sexual - we made it possible for anyone, regardless of their proclivities, to pursue the object of their desire, regardless of the object or the outcome:
The great liberal myth of that period is that ever greater freedom naturally has positive effects and produces progress. Bring down all the barriers – on sex, drugs and, yes, rock 'n' roll – and you increase the scope for human happiness. Yet this assumes that all those who stand to benefit have good motives. To Jimmy Savile, and some other bad people, the BBC's rampant liberalism turned out to be just one giant opportunity to do harm to others who should have been protected.
It's a tidy thesis, containing the mistakes and excesses of the period within a finite time frame that happens to encompass the long zenith of Savile's career and celebrity. Martin even goes so far as to let us consider reconsidering the career of someone who was famous in England for almost exactly the same span of Savile's heyday - public morality crusader Mary Whitehouse:

Didn't she warn that the liberal revolution would blur the lines between childhood and adulthood, and that the obsessive sexualisation of our culture was problematic? Was she too voracious in her campaign, making her easy for smart arses to caricature? Of course, but more than forty years on – surveying the fetid swamp in which Jimmy Savile was permitted to operate – it is surely worth recognising that she had a point.
Whitehouse was, of course, to the permissive society what Enoch Powell was to immigration - a disapproving and scolding figure both reviled and ridiculed by forward-thinking people. Whitehouse even had the dubious honour of being attacked in a Pink Floyd song. Like Powell, she might have been proved right in the long run - even the BBC has been willing to admit that Powell's warnings about immigration have borne fruit - but that doesn't mean that someone like Whitehouse or Powell wouldn't be even more reviled today than forty years ago, so completely have their adversaries captured the high ground.

We might even get some comfort in thinking that, with our children more carefully coddled and overseen now than at any time in generations, the likelihood of another Jimmy Savile getting their clammy hands on them has been considerably diminished. We might also, I think, be fooling ourselves.

Just after the Telegraph printed Martin's piece, the London Review of Books published "Light Entertainment," a long essay by Andrew O'Hagan on the post-war, pre-Savile BBC that explained how Savile, so patently unsavoury and unabashed about his tastes, was able to flourish in a corporate culture that, at least in the '50s and early '60s, was considered essentially and even aggressively stodgy and conservative. He writes about men like Lionel Gamlin, a BBC Radio presenter who was, in O'Hagan's words, "a stalwart of light entertainment broadcasting in the 1950s."

He was also a sexual predator, of the rumpled, eccentric type that finds a place where there are lots of young people looking for a chance to get ahead in the world, some of whom might be persuaded to trade something that they seem to have in excess - youth, looks, an awkward but urgent sexual drive - to an older person with access to, well, access. In one paragraph, O'Hagan paints a picture of the sort of world glimpsed in movies like The Killing of Sister George and books by people like Joe Orton:
A friend of Gamlin’s remembers going to see him in a flat in All Souls Place in the 1950s, just round the corner from Broadcasting House. A man from Light Entertainment used the flat during the working week and Gamlin often stayed there with young boys. It was clear to the friend that both men were renting the boys, and that the boys were young: ‘They were boys with the kind of good looks that would seem very lewd in a woman.’ He also remembers going for a coffee with one of the boys from the flat. ‘The boy was nice,’ he said, ‘very young. He thought he might get a job or something of that sort. And it was clear the men were using him for sex. Broadcasting House was well stocked with men interested in sleeping with young boys. It was a milieu back then. And people who sought to be sexual predators knew that. It wasn’t spoken about.’
This brief, vivid scene just precedes probably the most devastating summary of the BBC's corporate culture I've read during these long weeks of hand-wringing in the British press over the Savile affair:
The BBC isn’t the Catholic Church, but it has its own ideals and traditions, which cause people to pause before naming the unwise acts that have been performed on its premises. Perhaps more than any church, the BBC continues to be a powerhouse of virtue, of intelligence and tolerance, but it is now suffering a kind of ecclesiastical terror at its own fallibility.
Everything about the Savile scandal is appalling to contemplate, but as a Catholic, there is some kind of grainy, grisly pleasure in seeing a liberal bastion like the BBC forced to contemplate the same sort of moral and existential crisis that it was so eager to chronicle as it convulsed the Church.

Beyond this, however, O'Hagan's piece shows how a clammy libertinism and an informal network of pederasts found a place at the BBC years before the long shadow of Lord Reith was banished by modish, progressive-minded managers like Hugh Carlton Greene. If it could find a way to thrive in the days of rationing and the Suez Crisis, then flourish when the governors came off in the frenzied lunge for "personal freedom" apparently ushered in by Beatlemania (or so it's understood,) then there's no reason to imagine that men like Savile, prudently chastened and cautious, aren't still occupying offices and drawing salaries there now.

Every parent does damage control in their own mind when they start to loosen their grip on their kids and send them out into the world, imagining, even if just briefly, how the ambition they hope to have instilled in their child might combine with the youth that's briefly their gift to make them a target for an adult skilled in exploiting the former to grab a piece of the latter. The boiling outrage about Jimmy Savile is fueled by an unsteady ratio of righteous outrage and a prurience that comes off as hyperbolic in its call for punishment, mostly because it's a shameful reaction to the dulled sensibilities that let Savile hide in plain sight for so very long.

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