As a shy, retiring 14-year-old, occasionally I’d be goaded by bigger, older kids into wagging off school at lunchtimes and bussing it down to the Plaza dancehall, in city-centre Manchester, for a jive and the chance to chat up real, live girls (ours was an all-boys school, by the way).
Frankly, haunted by adolescent insecurities, I wasn’t much good at either. Manfully, though, I tried to appear hip – ‘cool’ still meant ‘a tad on the cold side’ in those days – but confess I was mainly a wallflower, hiding behind a carton of Kiora orange squash and chain-smoking Woodbines.
One day the manager/DJ spotted me and said, ‘Go on, get stuck in there, kid, and pick yerself a bird. They’re all crying out to drop their knickers, ‘cos I know that’s why they there ‘ere.’
It was probably sage advice from this mature, outrageous extrovert, a legend in his own ballroom. So I grabbed my school blazer from the cloakroom and ran like the wind.
That was the only time I met Jimmy Savile. But I was unsurprised he went on to forge a unique showbiz niche, hosting Top of the Pops and Jim’ll Fix It.
Years on, as a Fleet Street journalist, as much as Savile was feted – especially for an overarching compulsion to do good works – we hacks often pondered what lay behind the clownish veneer of lank, blond tresses, Churchillian cigar, garish tracksuits and loony, yodelling Savile-speak, immortalised by such catchphrases as: ‘How about that, then, guys and gals’, ‘as it ‘appens’ and ‘goodness gracious’.
That he was a conundrum, an exceedingly private man, a confirmed bachelor living with his ailing, devoutly-Catholic mother – ‘The Duchess’, as he unfailing referred to her – in Leeds, only honed media appetites to peel away the mask.Unless it was in his rapacious quest for publicity, he rarely appeared with women, though he claimed in his autobiography he made many conquests…‘on trains and, with apologies to the Hit Parade, boats and planes (I am a member of the 40,000 ft club) and bushes and fields, corridors, doorways, floors, chairs, slag heaps, desks and probably everything except the celebrated chandelier and ironing board.’
It punctured speculation he was a closet gay. But still we mused if not that, was there some darker secret lurking beneath that made him shun in-depth interviews?
In his 84 years he probably gave only two of any merit. One, with Dr. Anthony Clare, as part of the In the Psychiatrist’s Chair series, revealed Savile to be ‘a man without feelings’.
The other was a ghastly insight by Louis Theroux, in 2000, later voted one of the top 50 documentaries of all time. When Louis Met Jimmy scratched deep below the surface and what emerged was a grotesque portrait of an ageing, obsessive weirdo – Savile was 73 at the time – who rarely socialised and kept his late mum’s clothes impeccably clean and hung in the wardrobe of her bedroom that was his shrine to her.
Savile, though, was nothing if not clever. He rarely raised his head over the parapet of controversy and protected his image ruthlessly.
But – in ITV’s documentary, Exposure: The Other Side of Jimmy Savile, aired earlier this month – the veteran DJ defended paedophile pop star Gary Glitter, saying. ‘He just watched a few dodgy films and was only vilified because he was a celebrity. It were [sic] for his own gratification. Whether it was right or wrong is up to him as a person.’
Glitter was jailed for four months in 1999 for downloading 4,000 images of children and then deported from Vietnam for assaulting two girls aged 10 and 11 in 2008.
The programme also featured several women who claim they were molested – in one case raped – by Savile. Another was said to have been raped at the age of 14 by the star in his dressing room at BBC Television Centre in 1974, while others said he rewarded them with cigarettes and tickets to his shows if they performed sex acts on him in his Rolls-Royce.
In 2007 Savile was interviewed by police investigating an allegation of indecent assault in the 1970s at the now-defunct Duncroft Approved School for Girls, near Staines, Surrey, where he was a regular visitor. The case was dropped for insufficient evidence.
Then, in March 2008, Savile started legal proceedings against The Sun for linking him to the child abuse scandal at the notorious Haut de la Garenne children’s home in Jersey.
Initially, Savile denied ever visiting the place, but later admitted it, following the publication of a photograph showing him at the home surrounded by children. The local police said in 2008 an allegation of an indecent assault by Savile there in the 1970s had been investigated, but again there’d been insufficient evidence to proceed.
There were also media claims Savile carried out indecent assaults on a nine-year-old girl and her sister, aged 11, in 1971 at Haut de la Garenne, but no prosecutions followed.
However, the questions many now ask are: Even given his laudable support for worthy causes, what was Savile doing visiting homes for vulnerable children and were his paymasters at the BBC, where he was one of their most bankable stars, taking allegations of his potential child abuse seriously? They claim they did.
But Esther Rantzen, the former BBC presenter and founder of the ChildLine child-protection charity, notes, ‘Maybe it was just the fact that Jimmy knew everybody. We made him into the Jimmy Savile who was untouchable, who nobody could criticize.’
After Savile’s death, aged 84, in October, 2011, more women – now middle-aged and former children’s home residents – have found the courage to come forward and insist that, as under-aged girls, they’d been sexually abused by the veteran DJ and some had been ‘shared’ amongst a small coterie of his showbiz friends.
A common denominator in paedophile rings (like the one involving nine, jailed Asian men in Heywood) is that they groom susceptible teenage girls as sex slaves and pass them round, knowing the kids will be too intimidated to talk or the authorities won’t take their complaints seriously.
So was Savile following a similar pattern in manipulating and sexually abusing juvenile females over a long period of time, confident his power and status at the BBC would protect him?
One claimed she’d been to an orgy in Savile’s Broadcasting House dressing-room, where Glitter allegedly raped one girl and a star, who cannot be named for legal reasons, molested another.
What further places the Beeb in the eye of the gathering Savile sex-abuse storm is that a Newsnight investigation of him, after his death, was shelved for ‘editorial reasons’. This seems entirely out of character for the channel’s flagship news show, though a spokesman insists the story couldn’t be substantiated.
Naturally, there are those who say it is a gross injustice to denigrate a man, famed for his charitable deeds, posthumously, when he’s no longer here to defend himself.
Conversely, a growing number of women are crying out that Sir Jimmy Savile OBE – and others in his circle – did them incalculable, psychological and sexual harm when they were defenseless, vulnerable children in local authority care.
And their plaintive voices deserved to be heard.