Thursday, 4 October 2012

Sir Jimmy and the yuckiness of kids' TV

Last night's dig into the strange life of Leeds-born Sir Jimmy Savile held no huge surprises by the time it was on air. This is partly because, as with any sensational TV expose these days, the contents of the programme had been leaked into the public consciousness and much discussed several days ahead of its broadcast. But that lack of a sudden shock impact notwithstanding, there was still something morbidly compelling about the sordid trudge through evidence supporting the contention that Savile was a prolific sexual abuser of young girls. Mark Williams-Thomas, a former police detective, spent nearly a year tracking down women who claim to have been abused by the late DJ, TV star and charity stalwart. Their testimony was a depressing litany of small, sad details. The dismal couplings in dressing rooms and camper vans. Quick fumbles, described as bewildering for the alleged objects of Savile's attentions as well as apparently brief and joyless for Savile himself. The finger in the anus. The quick wank. Horrible stuff.

But pre-broadcast spoilers did not seem to be the the sole cause of many viewers expressing a lack of surprise about the allegations being levelled at the late Sir Jimmy. After all, while yesterday's programme has added new evidence into the mix, rumours about Savile and paedophilia are not new. More than twelve years ago he was the subject of the first of Louis Theroux's series of When Louis Met documentary films. While that film did not really dig into any child abuse allegations, rumours of that nature were brought up when the Guardian's Simon Hattenstone interviewed Savile about Theroux's documentary:
"The press has dogged him for years, determined to pin some nastiness on him. Savile says they have failed miserably. Is he talking about the paedophile rumours? "Yes. Louis raised the subject. 'A lot of people think you're into little girls,' he said. 'No, I told him.' Well why did they think so? It could be that because I know all the pop stars. If a group of girls see me they will come round to ask me questions about their beloved because they know I'm the fella that's with them. From an outside point of view, they'll say 'Look at them young girls clambering round him'. They've got entirely the wrong context. If I said to any of them birds: 'I fancy giving you one', they'd be mortally horrified." He says he started telling people he couldn't stand children in order to deflect the rumours."
But Hattenstone apparently decided not to press his interviewee on the question of why the media would have wanted to pursue such a line of inquiry. This is a pity, because it could have led to led to an interesting discussion about a striking disjoint between Savile's portrayal of vigorous media interest in these dark rumours and what appears to be a truer picture of the late DJ actually being given a surprisingly easy ride. Writing in today's Telegraph, Neil Midgley notes that numerous people who worked with Savile at the BBC had been aware of gossip and rumours and that very little had ever been done in response. "That was the thread that made this programme so very chilling", observes Midgley. "I grew up in Leeds, and when I was a kid there were lurid playground rumours about Savile, which went far beyond suggestions of abuse of teenage girls. Last night’s programme not only got to the heart of direct allegations against Savile, but vividly posed the question: why was nothing ever done, when the rumours were so persistent?"

As those direct allegations unfolded on screen last night, an interesting set of responses was observable via Twitter. These came in the form of comments from people who had apparently not previously heard rumours about Savile being unhealthily interested in under-age girls. The drift of many such remarks was of people having always felt that there was just something rather creepy about the late presenter of iconic shows such as Jim'll Fix It and Top of the Pops. These comments will surely resonate for many. How about you? If you're old enough to have seen Sir Jimmy introducing the acts on TOTP or making kids' small dreams come true on a Saturday evening, what did you make of his eccentric image at the time?

No one who grew up on a telly diet of just three or four TV channels can have possibly avoided the sight and sound of Savile jangling his jewellery, yodelling tonelessly and trotting out his limited selection of tired catchphrases. Along the way, what feelings, if any, did the veteran entertainer inspire in you when he was on your prime time screen? Perhaps you admired his vigorous charity work. Fair enough. But even if you did, does it follow that you were also moved to develop any affection for the supposedly avuncular star of TV's teatime hits? The sense here at this is my england is that genuine affection for Savile's strikingly odd public persona was something rather rare, certainly on the part of young people. Wasn't he always just a weirdly irritating and unfunny character foisted upon children and teenagers by the people who ran the BBC? If you were at school in the seventies or eighties, did any of your contemporaries ever utter the words "I love Jimmy Savile" or "I'm a massive Jimmy Savile fan"? Did any of your classmates write Savile's name on a pencil case or on the back of an exercise book? It seems unlikely that you can remember anyone doing so, right? 

Looking back at the children's television of the past through the jaded prism of adult experience, it now feels like the programming very often featured peculiarly repellent creatures whose appeal to kids existed only in the misguided imagination of adults commissioning the shows. How else can we account for children's telly providing a source of income for the likes of Timmy Mallett,  Christopher Biggins and the Chuckle Brothers?

Observing that irriatating oddballs like these do not actually meet with the genuine approval of kids is nothing new. Mallett, it is widely assumed, is the inspiration for Des Kaye, a character played by David Walliams in the first series of Little Britain. Kaye, a failed children's TV host reduced to working in a DIY store, is shown failing to establish empathy with his erstwhile target audience:

In the Little Britain radio series which pre-dates the more popular TV version, Kaye's back story includes mention of him being fired from his presenting gig for having been caught masturbating in a toilet. This detail touches on the idea that beyond simply being dismal, certain kinds of kids' TV performer have about them a whiff of something more sinister.

But even when this dark notion is put to one side, there still exists the familiar trope of the children's entertainer who just dislikes children. A fictional example who springs to mind is the character of Mr. Partridge in the holiday camp sitcom Hi-di-Hi! Partridge, dispirited by the lack of respect he receives from increasingly bad-mannered children, drinks heavily and regularly takes it upon himself to discipline the unruly kids with violence. In one episode, the ageing comic tries to strangle a boy who is spoiling one of his shows, and throughout the series his act is shown as simply failing to appeal to his young audience. 

When considering this unhappy creation of the Hi-di-Hi! scriptwriters, a personal memory springs to mind. It's the early 1980s and a young this is my england has been dragged to the ruby wedding celebrations of Great Uncle Den and Great Aunt Bette, taking place in a Post Office Social Club in south-east London. As the booze flows and as the relatives dig into the buffet, entertainment has been laid on for the youngsters. An elderly gent known as 'Naughty Uncle Wally' tries to get us interested in his balloon animals, in his corny jokes and in dancing the hokey-cokey. It is excruciatingly embarrassing. Uncle Wally seems like a boring old tool, reduced to knowing references to his audience's refusal to enjoy the show. We kids are harangued into participating. Wally is a bully. It is the opposite of fun. The smaller ones shed tears and run for their mums. Did we think then in terms of old Wally being creepy rather than just irritating and boring? It's hard to be sure all these years later. But memories like this move closer to the surface of the mind when wondering today about why entertaining children once seemed to be a craft which attracted strange old men. 

If you look at children's TV today, it seems that there has been something of a backlash. The presenters are not that much older than the kids and they seem to be trying to embody the brash, knowing coolness of whatever currently passes for youth culture. Whether this is a good thing is debatable. But perhaps it feels like a better thing than connecting kids with ageing weirdoes.

Whether the truth of the allegations about Jimmy Savile can ever be definitely established remains to be seen. But the story will rumble on a while longer and hands will doubtless continue to be wrung over that question of why nothing was ever done to prevent these alleged crimes. Whatever the outcome (if there can be any real outcome), one question sure to be discussed will be around the damage done to the image of the late entertainer. Some will lament the tarnishing of his image as a hard-working and generous charity campaigner. Others will regret a certain loss of innocence - the idea that a harmless eccentric may really have been a loathsome monster. But for those of us who were actually kids when a big part of Savile's job was entertaining children and teenagers, let's return to the thought that very few of us ever actively liked Sir Jimmy in the first place. Was he ever anything more than a strange adult with no warmth and no ability to operate on our wavelength? Wasn't he just one of a collection of oddballs that massively out-of-touch adults stuck on our TV screens while labouring under the misapprehension that we would enjoy their tedious schtick?


  1. Jimmy Savile is a god

  2. I wish Jimmy Savile were still alive. AND FREE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!111