Jimmy Savile is entirely unknown to Americans. Which is as it should be. He was a British disc jockey and children's-TV host, but, even by the debased standards of those callings, he didn't appear to have any particular talent. Yet, for half a century, until his death a year ago, he was one of the BBC's biggest stars: He hosted the first edition of Top of the Pops on TV in 1964, and he was there for the last in 2006. He had no discernible interest in pop music, but for millions of Britons his radio show was the accompaniment to roast-beef-and-Yorkshire-pud every Sunday lunchtime. He had, it was widely reported, an active dislike of children, but his Jim'll Fix It was a fixture on the telly for two decades. And throughout this time he was also a serial pedophile, as his many fans belatedly discovered only last month.
In American terms, he was a combination of Dick Clark, Mr. Rogers, and Jerry Lewis in telethon mode. But that doesn't quite do justice to the freakishness of his personality and its equally bizarre indulgence by Britain's establishment. The other day, while researching a bit of post-Thatcher Brit trivia, I chanced upon this sentence from the wife of the former prime minister John Major, which could stand for a thousand similar asides in a thousand political memoirs: "We had been shown around the Spinal Injuries Unit by its most celebrated and dedicated fundraiser, Sir James (Jimmy) Savile wearing an unforgettable gold lamé tracksuit."
He appeared on screen in gold lamé tracksuits and string undershirts until the day he died. He had long hair back when every disc jockey did, and then kept it as fashions changed and his locks whitened. His conversation consisted of a handful of undernourished catchphrases — "'Ow's about that then?"; "As it 'appens"; "Now then" — punctuated by a piercing yodel. But on Jim'll Fix It he made children's wishes come true — and then took them back to his dressing room to attend to his own desires. Fourteen separate police forces are investigating his crimes, and Scotland Yard estimates the eventual toll of victims could number about a thousand.
From time to time I've quoted in this space Anthony Burgess, author of A Clockwork Orange and a prescient pathologist of British social decline. One day, my sister, a BBC producer, was in make-up with Burgess. It was 1989, in the first days after the ayatollah's fatwa, and she remarked to him that Rushdie had just gone into hiding. As the make-up lady tamped down his glare, Burgess responded with noticeable vehemence: "There's only one man I loathe more than Salman Rushdie, and that's Jimmy Savile!"
She laughed when she told me — because the juxtaposition seems absurd. Try it yourself: "There's only one man I loathe more than Milan Kundera, and that's Justin Bieber," etc. But, with hindsight, it's clear that Burgess knew — and understood the advantages a hypersexualized youth culture offers to those without scruple. It's tempting at this point to offer some musings on the price of fame, the burdens of celebrity. But Savile was cheerfully unburdened. Rather than a celebrity who happens to be a pedophile, he seems to have been a pedophile who became a celebrity in order to facilitate being a pedophile. Robbers rob banks because that's where the money is. In the Sixties, Savile became a star disc jockey in Britain's nascent pop biz because that's where the 14-year-old nymphettes are. In the Seventies, he became a kiddie-TV host because that's where the nine-year-old moppets are. He became a celebrity volunteer with his own living quarters at children's hospitals and homes because that's where the nine-year-olds too infirm to wiggle free or too mentally ill to protest are. He persuaded various institutions to give him keys to the mortuary because that's where the nine-year-olds unable even to cry out are. (Stoke Mandeville Hospital is now investigating whether he "interacted inappropriately" with corpses.)
His persona was tailored to his appetites: The child-man shtick meant no one would ever ask him to host grown-up telly shows or move to the easy-listening channel. He motored around the country in a famous silver Rolls with a caravan on hand should he espy a comely schoolgirl at the edge of the road. When opportunity for a quickie struck ten minutes before a recording of Savile's Travels, it was easier to drop the gold lamé sweatpants than unbuckle a belt and unzip a pair of trousers. And he more or less hid in plain sight. When Fleet Street reporters seeking a quote on something or other called him up and said "Is that Jimmy Savile?" he'd shoot back: "I never touched her!" On the one occasion we met, I remember being struck by the physical strength he projected, even at his then-advanced age. A few years ago, an interviewer asked, "You used to be a wrestler, didn't you?"
"I still am."
"I'm feared in every girls' school in the country."
He was in his seventies then, but his tastes hadn't changed. The police are investigating cases dating from 1957 to 2006 — or three generations of schoolgirls. But, for an ice-cold loner of limited social skills, Savile networked efficiently. If celebrity is being famous for being famous, he took it to the next reductio: He was celebrated for being celebrated, a friend of policemen and politicians, knighted by the Queen and the Pope. There's a particularly cringe-worthy photo from the Highland Games of the Prince of Wales beaming with delight as he spots his pal approaching. His Royal Highness is wearing a kilt, Sir Jimmy a tartan version of his trademark tracksuit. What twelve-year-old staggering from the dressing room would want to take on a confidant of palace and police?
Wherever he is now, I doubt the yodeling grotesque cares about his exposure: It seems to me he was a man who lived principally for sex — prodigious amounts of anonymous, aberrant sex — and he concluded very rationally that contemporary celebrity in an infantilized culture was the perfect cover. It would have made a good Anthony Burgess novel.