Jonathan Maitland

Is the life of Jimmy Savile a suitable subject for drama?

Translating the story of Savile to stage or screen is a creative minefield, says Jonathan Maitland, who knows from first-hand experience

There was a deep, subconscious desire to give Savile the trial he never had: Dee Coles with her abuser, in a still from the documentary Jimmy Savile: The People Who Knew. Credit: Courtesy of Dee Coles

One day in 1975 the Israeli cabinet found themselves being lectured on the most intractable political problem of our age — how to bring peace to the Middle East — by a peculiar white-haired British entertainer wearing a pink suit with short sleeves. His name? Jimmy Savile.

That’s how he told it anyway. Remarkably, witnesses back up the generality if not the specifics of the anecdote. Savile indeed visited the Holy Land in 1975. And he did talk to the Israeli president Ephraim Katzir, saying (so he claimed): ‘I’m very disappointed because you’ve all forgotten how to be Jewish and that’s why everyone is taking you to the cleaners.’

Jimmy Savile’s life was, in every respect, eye-popping, and full of pitfalls for the dramatist or director: how best to summon it all up, without letting his crimes and bewildering conduct become a form of cheap entertainment? By using actors? Or by getting someone who was there to tell the story?

This creative dilemma — how do you solve a problem like Jimmy? — has been exercising the minds of TV’s finest for some time as there are six shows about Savile, or featuring him, streaming or imminent: two dramas and four documentaries. That’s because next month it will be ten years since one of the most trusted, loved and admired broadcasters of his generation died. Trusted, loved and admired, that is, until the truth emerged: police say he sexually assaulted at least 450 women and children.

A BBC executive told me I was crazy. Who wants to see a play about Jimmy Savile?

It’s not hard to see why the story still fascinates. It sounds incredible. A seemingly kindly, eccentric do-gooder gets away scot-free with half a century of vicious sexual offending, while bagging himself a knighthood and grooming a royal flush of great British institutions: BBC, government, church, NHS, royal family.

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