A chastened Louis Theroux sheds light on celebrity sex fiend Jimmy Savile’s brazen cunning in a new documentary.
Say what you like about him (warning: I won’t hear a word against the owlish, bespectacled searcher of the human soul), he makes a revealing documentary – even when he’s making a documentary about how he once failed to make a sufficiently revealing documentary.
Prime’s Louis Theroux: Savile revisits his 2000 BBC interview, When Louis Met … Jimmy. Jimmy Savile was an inexplicably popular fixture of British entertainment, host of such shows as Top of the Pops and Jim’ll Fix It and a charity fundraiser. After his death in 2011, hundreds of allegations of sexual abuse over decades, many involving children, emerged. Some of the allegations occurred during Savile’s work at the BBC. The BBC didn’t come out of it well.
Theroux has obviously been haunted by his failure to really see the man he befriended after that interview, and who let him sleep in his dead mother’s weird, shrine-like bedroom. Louis Theroux: Savile – the title is like a reproach. This time it’s personal, and penance of a sort.
So, Theroux interviewed a monster. Haven’t we all? To his credit, he raised the rumours. He asked Savile about his claims that he didn’t like children. “Because that puts a lot of salacious and tabloid people off the hunt,” explained Savile blandly. “So tabloids don’t pursue this ‘is he/isn’t he a paedophile’ line?” said Theroux, sending Savile off on a disturbing riff. “How do they know if I am? … Nobody knows if I am or not … I know I’m not …” Theroux points out that this strategy sounds more suspicious, not less. Savile: “It’s worked a dream.”
Oh my God. The sequel reminds us that Savile was forever telling the world who he really was. It’s just that no one wanted to listen.
Theroux asks some of Savile’s victims what they thought of the 2000 show. “My actual reaction was, ‘Poor Louis, he’s really been hoodwinked here,’” said Kath.
Janet, Savile’s PA for nearly 30 years until he dumped her, slowly reveals that she’s deep in denial. “No, I don’t believe it,” she tells Theroux.
Louis Theroux: Savile has been criticised for interrogating only women. This might imply it was up to women to stop Savile. Fair point. Journalist Angela Levin, then with the Daily Mail, was the source of the Savile rumours Theroux first heard. He quizzes her about why she didn’t push harder. “Don’t blame this on me,” she snaps back.
The weight of his judgment mostly falls on himself. Clips suggest that he was intrigued by Savile like an anthropologist encountering unfamiliar life on Mars. “Do you regard yourself as normal?” he asks at one point. This was a master class in how bullies and predators can get away with it by being not secretive but brazen. When Theroux found he’d somehow got hold of his private number, Savile said, “I can get anything and there’s nothing I can’t do.” Theroux was possibly flattered. Savile possibly saw him as a useful idiot.
Normally, Theroux gets away with what can seem like a freak show by offering his more perverse subjects the opportunity to be better people. This time, it’s the interrogator who wishes to be a better man. Sam, another former victim, throws a particularly perceptive question back at Theroux: “Do you feel like you were groomed?” she says. He demurs. He wasn’t abused. “I feel a bit ashamed now,” says Theroux, before echoing the words he’s heard from others who were close to Savile. They are the words of many who have found themselves not able or sometimes not willing to recognise a monster hiding in plain sight. “I didn’t see anything,” he says.
This article was first published in the December 15, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.