In the drizzly chill of a Leeds’ winter day two years ago more than 5,000 turned up to pay their respects.
Dressed in his favourite tracksuit and lying in a gold coffin adorned with his final un-smoked cigar, Sir Jim, as he was then still known, was lying in state in the bar of a city centre hotel saying goodbye in characteristic style.
As they filed past his body in muted respect many of those that had made the journey from across the north of England and even further afield were struggling to control their emotions. They had known him personally – at the hospitals where he volunteered or from his days running youth clubs and ballrooms. To the majority however he was simply one of the most recognisable personalities of their lives – a towering figure of the pop and TV age.
But they did not know him. Nor did the thousands that packed into Leeds Cathedral and its precincts for his funeral service or lined the streets of Scarborough where he was interred beneath an outlandish headstone baring the epitaph: “It was good while it lasted”.
But they were not alone. The Prince of Wales, the BBC director general, former DJ colleagues, comedians and celebrities did not know the real Savile either as they paid lavish tribute to a “unique” personality when the 84-year-old died at his home the previous month.
Nor did former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who used to invite the former DJ to watch television with her family at Chequers and who agreed his 1990 knighthood. And neither did Pope John Paul II who in the same year made him Knight Commander of the Pontifical Equestrian Order of Saint Gregory the Great – the Roman Catholic Church’s highest honour.
His dark secrets were concealed from the Royal Marines who awarded him a green beret –an unprecedented accolade for a civilian – as they were from the universities who handed him honorary degrees or the leading hospitals and institutions which gave him unfettered access in return for his charity millions and apparently unstinting devotion to good causes he brought.
Yet Savile was a monster who in the words of detectives today, was hiding in plain sight. The report by the Metropolitan Police and the NSPCC has revealed a man who used his celebrity status and outwardly well-intended works to gain access to and ultimately rape and sexually exploit hundreds of vulnerable young star-struck victims – boys and girls - some as young as eight. For more than half a century he was permitted to offend with impunity – manipulating his powerful and famous friends to gain him immunity while bullying those that dared to challenge his carefully cultivated public image as a harmless if eccentric bachelor.
James Wilson Savile was born into a large Roman Catholic family in a working class suburb of Leeds on Halloween 1926. The youngest of seven children, it was his mother Agnes who was at the centre of both his young and adult life and he continued to live with the women he called the Duchess until her death in 1972. Barely surviving a coal mine blast whilst working as a Bevan Boy during the Second World War, he recovered sufficiently to enjoy an imposing physical prowess in later life: fighting as a professional wrestler, competing as a cyclist in the Tour of Britain and running hundreds of marathons. But it was the rapidly emerging world of youth entertainment in which he was to make his mark. Among his many boasts was that he invented the disco – claiming to be the first DJ to play records to a live, dancing audience. He moved from performing to managing the booming ballrooms first in Leeds and then Manchester where despite his wacky haircut he was regarded as a tough and violent operator – prepared to take the law into his own hands to punish those that dared to breach his strict house rules.
The dance halls offered Savile his first sanctuary and afforded him access to large numbers girls impressed by his flamboyant persona. At the Mecca in Leeds, he would later recall how youngsters would queue up to talk to him at the end of the night, though he publicly insisted that he was after little more than a chat and a cup of tea. The extent of his abuse in those years will most likely never be known. But it is clear that Savile was already revelling in his role as a local celebrity and his ego was even now struggling to be contained by the cavernous venues of the northern industrial cities as evidenced by a 1960 visit to the United States where he struck up an unlikely friendship with Elvis Presley.
Chronology of offending
A detailed timeline released today reveals that as Savile grew in fame so his offending became increasingly prolific. His initial known victim predates his big break on Radio Luxembourg in 1958 by three years though like nearly all the others their claims were never officially recorded or investigated. By 1964 Savile had been chosen to front the BBC’s new television programme Top of the Pops – a concession by the corporation’s ageing executives to the youth market. It was to provide Savile with a powerful platform to express his criminal desires. By the following year he was using the new found national fame found to molest young people in the heart of the London entertainment establishment at BBC premises. In 1966 he began work as a volunteer porter at Leeds General Infirmary and later at Stoke Mandeville for which he was later to raise £20m to help with spinal injuries apparently inspired by the recovery he made from his own back problems caused in the wartime blast. Throughout it is believed that Savile was operating if not entirely alone, then outside an organised paedophile ring. At least one victim however, has alleged that he was abused by Savile and another man at the same time.
Detectives from Operation Yewtree identified his peak offending between 1966 and 1976 – a period when Savile was approaching middle age and his career was enjoying its greatest success. It also includes the time he began to make visits to Duncroft in Surrey, a school for emotionally disturbed teenage girls, which he has later been accused of using like a “paedophile sweetshop”. By the mid-70s Savile was presenting the nation’s most popular children’s television programme Jim’ll Fix It and enjoying a virtual free run of five institutions where he had unsupervised access to patients and staff. The number of reported offences against him peaked in 1976 at 15 - a time when 350,000 predominantly young people were writing to him each year to ask him to make their wish come true. The number of reported offences continued to decline in the following years as the popularity of the programme waned and its eponymous star grew steadily older. But they did not cease all together. He continued to target victims at Duncroft until his final visit in 1978, at Stoke Mandeville until 1988 and Leeds General Infirmary until 1995. There was even an assault at the filming of the final edition of Top of The Pops in 2006. The last reported attack came in 2009 as the 83-year-old journeyed on a train between London and Leeds in which he put his hand up the skirt of his oldest victim, a 43-year-old fellow traveller.
So far more than 450 people have come forward to give evidence against Savile though police believe many more are still too ashamed or simply unwilling to speak up. According to the victims’ accounts the majority of the attacks were opportunistic sexual assaults carried out in situations manipulated by the presenter. Others meanwhile involved a more concerted element of grooming. The majority took place in either Leeds of London where Savile lived and worked. But of his victims that have chosen to contact the police, it is the vulnerable young girls from Duncroft whose voices were first raised against him. Frances Jennings, now a grandmother aged 53, was one of a number of teenagers who was taken for a ride by the star in his gold Rolls-Royce. When the car stopped the others got out but he turned on her and kissed her, his breath stinking of cigars, demanding she perform a sex act on him. Savile would invite the girls up to London to see him at the BBC and it was there while watching him record his Clunk-Click road safety advert that Kathleen Webb, 55, was assaulted for the third time by the star.
The overwhelming majority of Savile’s targets were girls but more than 40 were boys. Kevin Cook was previously believed to be his youngest victim. The nine year-old Scout was molested in the dressing room during a recording of Jim’ll Fix It having been lured backstage with the promise of one of the show’s sought-after badges. Instead he was forced to strip and rub the presenter through his trousers before being punched on the head by another man.
“He became really scary and said, ‘Don’t you dare tell anyone. Don’t even tell your mates. We know where you live’. Then he said, ‘Nobody would believe you anyway — I’m King Jimmy’,” Mr Cook, 45, later said.
Actress Julie Fernandez, 38, has also described how she was groped by the star whilst sitting in her wheelchair at the BBC aged just 14 as she sat in a room full of people. Yet it was not only strangers who were to fall victim to Savile’s urges. His great niece Caroline Robinson, 49, said she was molested twice by her uncle who was regarded in the family as an unchallengeable and sainted figure. He touched her breasts at a christening party when she was aged 15 and tried to persuade her to feel his penis.
Yet while many of his attacks might in less enlightened times have been dismissed as “groping” they were illegal then as they as they are today. And many were much more serious including 34 rapes and penetration offences are included in the latest police dossier including one on a 14 year old schoolgirl who he picked up at a nightclub in 1965.
Innuendo and smear have long been part and parcel of celebrity culture. Yet the stories about Savile persisted for decades. Former Radio One colleague Paul Gambaccini has described how talk of Savile’s “necrophilia” tendencies were common currency and that fellow DJs would routinely discuss how he targeted “underage subnormals” by visiting hospitals and institutions. Senior executives have candidly admitted that colleagues would have to have been “tone deaf” to be unaware of the claims that swirled around the star. Yet Savile had a variety of techniques for dealing with the allegations when they were put to him. In an interview with The Independent on Sunday in 1990 he insisted that the attentions of the fans were an innocent occupational hazard. “The young girls in question don't gather round me because of me – it's because I know the people they love, the stars, I am of no interest to them,” he said. In 2000 his appearance in the now celebrated Louis Theroux documentary raised further questions over Savile’s dark side while demonstrating his extraordinary ability to manipulate and confuse. Theroux was eventually won over and even paid tribute to Savile when he died wishing he had been able to spend more time with him. But there was also a more direct approach.
When challenged by journalists he would sue as he did in 2008 when he was linked to child abuse at the Jersey children's home Haut de la Garenne. His outright denials that he had ever visited the home would later be revealed as lies with the publication of photographs of him there surrounded by children. On earlier occasions he had threatened probing editors that exposure would mean he would give up raising money for charity or he would be able to call on friends in high places to cover up on his behalf or cause trouble. And he did not fear the police. When questioned 2009 over the allegations at Duncroft school he told two female officers: “If [this] does not disappear then my policy will swing into action. I have an LLD, that’s a Doctor of Laws, not an honorary one but a real one. That gives me friends … I’ve alerted my legal team that they may be doing business and if we do, you ladies [the two female officers] will finish up at the Old Bailey as well because we will be wanting you there as witnesses. But nobody ever seems to want to go that far.”
Despite being alerted to claims by victims on at least five occasions dating back to the 1980s when a woman claimed to have been assaulted in Savile’s camper van in a BBC car park, police were never able to bring charges against Jimmy Savile. Four forces including the Metropolitan Police made inquiries but officers were unable to muster the evidence to bring charges, or persuade victims to give evidence in court. And for all the rumour and innuendo which followed him throughout his life the media too failed to expose his relentless paedophile activities until well after they had ionised him in his death. Such was the reluctance to challenge the ageing disc jockey that senior journalists at BBC’s flagship Newsnight programme found themselves mired in scandal and recrimination when an investigation into his private life was spectacularly shelved prompting the start of a continuing crisis for the corporation which claimed the newly appointed Director General George Entwistle after just a few weeks in the job. In the end it fell to an ITV documentary crew and a former police officer turned investigative journalist mark Williams-Thomas to give the victims the chance to speak. Today the Crown Prosecution Service concluded that the victims he abused were let down by a failure to believe their story although no evidence was fund that officers or lawyers acted improperly in their failure to prosecute. Police and children’s charities, who have been overwhelmed with inquiries since the scandal first broke, are now hoping we are witnessing a “watershed moment” in the national handling of child abuse claims.
Four days before he died Savile gave a final interview to his biographer Alison Bellamy. Ailing from undiagnosed pneumonia which he had picked up on a recent cruise around Britain, the celebrity had been out of the limelight since his last major appearance presenting the final edition of Top of The Pops from Manchester in 2009. Sitting with a friend, a recently retired West Yorkshire Police Inspector, he happily posed in his reclining white leather armchair, donning the trademark jingle-jangle jewellery on spindly wrists and blowing large plumes of smoke from a cigar as he reminisced. If he thought the past was ever going to catch up with him, he was not showing it. “Go on, ask me anything, I’ll talk about anything you want,” he urged his questioner before changing the subject. Savile notoriously claimed the secret of his Jim’ll Fix It success was that he did not like children. He also never doubted he would escape justice. But while his victims may never see him stand trial they can at least satisfy themselves that the world finally knows the real Jimmy Savile.