‘I remembered the stories that I had heard over the years working in newspapers about Jimmy Savile…I’d interviewed Savile back in the late 1970s and I thought he was a deeply unpleasant man, that his public face was very different from the face that he showed when it was just the two of us together…we could never tell the story at the time ‘cause we could never get enough weight of credible evidence against him. I thought, well this is a story I can tell in fiction.’
Those are the words of crime fiction novelist and former newspaper journalist Val McDermid, speaking about her 1997 book, ‘The Wire in the Blood’; in it, a famous TV personality is revealed as a secret serial killer who gets away with his crimes on account of his celebrity. The interview came from a BBC4 programme aired at the beginning of this week in which Andrew Marr focuses on three of the most popular literary genres – crime, fantasy and spy. He prefaced his chat with McDermid by making the connection between her horrific creation Jacko Vance and Jimmy Savile, reiterating ‘what we all now know’ about Sir Jim beforehand and letting the author reinforce the accepted post-2012 narrative as she discussed her novel. Oddly enough, this section of the programme made no mention of the incident that took place during a book-signing session McDermid participated in at the University of Sunderland in December 2012, when a member of the public asked her to sign a photo of Savile from a ‘Top of the Pops’ annual and then proceeded to throw ink at her.
McDermid ticks a lot of boxes in that she’s a lesbian in a civil partnership with a child born of donor insemination; she also writes books that specialise in graphic (some might say voyeuristic) depictions of sadistic violence and torture. We can’t condemn her for the latter on account of her being such a good egg when it comes to the former. After all, her conveniently suitable opinion of Savile as being ‘a deeply unpleasant man’ echoes the words of Savile’s former TOTP co-host Tony Blackburn when he quickly sought to distance himself from an ex-colleague by referring to him as ‘a horrendous man’; this was, of course, long before Blackburn himself was sacked from the BBC after being wrongly linked to an unsavoury incident from the 70s that had the popular image of Savile stamped all over it.
It was interesting that McDermid should use the excuse of creating a fictional character rather than falling back on her journalistic experience to tell ‘the truth’ about Savile because ‘we could never get enough weight of credible evidence against him’. No, she couldn’t; and nor has anyone since – unless hearsay and unverifiable accusations against a dead man count as credible evidence, of course. Oh, sorry, I forgot – they do. Coming from a journo like McDermid who was supposedly in search of a scoop 24/7, it does sound like something of a cop-out; the same could be said, however, for every journalist who is now wise after the event.
For a public figure who apparently spent the majority of his lengthy career surrounded by unseemly rumours, it was rather miraculous that Jimmy Savile was never exposed in his lifetime as the man he was exposed as posthumously. Since when have newspaper journalists ever shied away from exposing public figures as being contrary to the image they project to the masses? Even in the deferential early 60s they dared to go for the jugular of the Minister for War, someone ranking a little higher in the country’s social hierarchy than a TV and radio personality.
But Val McDermid is sticking to the story we’ve been told for the past four years and I don’t believe anyone would expect her to do anything else. Imagine if she’d described Savile as ‘a really nice guy I immediately warmed to’. No, I can’t imagine it either. It has become an unwritten rule that Jimmy Savile now has to be spoken of in such terms and the narrative cannot be questioned or contradicted. The numerous TV programmes he hosted on the BBC for over thirty years can now only be exhumed from the archives if they’re to be used in a ‘serial paedophile’ context on a news broadcast or documentary; otherwise, they must never be transmitted as mere entertainment again, lest the very sight of him provokes the awakening of a repressed abuse memory. Veer from the narrative at one’s peril, and forget ever getting to the actual ‘did he?/didn’t he?’ truth as a consequence.
The media that had lauded Jimmy Savile as a Great British Eccentric while he was still with us – despite the blunt fact that a lot of people never cared much for him at all – is the same media that now demands we accept the reverse opinion; whereas pre-2012, dissenting voices weren’t given a platform, the change to the narrative since then ironically sees an identical scenario. Few – if any – dared to go public with their suspicions when he was alive, and now few – if any – dare to publicly question the perceived wisdom on Savile now he has been reborn as the Great British Paedo. Oh, I know there’s plenty of it online; but good luck if you try saying it on the telly or the wireless. The ability to question the consensus free from persecution or litigation should be one of the foundation stones of a democracy, though it’s interesting to look back almost twenty years ago, when The Conet Project began releasing recordings of clandestine Numbers Stations on CD. The prophetic sleeve-notes penned by compiler Akin O Fernandez referenced the fear that greeted his decision to commercially release tapes of something every government denies the existence of.
‘The depth of fear we have encountered in otherwise psychologically normal people is incredible,’ he wrote. ‘What kind of nation is it that has people second guessing their every action to check its legal status?’ ‘We are living in a time of widespread fear,’ he continued. ‘This level of paranoia used to be exhibited (with good reason) in the Eastern Bloc states; now this virulent plague has crept into the western mindset. It has oozed in very slowly, which is how it seems to have been able to take such a firm and widespread grip on the population without anyone really noticing that anything has changed…in 100 years time when we are all dead and shortwave radio is a memory, our recordings and log books will be an invaluable resource to future researchers who will laugh out loud at the Wireless and Telegraphy Act when they study the insane asylum known as the twentieth century.’
Change the century and the subject, and those words could have been penned in 2016, never mind 1997.
© The Editor