Coming back into Heathrow — rain, rows of brown houses on the ground, a decaying terminal, with its faux pub, warm Carlsberg and prawn cocktail sandwiches — the tabloid headings on the WH Smiths rack at Heathrow said it all: “Savile — BBC didn’t want obituary”.
The Jimmy Savile scandal was unfolding as I left the UK in October; it has now opened wider than a slit parachute. Today the findings of the inquiry headed by former Sky News head Nick Pollard were released, painting a fairly damning picture of “confusion and chaos” at the Beeb, as the process of sorting out whether Savile should get a tribute program or an expose after his death.
Savile, the visibly odd BBC kids entertainer, pop/game show host, etc, who died last year, had been revealed after his death as a serial s-xual predator, over a period of decades. At the time there was a tribute, and senior producers squashed a story on BBC flagship Newsnight detailing allegations against Savile by women who Savile had bedded when they were pre-legal teens in the ’70s. The allegations came out in a Channel Four story, and so too did the BBC cover-up.
After the Four story, there were resignations at the Beeb. More importantly, more women came forth — as did former BBC producers, DJs, etc. It soon became clear Savile had been a predator over a course of decades, an appalling human being. He had been famed for his commitment to charity shows at hospitals — largely, it now became clear, because it offered access to vulnerable young women, some of them intellectually disabled.
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As a searching police investigation began, there were accusations that Savile was part of a whole ring of music/pop/TV meant to be taking advantage of the hero-worship Savile enjoyed from young kids. By now, eight people have been arrested as part of the investigation, including DJ David Lee Travis, PR supremo Max Clifford and, inevitably, Gary Glitter. Meanwhile, the head of Newsnight and then of the BBC entire, both resigned. Savile’s family arranged for his gravestone to be removed, crushed and the debris thrown into the sea.
Stories like this gain attention for one of two reasons: either because they feature someone everyone was surprised to find guilty of such, or because the revelations surprised no one at all. In this case it was both — Savile sailed through 40 years of stardom, being everyone’s favourite TV uncle; two full generations of Brits have fond memories of the moptop-mulleted, cigar-smoking, tracksuited, gold-chained man-child, who never moved out of his mother’s house and slept in her unchanged bedroom. Yeah, nothing to see here.
The reversal of Savile’s image, from s-xless imp to obvious predator, has been part of a wider cultural shift, but it’s fair to say it has retroactively changed the childhood of millions of Britons. As former fan Oliver Milman wrote for Crikey, one of Savile’s iconic shows was Jim’ll Fix It, a program in which kids wrote in asking Savile to organise things for them — fly in a biplane, drink a spiked Fanta in a BBC dressing room, etc — and there are hundreds of clips of Jim with smiling kids that now have a darker meaning.
Nor is it likely to be the last bodyshock to the culture. Savile, it appears, was both an exploiter of post-pubescent groupies, and also a p-edophilic predator on pre-pubescent children of both genders. There’s no details of what the other men are arrested are guilty of, though Glitter is a convicted p-edo. Others may be guilty of hitting on underage groupies that Savile drew in. It is for that reason the net is spreading so wide — to a group of men taking advantage of access to free (underage) girls — and also why it may draw yet more of the culture and of memory.
For the plain fact is, from the ’60s into the ’80s, if you’re talking about male stars and 15-plus girls, then everyone was doing it. Or, if not everyone, at least a solid percentage. Most such people would have had rules about how young they liked their groupies, and some implicit morality about tweens and early teens — but that simply emphasises the degree of acceptance of sampling mid-teen girls.
“Now, as the inquiries widen, the present is cannibalising the past, to general distress.”
You can see what it was like by watching the shows of the era — the loose studio style of presentation with the audience, kids, crowded in around the presenters, and the industry itself having the freewheeling style of the counterculture. People wandered in and out of dressing rooms, drank through shows, and production values were no better than they needed to be. Pre-multichannel environments, the TV and music industries were such moneymakers there was no real drive for efficiency, or much adult supervision.
The tightening and streamlining of TV coincided with the eruption in concern over child abuse that occurred in the late ’80s. The audience was segregated, from performers and contact with children began to be supervised and chaperoned. By 2000 at least half-a-dozen TV and music producers were doing jail time for s-x with minors, and a police check of everyone became mandatory. Nowadays, the bloke who comes to deliver the water cooler refills on the set of Neighbours has to have a background certificate, and everyone on up.
Now, as the inquiries widen, the present is cannibalising the past, to general distress. One of the reasons there is so much ’60s/’70s nostalgia around these days is that it’s the last period before the boomgate came down — when the general perception was you could hitch a ride, catch a plane with a flick-knife in your pocket, cross the street without climbing six safety barriers, and hang out with the band. The downside of it is becoming obvious. The question is: how many other people and scenes will it draw in? Some of this has been hiding in plain sight for a long time.
Take, as the gold-standard of “free”-wheeling behaviour, Led Zeppelin. Last month, the three improbably surviving members of the band were honoured at the White House. But the various memoirs of people associated with the band detail a history not merely of s-x with underage girls, but of drinking, doping and coercion shading into full s-xual assault. Even the most stand-up bands of the time didn’t ask for ID — “12 is wrong, 15 is bad lighting” as the old saying goes.
Pre-pubescent p-edophilia is rare in the music industry. It is less uncommon in TV, whose plentiful supply of child actors (though less than there once were) attracts predators, for the same reason Willie Sutton robbed banks — “‘cos that’s where the money is”. The real question is what should happen as this process widens. S-xual coercion and assault should be investigated, and if viable, prosecuted, no matter what the time lag, particularly if there are multiple complainants. So should s-xual activity with pre-pubescents. Whether much of this groupie behaviour should be legally re-opened decades after the fact remains to be seen.
It seems reasonable, for a whole lot of developmental and cultural reasons, that we should set the age of consent around 16 or 17 (at least for s-x with adults). But we haven’t always, and some jurisdictions have set it at 14. As long-hidden strands of p-edophilia within society have come to light — and may also have increased in frequency — over the past decade, some activity has been caught in its net. Borderline underage s-x is one of these, and the process has led to a one-size-fits-all (yes, yes, habloodyha) approach.
This is a discussion that is going to have to be had across the board, something that has been apparent for quite a while. At the moment, the default setting is that every accusation of s-xual misconduct, made decades later, should be given a full court press — even when the dangers of mistaken memory, uncorroborated evidence, etc, remains huge.
But the Savile scandal means it won’t happen in the UK, for the moment. Just as Phil Spector’s crazed killing of a woman forever tarnished the exuberant innocence of his “wall of sound” tracks from the early ’60s, so many Brits cannot now look back on the most basic part of a post-’50s childhood — TV that offers a portal to another world — without seeing a few extra shadows. The total information society expands not only in space but time, leaving us with a constantly revised past. The almost irremovable mindset of human life has always been that of a “fall away” from a golden age, collectively and individually. Childhood nostalgia is a powerful part of that process.
Now, such memories can come under assault at any time. It leaves people in a permanent present, and that is not a great place for Britain to be at the moment, a sort of permanent Heathrow of the soul. Nor will we soon be out of it.