Like most people I would imagine, when I first heard that they were producing a play about Jimmy Savile, starring Alistair McGowan, it sounded to me like the height of tastelessness. We’ve all had our individual reactions to the Savile affair, from “I never liked him” and “I always liked him” to “he did all that charity work just to cover up his evil” and “but he did all that charity work, can he be that evil”; from “I never would have believed it” to “I always knew it” and a whole host of other reactions besides.
I also originally thought that taking on the role would be a kiss of death to Alistair McGowan’s career. It would have to be a superbly written and produced play to take the subject matter seriously and creatively enough not to cause any additional offence, and indeed, hopefully, to cast new light on it. Even then I thought there might be some kind of backlash. However, I think it was Mrs Chrisparkle who suggested we should see it because, after all’s said and done, it sounds utterly intriguing. It’s also on at the Park theatre, in Finsbury Park, which we hadn’t yet visited. So we booked.
Being brought up in Wendover, near Aylesbury, Jimmy Savile was a fairly familiar sight in the 70s and 80s in our neck of the woods. He’d often go jogging the couple of miles from Stoke Mandeville to Wendover and back again, although he never came into the pub that my parents ran. After the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle retired, she started volunteering at the Stoke Mandeville National Spinal Injuries Centre. As a result she frequently saw him there. I don’t think she had any knowledge of what he was getting up to, and although she found it amusing working side by side with a celebrity, and he used to refer to her as “My friend Violet”, she didn’t like him very much. On one occasion when she felt the supervisors had been hard on her for something she had or hadn’t done – I can’t remember the details – she appealed to him to intervene but he refused to take her side. Sadly the Dowager has suffered from dementia for the last eight years, so she doesn’t know what scandal was going on all around her – I’d have loved to have talked to her about it in light of the recent revelations.
Like most people of my age, I grew up with Savile on the radio and TV. I was one of those youngsters who really liked him. I particularly used to look forward to his Double Top Ten Show on Radio 1 on Sunday lunchtimes, and I have no doubt he was a gifted broadcaster. I wasn’t too much enamoured with Jim’ll Fix It – it was ok, but a bit “goody-two-shoes” for my taste. Retrospectively, that’s ironic, isn’t it? By the time he was in his 80s he certainly looked like a parody of himself. He seemed generally grumpier – and vainer – but yes, when he died, I felt a pang of sorrow.
I’m dwelling on those memories and personal thoughts because that’s precisely what you have to juggle with when you watch Jonathan Maitland’s Audience with Jimmy Savile. From my side perch in Row A of the circle at the Park 200 (fantastic view by the way) it was equally fascinating to witness the audience’s ongoing reactions to the play as it was to watch the play itself. Savile was, and as a spectre still is, loathsome, evil, calculating, manipulative, cruel, heartless, vicious; in fact, if you think of any adjective with negative overtones, he probably falls into that category. So to watch an audience, watching a play, where a much-loved TV presenter is falling over himself with niceness, to present a tribute programme to that wretch, is fairly strenuous on the nausea reflux. When Savile comes out with quips and jokes, those trademark catchphrases and his avuncular (shudder) approaches to any “young ladies” in the audience, where once they would have been greeted with polite and/or knowing titters, the Park audience watch him in stony silence, arms crossed, mouths rooted in downturned disapproval. As you can imagine, Alistair McGowan’s impersonation of Savile is top notch quality, which makes his direct looks and asides to the audience even more uncomfortable to deal with. He almost challenges some audience members to react; they don’t; he turns away and carries on with his speech; the audience member feels the heat is off and they smile guiltily to their companions. It’s a fascinating study of an audience under pressure.
At 85 minutes, with no interval, this play is one of the few instances when I think having no interval is a good thing. You don’t want the audience discussing it amongst themselves half-time and openly deciding how to deal with it; this is challenging, go-it-alone audience territory. The play takes the structure of one of those flattering and adulatory TV endurance tests, “An Audience With….” I’m sure you’ve seen them. An Audience with some ageing star beyond their best but still with a reasonably fond personal following, where they meet old friends and acquaintances, and other stars “in the bizness”, who say hideously nice things about their target. In Jonathan Maitland’s take on this format, as the show (within a show) progresses, you get to realise first-hand that this eccentric, charitable and amusing Sir Jimmy, OBE, is in fact a bully, an abuser of young women, violent in both deed and word, and has dubious friends to say the least. Scenes of this “accolade” show are interspersed with the developing story of Lucy, raped by Savile whilst she was in hospital at the age of 12. You see her battling to convince her father that her allegations are true, approaching a newspaper editor with her story, and his subsequent dealings with Savile; coping with an unwilling police force who are more keen to point out that she will be ripped apart in court than to consider the victim or the crime itself; and finally confronting Savile with the truth about what he did.
I had read reviews before seeing the play that suggested that opinions were divided as to the play itself. Some thought it was challenging and well written, others thought it was completely lacking in drama. Personally, I thought it was oozing with drama from the start. At the beginning you have Savile, in control, in demand, in excelsis almost, contrasted with Lucy, unable to finish sentences without crying. By the end, Lucy is in control, challenging Savile directly, firmly and assertively making her point; whereas we’ve seen Savile decline, both physically and reputatively, through his associations, his dressing-room activities, his argumentative and defensive interviews, and his final visible lack of control. The play is very nicely balanced, cunningly written to reflect Savile’s own cunningly constructed answers to difficult questions, and with a final scene that Mrs C found extremely moving.
At the heart of the play is Alistair McGowan’s performance – a fantastic impersonation, but never played for laughs; this is serious drama and Mr McGowan gives us Savile’s voice saying the kind of things we never heard him say in real life. So this is not mere impersonation but a full characterisation of an evil man, barely concealing his evil from an adoring public. I really enjoyed Mr McGowan’s performance – after the initial shock (for there definitely is one) of seeing Savile almost alive again, I found myself smiling at Mr McGowan’s portrayal of his eccentricities because they are cleverly done and they do bring you back to a time when one used to find Savile funny. I felt as though I ought to stop smiling, in honour of those people whom he abused. But that’s one of the tricky things about challenging drama – you never quite know how you’re going to react until you’re actually confronted with it. In my defence, I also found his portrayal quite disgusting too – the tacky shell suit, the unkempt straggly hair; and there’s a final scene where he’s removed his track suit bottoms and is just in a pair of short shorts, which goes to emphasise the lascivious threat he could pose to anyone weaker than himself. Thoroughly unpleasant – but superbly well done.
Leah Whitaker gives a very strong and heartbreaking performance as Lucy, picking up the pieces of a ruined life, and permanently running aground each time she seems to get closer to justice. I found her compelling and emotional, a very thoughtfully and honestly portrayed representation of a typical Savile victim, if there is such a thing. Robert Perkins was excellent in many of the supporting roles; I particularly liked him as the Newspaper Editor (where he reminded me slightly of Max Clifford, which is bizarre in itself), and as Savile’s slimy pal Ray Teret, lending great credibility to the old saying about how you can judge a person’s character by the company they keep. Charlotte Page also gave great support, especially as Alice, the researcher who’s also the recipient of Savile’s odious attention, D S Goldstein where she tries her hardest to be supportive to Lucy but also has to make her face unwelcome facts; and as Clare, the Stoke Mandeville representative, unctuously blinded by Savile’s celebrity, almost eerily serenading him with a quick blast of the Jim’ll Fix It theme. The final member of the cast is the splendid Graham Seed, as Savile’s TV inquisitor Michael Sterling, more concerned about how he himself will look on camera than posing any really searching questions to Savile.
There’s no doubt this is an uncomfortable and challenging play to watch, but it really helps you, the audience member, come to terms with how you feel about Savile; and you definitely come out of the theatre with a greater appreciation of the personal tragedies he caused and the way he manipulated the media and society to get what he wanted. Strangely enjoyable, and for all the right reasons. Plus Mrs C and I are delighted to have discovered the Park theatre, and can’t wait for another excuse to go!