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Savile the Beast
The Inside Story of the Greatest Scandal in TV History
By John McShane
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2013 John McShane
All rights reserved.
So I've always had Rolls-Royces and I've always had cigars because they go with Rolls-Royces. Every time I light a cigar it's a celebration.' Jimmy Savile on fame.
Jimmy Savile was born on October 31, 1926, in Leeds, a giant commercial and industrial powerhouse of a city, then in the West Riding of Yorkshire.
By a bizarre coincidence, on that same day several thousands of miles away across the Atlantic Ocean in Detroit, Michigan, the famous escape artist Harry Houdini died.
Savile was the youngest of seven children from a family where money was scarce. Houdini was a rabbi's son from Budapest. Neither man was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and both went on to achieve fame and fortune, their funerals being attended by vast crowds of admirers, most of whom had never known either man personally but nonetheless grieved their passing.
That wasn't, however, all they had in common.
Both men fooled the public throughout their lives. Houdini's escapology seemed to be pure magic, so much so that his name became a by-word for inexplicable trickery. Savile's deception was far more sinister, a dark secret that he kept for decades, hidden behind a veil of nonconformity and madcap bonhomie.
His public persona was a pure lie on his part, a cover for perversity, violence and the degradation of the young. And it was all carried off with swagger and cruelty and was due in a large part to, as he might have put it himself, the fact that he had 'more front than Woolworths'.
James Wilson Savile's parents, clerical worker Vincent and wife Agnes (always referred to in later years by Savile as The Duchess) already had six children in their home in Consort Terrace, Woodhouse, not far from the centre of Leeds, when little Jimmy arrived.
As an infant, so the family legend that Savile was happy to elaborate on in years to come goes, he was at death's door until his mother prayed for his wellbeing while in Leeds Catholic Cathedral and he miraculously recovered. Savile could not remember what his illness was. 'In those days,' he explained, 'if you were poor you just died – it was no big deal.'
He was schooled at St. Anne's in Leeds where, a few years later the actor Peter O'Toole also studied. The Lawrence of Arabia star was to complain in adulthood about being beaten by the nuns because he was left-handed, although Savile's take on that was different. He called it a 'factory of learning' and although it may not have been effective on the really bad boys, it 'had a salutary effect on the rest of us' was his verdict. He was entitled to a jar of free malt, from which he had a spoonful a day to combat the possibility of getting rickets, free canvas and rubber-soled sandshoes, and free milk, as well as days out to Scarborough. Perhaps this was to form his fund-raising ethos – his parents organised whist and beetle drives for charity – when he was an adult.
In later years he was to say he was evacuated briefly to Gainsborough in Lincolnshire to avoid the bombs that Hitler was raining on cities such as Leeds and when he returned, even though he was not yet five feet tall, he began to frequent the local dance hall at the tender age of 11, occasionally playing drums with the band. It is perhaps an example of where Savile's version of the truth already enters a realm of fantasy given that, by any simple arithmetical calculation, that would have meant his being evacuated and returning home to endure the risk of being bombed some considerable time before 1939, the year war was actually declared.
His first date with a girl was when he was 12 and he later claimed that the young lady in question was some eight years older than him and worked at the ticket office at a dance hall. He said he only saw the top ten per cent of her body and on the eve of their first date at a cinema he cut his lip on some railings. 'The darkness of the picture house hid my floppy lip and I discovered about girls that the 90 per cent that you can't see is just as important as the 10 per cent you can. These days,' he was to say in 1974, 'the percentage is reversed, but the principle is the same.'
Savile's autobiography, penned that year, gives several illuminating examples of his attitude towards women and girls. At very best they could be described as 'of their time'; laddish, pop world remarks showing no attempt at any emotional contact. At worst, with the benefit of the hindsight that the world now has, they indicated the callous, uncaring disregard for women and girls that he was to show in the years to come.
For example, Savile was a keen cyclist and in one competitive race he and a friend were in the lead when they saw two attractive girls at the roadside. They immediately stopped and chatted them up, letting the rest of the field catch up and overtake them. All good, harmless 'boys will be boys' stuff perhaps ...but then again perhaps it wasn't?
In his autobiography, Savile wrote of his 'introduction to the sex act.' His description even then sounded seedy; now it gives a chilling foretaste of his future behaviour. Although he doesn't state his exact age, it appears immediately after an anecdote about a sexual conversation he was having as a 14-year-old, so it is safe to assume it occurred at about the same time, Savile's early teens. 'I was quite simply picked up in the dance hall by a buxom and randy young lady for whom, that night, I was definitely the bottom of the barrel', he said.
She asked him to see her home – the most direct of approaches – and they travelled in the third-class compartment of a corridor-less train for seven miles to Horsforth on the outskirts of Leeds.
Once on board she told him to put his feet up, which he did, but on the seat opposite and not lengthwise as she wished. Savile says: 'I fastened hold of her with tenacity. Heartened by my firm grip she waited for "here it comes" and lay dormant. So did I.'
In gloating manner he continued: 'Realising that not only had she paid the fare but she would also have to do all the work, she manhandled me into a sitting position and to my terror, mixed with embarrassment, slid her hand into my one and only pair of trousers and searched, in vain, for what she hungered.'
After they walked to her home they went behind her house where they leant against a wall screened by a large hedge. 'Clutching me to her body like some flesh-eating plant she once again started her search for the Nile. Oft times since have I tried to remember the details of our time in the bushes.'
It was something he was not only proud of at the time, but was eager to share with his pals. 'I trotted home the seven miles and carefully committed each detail of this amazing night to my memory.' Savile didn't just wallow in sleazy reminiscing, he felt it appropriate to boast of his subsequent behaviour when he added: 'From that day to this there have been trains and, with apologies to the hit parade, boats and planes (I am a member of the 40,000ft Club) and bushes and fields, corridors, doorways, floors, chairs, slag heaps, desks and probably everything except the celebrated chandelier and ironing board.'
He continued: 'As to the right and wrong of it, most of us have burned our bridges, not to mention our boats, long before we realise there could be a right or wrong to it. Ah that we were all but innocent animals. For fun, girls take a lot of berating.'
It is remarkable that Savile chose to make those views public in the mid-seventies when his fame was at his height and when he was a giant of mainstream entertainment, with a vast following of youngsters.
In wartime Leeds, according to Savile, he first thought of joining the Navy like elder brothers John and Vince, but his inability to swim ruled that out. Then he fancied being a Rear-Gunner in the RAF, only for his eyesight failing to meet the required standards.
He was 18 and although the war was nearing its end, he would have to do service in one form or another, and for Savile that resulted in him becoming a 'Bevin Boy' – the young British conscripts who worked in the coal mines of the United Kingdom, from December 1943 until 1948.
As the country could not import coal during World War II, the production of coal from mines in Britain had to be increased. The Minister of Labour, Ernest Bevin, decided that a percentage of young men called up to serve in the forces should work in the mines and one in ten of the young men called up were sent to work in the mines. These conscripts, almost 50,000 in total, were given the nickname 'Bevin Boys'.
To make the process random, one of Bevin's secretaries would each week pull a number from a hat containing all ten numbers 0–9, and all men liable for call-up that week whose National Service number ended in that digit were, with certain exemptions, directed to work in the mines. Not surprisingly, the men came from all walks of life and as well as Savile other Bevin Boys included comedian Eric Morecambe, the farce actor Brian Rix who later became the head of Mencap, and England football hero Nat Lofthouse.
Whatever else Savile may have invented about his life and the experiences that moulded him, it is incontrovertible that the time he spent underground had an impact on him that lasted throughout his life. As he put it: 'The noise, the dark, the dust and the torn fingers created an impression of Hell that I will carry to the grave ... Past memories of my after-school job in my beloved dance hall with its whores and hooligans were like a dream that never existed.'
He was a miner after the war ended and, in total, spent almost seven years in the mining industry, sometimes working with a pick and a short-handled shovel, lying on his side for up to eight hours in just 18 inches of space. Eventually he suffered a back injury and had to wear a steel 'corset' and use walking sticks to get around – his mining days were over. Perhaps that injury played a part in the empathy he had for the sick which he was only too keen to show to the public in years to come.
Savile may have been spending his working life underground, but his mind was in the stars; in a family where no one even owned a motor bike he cut out a photograph of a Rolls-Royce and pinned it inside his wardrobe door.
He would never have bought that 'Roller' if he had stayed in mining, it was the new world he was to enter that enabled him to achieve the fortune he longed for. Having spent his youth around the dance halls of Leeds it was a short step for him to enter the world of music and entertainment – and it was an opportunity he was not going to miss.
Together with a friend he booked a room above the Belle Vue Road branch of the Loyal Order of Ancient Shepherds friendly society for ten shillings (50p) and decided to charge one shilling (5p) to enter. The music came from a radio wired up to a wind-up gramophone and by 9pm they had taken eleven shillings on the door. They had made a profit.
One of the customers then booked him at a fee of 2d10s (£2.50) for her 21st birthday and that celebration took place above a café in Otley near Leeds. He wired his speaker to such an effect that it blasted out noise and once he had been paid he was able to reflect: 'Looking at this vast sum of money I realised most definitely and positively that I had arrived at the threshold of a fortune.'
He decided he wanted a job at the Mecca in Leeds where he had worked part-time as a schoolboy and soon he was on 8d10s a week as assistant manager at the ballroom, rising quickly up the ladder with the nationwide organisation. It was the early 1950s and at last the weariness and austerity of the war years – rationing did not completely end until 1954, an astonishing nine years after the conflict ceased – was being left behind. Savile was determined to be the right man in the right place at the right time.
But it wasn't all petticoats and dreamboats during the Fifties as Savile worked in various Mecca establishments up and down the country. There was an ugly side to these working-class palaces, and Savile was more than capable of not only looking after himself, but ensuring that others did as he told them during the long dark nights of the Fifties and Sixties.
One of the bouncers, Dennis Lemmon, who almost acted as Savile's bodyguard, recalled one incident when Savile was in his early 30s. 'He came in and just ignored us all, walked straight past us. I remember saying: "what's up with him?" and someone in the club replied: "He's up in court tomorrow – interfering with young girls. He's worried".'
A few days later it was business as normal for Savile; his old bounce and confidence was back. 'He was really worried but everything was dropped. I was told he had paid them [the police] off. And apparently that wasn't the first time either but I don't know about that. He had a lot of friends though.
'I would go on walkabouts with him around the club,' he said. 'He would make a point of talking to all the girls in the younger end, the girls who were 14 or 15. Those were the girls he always wanted to speak to.'
Life could be tough on the Northern dance scene, but that didn't bother Savile; quite the opposite. 'I never had anyone beaten up, but I did not take any nonsense in the dance halls. I had to look after the welfare of hundreds of youngsters. I was protecting my young patrons from drugs and other immoral influences.'
In the early 1960s, according to the DJ's autobiography, Savile had another brush with the law after being approached by police asking him to help trace a missing girl. 'If she comes in I'll bring her back tomorrow but I'll keep her all night first as my reward,' he wrote of his meeting with a woman police officer, who had gone to question him.
Sure enough, that evening the young girl came in. Savile claimed that he took her into his office and told her: 'run now if you want, but you can't run all your life.' The girl stayed at the dance and then overnighted at Savile's before he took her to the police station the next morning.
He went on: 'The lady of the law ... was dissuaded from bringing charges against me by her colleagues, for it was well known that were I to go I would probably take half the station with me.'
Savile also worked at The Plaza dance hall in Manchester, where one of his first stunts was to label one evening 'Saturday Night is Crumpet Night', and he also bought a second-hand Bentley which he managed to fit the unmistakeable Rolls-Royce radiator grill to, thereby giving him a black and gold 'Rolls-Royce'. Of those days he later wrote: 'To run a dance hall is better than running a harem because all your wives go off home to reappear fresh and lovely the next night.'
He added that there were two reasons why he would never disclose 'the story of all the girls I have known'. One, he said, was because he respected them too much 'for their incredible days and nights'. The second was that 'no one would believe it' and he would have to take refuge in a Himalayan village as a result.
There was even a spell at Ilford Palais in High Road in 1959 where he ran records-only dance sessions on Monday nights, popular with teenagers. He was quoted in an Essex newspaper years later saying: 'Some of the happiest days of my life were spent in Ilford'. When asked how he got to Ilford he answered: 'I came out of my front door and turned left and it was about 186 miles from there because I lived in Leeds'. When asked how long he was at the Palais for he replied: 'About five feet ten inches'.
Excerpted from Savile the Beast by John McShane. Copyright © 2013 John McShane. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
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