As a career move, dying was the savviest option for Jimmy Savile. Unlike American comedian Bill Cosby, who’s still alive to issue terse denials to the more than 50 women who’ve alleged that he drugged and raped them, BBC TV and radio star Savile was safely toes up before his sex crimes were revealed and investigated.
McGowan is brilliantly chilling as Savile, mimicking the quacking voice, the torrents of jabberwocky he spewed when he felt someone was about to blow his cover as a serial felon.
Jonathan Maitland’s taut and tightly acted An Audience with Jimmy Savile was a smash hit at London’s Park Theatre and packed the house at Assembly Studio One during its short Fringe run. (It closes August 22.) It is a slick piece of docudrama. Journalist Maitland has drawn on Savile’s own words from interviews, police transcripts and TV appearances to give audiences, some of whom may not be familiar with the sordid Savile case, a basic primer on who the man was, what he did and how he got away with it.
Impressionist-turned-actor Alistair McGowan plays Savile as a sneering snake in a scraggly white pageboy wig and blue lamé boiler suit. An Audience opens with Savile, never without his fat cigar, sitting down for a This Is Your Life-type TV special hosted by an unctuous presenter uttering oiling phrases about 'honouring heroes’ and how Savile is 'the most-loved man in Britain.’
For decades he was, cosying up to royals, prime ministers (Maggie adored him) and the doctors of the two hospitals he fundraised for and that gave him free run of their premises. Where, according to what’s now known, Savile raped and molested children, teenagers, senior citizens, patients with physical and mental disabilities and, according to some reports, perhaps the recently deceased remains of others.
The play doesn’t get into all the gory details, but it does get into some. Maitland telescopes Savile’s teenage victims into one composite character, a woman who was never believed when she told authorities and her parents that Savile raped her in hospital when she was 12. (He gave her a signed photo and a crucifix as souvenirs of the attack.)
'People don’t want to believe things about famous people,’ a policeman tells her when she tries to get law enforcement to file charges against Savile. When they attempt to question him about numerous accusations from the 1970s (including a suspicion that he was the Yorkshire Ripper), he flies into a rage, screaming 'Never happened!’ and threatens to take the 'slags’ and 'tarts’ to court for slandering him. (Actors Charlotte Page, Robert Perkins, Graham Seed and Leah Whitaker smoothly step in and out of multiple roles in the play.)
No question that McGowan is brilliantly chilling as Savile, mimicking the quacking voice, the torrents of jabberwocky he spewed when he felt someone was about to blow his cover as a serial felon. Where the play lets McGowan’s performance down is in its choppy scene structure (the Fringe version did lose 20 minutes from the London one) and its reliance on clichés. When one of Savile’s victims confronts him in his home – a fiction that feels false and melodramatic – he slugs her. Rising slowly from the floor, she tells Savile she no longer hates him – and you hope that the next words won’t be 'now I pity you.’ But that’s what she says.
As Jimmy Savile’s crimes continue to make headlines, An Audience is sure to keep finding audiences interested in seeing the monster reanimated, if only for a little over an hour. After that it’s good to remember that he’s a’moulderin’. Savile said he wanted his epitaph to read 'I won.’ He died thinking he did.