My friendship with Jimmy Savile began when I started covering his charity work for the YEP.
The stories were generally about madcap fundraising stunts but there were other stories too – news that his red Jim’ll Fix It chair had been discovered after 19 years in storage, or that the city’s new conference hall was being named after him, or that he had donated a hefty wad of cash to bright, young doctors at Leeds University.
The stories about the Leeds celebrity were usually picked up by the national press, where he was lauded to the skies. They were always good news stories. After all, he was a much-loved celebrity and an internationally-recognised philanthropist. He was one of the nation’s favourite sons, who had generated £42m for less fortunate people.
That was the late 1990s, but it was not until a few years later that I became pals with Jimmy Savile. An invitation came for me to visit his flat for one particular interview – and I felt excited about it. I was going to the famous penthouse of my childhood hero. What would I find?
It turned out to be a long story and a long friendship, and I went on to write his authorised biography, called How’s About That, Then? I wrote about that first meeting, and this is what I said: “Emerging from the lift into the hallway of the penthouse flat, the swirl of Cuban cigar smoke hit me. Would he be like he was on Jim’ll Fix It? Would he be weird? Would I be safe with him, despite the rumours?”
Yes. Those rumours. Like almost everyone who knew him, I never believed them. Or maybe I did not want to believe them.
As a news reporter in his home city, along with dozens of other journalists, fundraisers and interested parties, I had heard the sly comments and whisperings about his fondness for young girls.
But, when confronted, he would confidently laugh-off any inquiries.
And, of course, we believed it. And we were not alone. Among those taken in by kindly, fundraising Sir Jim were the Pope, Margaret Thatcher, Princess Diana – the great and the good of the world.
The rumours had swirled like his thick cigar smoke around the self-confessed odd bod for decades. They would certainly have reached those at the top of the establishment. Yet he was swamped with honours and a knighthood.
It probably seems odd now, my being pals with an 84-year-old man more than twice my age. But he was friends with thousands, from all walks of life. He compartmentalised his many groups of friends, with those in Leeds, Scotland and Scarborough rarely mixing.
But I still cannot quite take in the fact that the last few weeks have seen him go from childhood hero to someone described as a monster. To find out he was not what I thought he was is utterly devastating.
I know I speak for many of his inner circle. The impact of this terrible about-turn has undoubtedly changed their lives.
I spent lots of time alone with Savile (it feels strange to begin calling him that, as we have all started to do, rather than Sir Jimmy) over a cup of tea in his flat, or out for lunch, or at evening charity functions, when he invited me and my husband along as his special guests.
He could be odd, as he himself acknowledged. One day, just after I had given birth to my first child, he came to visit me unexpectedly, turning up at the maternity unit with a female friend.
He had the nurses laughing as he flirted and he had somehow gained access to a ward full of newborns, out of visiting hours and without being a relative. He certainly wasn’t a threat and joked about coming to see his firstborn child, much to my husband’s amusement. We laughed because we were fond of him.
After that, he never saw my daughter again. He did not want to. Once, we were due to meet for lunch and my mum could not babysit so I rang to say I was bringing my baby. He said: “No, it’s cancelled. Don’t bring the lump with you.” He was quite rude.
But, mostly, we had some amazing times.
All I can say is that over a period of many years, he never once gave me cause for concern – though I think differently now about things he said at the time.
He was not what I would call creepy. We did hug on meeting, but it wasn’t one of those uncomfortably close hugs which some men seem to engineer when they press you tight against them.
But he liked to keep the positive media coverage bubbling. Even at the age of 84, he would ring me and announce a publicity stunt, which he had created from thin air. I was his ‘good news girl’ giving him the positive press stories on which he thrived.
He often said: “It might all end tomorrow.” I wonder, now, if he lived in fear of being discovered.
Once the allegations started to emerge, I found myself at the centre of one of the biggest-ever stories.
The televised funeral at Leeds Cathedral had been fit for royalty and no one could have predicted the tsunami of scandal which was to follow.
Now, “Did you know?” is the oft-repeated question. Sometimes it is: “How could you not know?”
It’s hard to explain. It is bewildering, in fact. To his close circle of friends, the predatory, child-abusing Savile the world has heard so much about for the last few weeks, was not the man we thought we knew so well.
But after hearing stories from women first hand, I now have to accept the terrible truth.
One of his oldest friends told me in tears: “If it is true, then he is one of the greatest conmen that ever lived. He was an extremely clever man, but I did not think he was capable of this.”
Sylvia Nicol, a trustee of his charity and long-time friend since the 70s, says she saw “no inappropriate behaviour ever” by the star, who she worked with raising funds for Stoke Mandeville Hospital: “From the time he came to Stoke Mandeville I only saw him do good”, she said. “It takes away 40 years of very happy, very good memories.”
Another friend, who had known the DJ since they were teenagers, said he and his four daughters had once enjoyed a holiday abroad with the star and he found the allegations difficult to believe: “I can’t accept they are talking about the same person.”
But most of his friends were in denial initially. Now, they are starting to accept the truth. Some swing between disbelief, anger and despair. Those closest to him, those who had no idea, are his forgotten secondary victims. The people who had real relationships with him are left bereft and devastated, let down and confused as more and more accusations emerge.
His family are completely devastated and were forced to make the decision to remove and destroy his Scarborough headstone. Dead, browned flowers now rest on an unmarked grave.
Yet my book was based on the Jimmy we knew at the time. I did address the rumours, the fruitless police investigation and the reactions to the tittle tattle by Savile himself and those who knew him, but at the time that’s all there was: just rumours.
A huge criminal investigation is currently under way with more than 400 lines of enquiry and a possible 300 victims involved, with assistance from 16 different police forces.
It is hard to equate this with the man who, at the peak of his fame, was undoubtedly one of the most famous men in Britain.
“If you are odd, people want to know why you are odd and not normal,” he would often quip.
He spoke in riddles.
My own family and friends were entranced with tales of what he had been up to, what he was wearing or what he talked about.
Thinking back, he littered his words with phrases that I now see in a new light. I would laugh when he would say, unprompted, things like: “She said she was over 16, boss, honest.” Maybe he felt guilty? Maybe he didn’t?
I wonder, when he used to sit quietly at the back of St Anne’s Catholic Cathedral, what he thought about. Did he pray?
I remember how once he saw an attractive pair of women, in their 40s, lunching at the next table in the Flying Pizza restaurant, in Roundhay. He swaggered over, caused a fuss and asked the ‘girls’ if they were “old enough to be out on their own”. Always comments about age.
When the first allegations of sexual abuse emerged, I felt a pang of sickness in my stomach, pondering such seemingly innocent banter anew.
Around the time of his 80th birthday in 2006, I spent many days with him as I interviewed him for a series of features. It was then I first asked him about the rumours about his fondness for young girls. He reacted as expected and said with a well-rehearsed speech: “It goes with the territory.”
He was dismissive, as if what I was saying was ridiculous.
But he was always manipulative with the press and, even though he insisted he would always answer any question thrown at him, he would often change the subject or talk nonsense.
He went on to tell me an anecdote about how he had been to give music lessons in a Leeds junior school and, some time later, two little girls aged about 11, knocked on the door of his flat and he let them in, gave them a cup of tea and sent them home. He said: “It was the stupidest thing I ever did as one of their dads came round threatening to kill me.” That question of age again.
Now I feel let down and betrayed by the man I knew, but hindsight is a wonderful thing and you cannot go around accusing someone on the basis of mere whispers – especially a millionaire ‘national institution’.
Did he really orchestrate his lifestyle at various hospitals, Broadmoor and TV studios so he could gain access to vulnerable young people? He cannot now answer for himself, but it seems to appear that way. Whatever inquiry is undertaken or however deep an investigator digs there can be no real answers, and no real closure for any victims. Or for those who thought they knew him.
I used to joke that, after my book research, I could answer any question about any aspect of Jimmy Savile’s life on Mastermind; that I knew exactly what he was doing at any period in time. Not now.