With his new play on the life of Jimmy Savile about to open, the writer and broadcaster tells Sarah Freeman why the time is right to bring his story to the stage.
Jonathan Maitland admits there may be a question over the timing of his new play about Jimmy Savile. He doesn’t, however, believe it’s too soon to mine the life of the disgraced entertainer, whose reputation unravelled following his death in 2011, for drama. “Not all,” he says. “If anything it’s too late.”
An Audience with Jimmy Savile, starring the impressionist Alistair McGowan, opens in London next week and while its title conjures up images of throwaway, light entertainment, Maitland, who cut his broadcasting teeth on Watchdog before moving on to ITV’s Tonight programme, insists the play is a serious piece of journalism.
“Let’s be clear we’re not putting on Jimmy Savile The Musical. Do we show he was an entertainer? Yes, of course we do, because that’s part of the story, but the fact is drama can shine a light onto issues in a way that current affairs can’t.
“A documentary about Savile, however, illuminating, can’t go into the sitting rooms of ordinary families and hear those fathers who didn’t believe their daughters. It can show the transcript of police interviews, but it can’t actually show how inept those officers were. I have spent my career in journalism, but there are some stories which it can’t tell satisfactorily and this is one of them. This is about asking the question which still hasn’t been answered, which is, just how did he get away with it?”
The scale of Savile’s crimes was unprecedented. A report published by the NHS in February revealed how he abused 60 people over two decades at Stoke Mandeville Hospital. Like many of the organisations he seemed to so effortlessly hoodwink, he had used his role as a tireless fundraiser as a mask, one which hid a sexual predator who raped and abused his victims in television dressing rooms, children’s homes, hospital wards and schools.
Today, the extent of Savile’s crimes is still not known. Dame Janet Smith’s inquiry into abuse at the BBC, where for decades the Leeds entertainer was one of its biggest stars, was due to out last month, but the publication has been delayed to avoid prejudicing ongoing police investigations.
However, having drawn on transcripts of interviews, witness statements and official reports, Maitland has drawn his own conclusions as to why and how Savile’s crimes went unpunished.
“A number of organisations which really should have known better were compliant. They gave him the access to vulnerable individuals which allowed him to indulge his depravity.
“I read one really interesting psychotherapy paper which said that while Savile never married or had children he found a family in the shape of institutions and organisations. And like all good families, the NHS, Broadmoor and the Catholic Church showed him unconditional love. In their eyes he could do no wrong.
“However, he was also an extremely cunning and manipulative individual. He got away with an extraordinary amount because he knew the legal system would protect him. He knew that no jury would believe a damaged girl who had grown up in a posh borstal against a knight of the realm. The scales of justice were weighted towards him and he knew it.”
Since the Savile scandal, which has swept a number of other entertainers in its wake, much has been written about the culture of the time, with some suggesting the actions of 40 or 50 years ago shouldn’t be judged by today’s standards.
“Let’s be clear, while sexual harassment was tolerated in the 60s and 70s, sexual abuse wasn’t. However, when Savile was seen behaving inappropriately, it was dismissed as just Jimmy being Jimmy and not just by the authorities. There are stories of parents putting their fingers in their ears when their daughters came to them for help. No one wanted to see the iceberg submerged beneath the surface.
“The pendulum has swung extraordinarily the other way so now 80 year old men are being hauled up in front of the law for patting the bottom of a carnival queen in 1972 and being made to wait a year before they are told no charges will be brought. However, those cases should not detract from what Savile did.”
McGowan was first choice to play Savile and while his performance will inevitably be the focus of the reviews come press night, Maitland says the heart of the piece belongs to Lucy, a fictionalised victim of the entertainer played by Leah Whittaker.
“When I read the script any initial reservations I might have had disappeared. I knew that this was a story which should be told,” says the Hebden Bridge-born actress on a break from rehearsals. “Jonny worked closely with the solicitor representing many of the victims and I’ve also done my own research, so while Lucy is not any one woman who was abused by him, I hope she does give voice to some of their frustrations and fears.
“When I first heard Alistair doing that voice, it was eerie, it’s so very distinctive, but he’s not there doing a Savile impersonation to get laughs. There are really two storylines to this play, the public and the private man; the national treasure and the man who abused women like Lucy.”
Maitland says he sat in on an initial read through of the play, but has deliberately stayed away from rehearsals to allow the cast to find their feet. In the meantime he’s been fielding the endless requests for interviews and as opening night draws closer he’s confident that any fears the work is somehow exploitative will prove unfounded.
“I think it is a compelling piece of drama, but I also hope that people see the optimism within it. This play really is about Lucy and all those other victims who had the courage to keep going and keep telling their story. It’s also about the ability of a family to heal itself.
“You can’t predict how an audience will react, but I hope the play helps them understand how a man like Savile was able to carry on doing what he did. Unless we lay bare the mistakes of the past and examine them really closely we are damned to repeat them.”
This is not Maitland’s first foray into theatre. Earlier this year he saw the premiere of his debut play Dead Sheep, about the Geoffrey Howe speech which led to Margaret Thatcher’s downfall. While much less controversial in terms of subject matter, he insists he was much more nervous than he expects to be when the curtain goes up on An Audience with Jimmy Savile.
“I stayed up all night checking the internet to see if the first reviews had dropped. I didn’t mind if the critics didn’t like the play, but I was worried they might say this bloke can’t write. Thankfully they didn’t, and knowing that I will be much more relaxed this time. I fully expect this play to be a bit Marmite. I am sure some will feel it’s the wrong time and place, but I will take those slings and arrows, that’s my job.”
The play runs at the Park Theatre from June 10 to July 11. 0207 870 6876, www.parktheatre.co.uk