Artistic licence is an often necessary aspect of turning life into art. Unless the subject under the biographer’s microscope has recorded every waking moment of their life, there are inevitable gaps the imagination needs to fill. Most of the time, there are enough known moments already covered that can suggest the likely outcome of an unrecorded one. If, say, it was on paper that a renowned practitioner of promiscuity took it upon herself to visit Lord Byron one evening, but no one else was present at a visit that spanned several hours, the chances are we can guess the famously debauched poet and his frisky visitor didn’t spend their time together playing scrabble.
But there’s a world of difference between merely joining dots by using past facts as a guide and basing a fictitious account of a real life on hearsay, rumour, an absolute absence of evidence to substantiate the script and basic lies to present the writer’s work as authentic. For all the sophistication they like to credit themselves with, theatregoers are just as susceptible and gullible when it comes to a play in which an actual once-living person features as the lead character (and the writer has chosen to mould his characterisation via utterly unreliable sources) as a cinema or television audience would be. How many movies or series have we all seen over the years that have been based upon the lives of real people who lived within living memory, ones that those who personally knew the people involved have condemned as inaccurate and inauthentic?
I remember the cinematic portrayal of the tempestuous relationship between Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath that appeared around ten years ago being ripped to shreds by family and friends of the poetic twosome; and while it’s understandable that there can be resentment at the lives of our nearest and nearest being caricatured as entertainment, even an audience for whom such figures were distant and untouchable deserve at least as close an approximation of them as is feasible, given the legal and moral minefield a project of this nature has to navigate. Recent critically acclaimed TV plays about the likes of cherished comedy legends such as Harry H Corbett and Tommy Cooper have raised the hackles of their children, which highlights the care and delicacy that needs to be taken by the writer when seeking to fictionalise a life.
What if the person being portrayed was universally reviled, however? Surely they’re fair game for a poison pen and unworthy of the same considerations a beloved public figure would demand? Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, for example, once had their gruesome criminal careers dramatised on the small screen twice in the space of a year and the only complaints came from the families of their victims. Nobody raised any objections on behalf of the Moors Murderers themselves, and why indeed should they? But in a way, this sets a dangerous precedent in that anyone who has been deemed beyond the pale can be portrayed in any way the writer sees fit and nobody will complain; this gives them a degree of artistic licence they can abuse to their heart’s content.
The final belated blow to Channel 4’s lingering reputation as a broadcaster with a conscience came with the appalling so-called drama-documentary of 2009, ‘The Execution of Gary Glitter’. Blending fictitious moments of drama with talking heads of such noted liberal opinion as Anne Widdecombe and Gary Bushell, this terrible programme invented a crime the viewers would associate Mr Glitter with and imagined the return of capital punishment in the UK, with the ‘Portly Paedophile of Pop’ ( The Sun) the people’s choice for the reintroduced noose. Anyone else would have sued Channel 4 for such a gross character assassination, but I suspect the station knew Glitter wouldn’t dare; and he didn’t – although he did lodge a complaint with Ofcom. My elderly grandfather tuned-in and apparently thought he was watching a news programme, believing one of the biggest home-grown pop stars of the 70s had indeed gone to the gallows – for real.
Imprisoned and ruined he may be, but Gary Glitter is still alive, whereas Jimmy Savile isn’t. This makes the job of the man with a hatchet-job in mind a hell of a lot easier. In essence, Savile can be portrayed as anything from a necrophiliac cannibal with a penchant for bestiality to a closet Nazi turned on by footage of concentration camp corpses. Who (bar marginalised and mistrusted Savile family members) would have the nerve to raise any objections after the relentless grave-pissing project of the past three years?
Despite the legitimate questions posed on forums such as this (and numerous others), ones that point to holes in the paedophile plot so wide one could drive a whole fleet of coach-and-horses through them, the posthumous image of Jimmy Savile is now as fixed in the public imagination as the one he had during his lifetime. He was previously regarded as vaguely creepy albeit ultimately harmless, opinions largely overlooked because few could dispute the extent of his charity work; but now he is Genghis Khan. He is Jack the Ripper, Hitler, Stalin, Sutcliffe and every other human being who has inflicted misery on millions or half-a-dozen. Nothing will change that for the immediate future, which enables somebody like broadcaster Jonathan Maitland to nip in and add to the industry with a play by the name of ‘An Audience with Jimmy Savile’.
An article by the author of the play that appeared in last Saturday’s Independent willingly waded through bullshit from the very first paragraph. In it, Maitland claimed the BBC had edited out every appearance of Savile from surviving editions of ‘Top of the Pops’ he hosted; this is a blatant untruth, a convenient rumour that serves to confirm the Beeb’s commitment to atonement and gives the survivors’ lobby a sense of victory. Maitland’s Independent article recites familiar phrases, ones that have become this scandal’s equivalent of the track-listing on a TV-advertised K-Tel LP. Featuring such classics as ‘How on earth did he get away with it brazenly for so long?’; ‘I had no idea what was going on’; ‘He was a brutal, psychopathic paedophile and rapist’; and the unforgettable ‘He groomed a nation’.
Maitland has apparently interviewed various Victims of Savile and has amalgamated their testimonies into one fictitious character to represent them all – well, there are so many of them, casting the lot would require the play to be staged on the pitch at Wembley Stadium. None other than the post-modern Mike Yarwood, Alistair McGowan, has been chosen to play the pantomime villain, just as he did on his own BBC1 series fifteen years ago, when spoofing Eminem’s video for ‘Stan’. To counteract initial Twitter accusations that his great artistic endeavour was ‘profiteering from misery’ (perish the thought), Maitland has promised ‘a substantial proportion (of profit) will go to victims of abuse’ – a noble gesture to add a further sheen of legitimacy to the latest product of a booming business.
Anyone can accuse Jimmy Savile and receive the thumbs-up from press and public alike. It’s a win-win situation, as they say – with the exception of anyone, whether or not they gave two figs for Jimmy Savile, who cares about the truth. But it doesn’t matter if Jonathan Maitland is unfaithful to the truth; truth is the first casualty of a life when that life has been rewritten to fit an agenda palatable to those with a vested interest in the rewrite.