The late 90s were a time of geopolitical turbulence; the Berlin Wall had crumbled, then the Soviet Union. Nelson Mandela, so long the name of south London tower blocks, became reality as he walked out of Victor Verster prison before our very eyes. The upstart BSB was challenging Sky TV and both were challenging the safe solid BBC. The channel tunnel joined two historic adversaries in conjugal bliss. Identity politics was in its infancy, questions of race, class, and sexuality were being discussed openly. Barriers were being scaled on the flickering screen in our living rooms – to be a documentary maker in those days required something different, to be edgy, cool, to challenge the norm, to be the ‘Banksy’ of the silver screen or to disappear without trace. Shock value was essential.
Back in the late 90s, Louis Theroux was just such an ambitious young documentary maker. He made a documentary about the original ‘shock-jock’, Jimmy Savile in 2000. He threw in every tool in his toolbox of how to be ‘edgy, cool, and challenging’. It worked. The nation gasped as he asked Savile whether he ‘was a paedophile’. They gawped as he described how Savile’s devotion to his recently deceased mother was such that he hadn’t felt able to throw out her clothes. Despite the fact that probably half the nation sleeps in a bed, or at least a room, in which someone has died in, they gazed in awe as our edgy young documentary maker actually slept in the bed ‘that Mrs Savile died in’. How cool was that? What devotion to your art?
The only fly in the ointment was that Louis’ headlong dash to beat cool Britannia to the title of coolest of them all, didn’t look so clever fifteen years later when an amateur documentary maker took advantage of Savile’s death to declare that Savile ‘really was a paedophile’ and indirectly invite anyone who had ever met him to put in a claim for sexual abuse.
Louis’ edgy question as to whether Savile was a paedophile had turned into a Michelin tyre full of petrol round the Theroux gullet – only a matter of time before someone set light to it.
Something had to be done. A career salvaged. Perhaps a friend savaged? He was only a dead friend. Which was most important? Being a diligent honest documentary maker – or being a ‘still employed’ documentary maker?
We found out on Monday night.
We watched the ‘creepy and weird’ Louis riding his bicycle round an empty room with drawn curtains in Louis’ house, as you do, when you want to show how avant garde you are. His ‘subject’, his overnight guest, Jimmy Savile, a good enough friend to be invited to stay in his house a full year after the documentary was aired, sensibly sat downstairs smoking an early morning cigar, whilst this curious behaviour manifested itself. Later, we are treated to the sight of Louis on hands and knees withdrawing a box of ‘artifacts’ concerning the late Jimmy Savile, a man he now acknowledges to be a paedophile, a man he now says he had evidence in the form of a letter for the past 15 years, evidence that he has stored in his bedroom for the past 15 years…you want ‘creepy, weird’? Huh!
He started his re-examination of ‘the facts’ by travelling up to Oswestry to meet Kat Ward. Most people have no idea that Kat Ward didn’t appear on the ill-fated Exposure programme. They are not sufficiently interested to spot that the clip seen of her interview with Meirion Jones was never shown on BBC, but mysteriously managed to make it to ITV news. Most people are not sufficiently interested to realise that Kat never repeated to Dame Janet Smith her tale of being ‘forced’ to give Jimmy oral sex in his Rolls Royce ‘in order to got to his tv show’. Most people aren’t sufficiently interested to realise that this version of events only appears in her self-published biography where he is described as ‘JS’.
But then most people aren’t sufficiently interested to have tracked down the official transmission date of that programme and Kat’s birth certificate to find that it was a couple of days before her 16th birthday, that she wasn’t ’14’ as it was said she had claimed. Nor are most sane people sufficiently interested to plough through all the official documents to find that Jimmy first visited Duncroft a mere 6 weeks before that TV programme.
I was sufficiently interested. I was myself at Duncroft. Not a ‘boarding school for emotionally disturbed teenagers’ as described on Monday – but a locked approved school. Locked. We were prevented from seeing our boyfriends, in fact any single man – in my case the newly divorced husband of the couple who had taken the place of parents for me. It was that strict.
Not surprisingly, when I first published that fact, I was contacted by many long standing friends and family of Savile, anxious to make contact with anyone who wasn’t taking this strange tale at face value. Amongst those long standing friends who knew the man well, two stand out. A Mr Will Yapp and a Mr Louis Theroux. I have spent, or rather wasted, many hours on the phone with Will Yapp, Theroux’ producer. They were eager for ‘facts’, not ‘opinion – most commendable.
Amongst those ‘facts’ – not ‘opinion’, that were passed on, were inconvenient facts like Kat Ward’s birth certificate; the transmission date of the programme she appeared on, the police confirmation of the date Savile first set foot in Duncroft; the e-mails exchanged between Kat Ward and other Duncroft girls admitting that she couldn’t actually remember anything of her time there; the official confirmation that one’s first six months in Duncroft was a time of no home visits, certainly no trips out in any Rolls Royce with a disc jockey who had just come into contact with the school – and just for good measure, the contact details of the girl who to this day has a tea chest full of Savile memorabilia from her time as his ‘special friend’ when she was 15 – and unabused by him – and at Duncroft.
He hasn’t lost the contact details of any of the people he plagued for information – only a couple of weeks ago he was retweeting articles of mine, so I know he is still snooping.
I don’t bother to watch the plethora of ‘Savile’ documentaries that come on TV. Eager young producers looking for cheap time fillers. Knowing the amount of special access Louis had had by virtue of his ‘long standing friendship’ with Savile – I did record this one.
By three and a half minutes in, Theroux was tramping up the path of Kat Ward. ‘Can you remember the first time Jimmy Savile came to the school’ he asked. Did he follow up by saying how old were you then? No. Did he follow up by saying how long had you been at the school by then? No Did he follow up by saying ‘Do you know how he came to be visiting the school’ No. Just allowed the old meme of how Savile always brought records and cigarettes for all the other girls – not just the girl he was visiting. Terrible man!
Then Theroux asks ‘and some of the girls would get chosen to take a ride in the Rolls with Jimmy, is that right?’ Cut to a shot of Jimmy sitting in the back of his Rolls…Did Theroux ask the bloody obvious question ‘and were you one of those girls?’ No, he didn’t. The significance of that is that we know that during a fete in 1979, trips ’round the block’ for three or four girls at a time, in the back of Jimmy’s Rolls Royce, was one of the events of the fete. One of the stories that has been handed on from girl to girl – but Kat Ward wasn’t there in 1979. She had long since left.
So the juxtaposition of Theroux’s disingenuous question ‘and some of the girls’ – the interspersing piece of film of Jimmy sitting in the back of his car – and Kat saying ‘he had mainly been doing a bit of snogging’ – terrible man, disc jockey, kissing young fans, ooh er Matron – cut to more footage of Savile in a Rolls Royce – and back to Kat Ward. Finally, after all these years, she repeats her statement that Savile asked her to fellate him in the back of his car in order to go onto his TV programme.
Did Theroux ask how she came to be out with Savile in his car in that brief 6 week period between his arrival at the school and the TV programme? Did he hell. Did he ask whether anyone else had accompanied them? No Did he then ask how come she was allowed to go out alone in a car with a man who had come to visit someone else at the school? Did he hell again! Did he ask how it was that Operation Orchard hadn’t been able to find anyone else to verify the tale of the repeatedly abused (by her step-father) Kat Ward being allowed out of a locked facility in her first few weeks of incarceration with a single man, any single man, especially one who had come to see another girl in the Headmistress’s study?
Kat goes on to explain the finer gory details of ‘as a child’ fellating an adult, a description that would have made most people instinctively flinch; a gentle reminder, dear reader, that even if this version of events could possibly be true – within a fortnight of it supposedly taking place, she would have been free to marry James Wilson Savile…so much for ‘as a child’…but she continued ‘and he flung the car door open and said ‘not in the car, not in the car’ – but then there was nothing in this clip by which we could ascertain whether she was talking about Savile or her step-father. Our fearless documentary maker certainly didn’t bother to establish which.
‘Welcome to the 21st century’s strangest friendship’ boasted Louis.
Last Friday night, as the preview clips of this documentary were sent out. Louis was lauded by the Grierson Trust. The Grierson Trust commemorates the pioneering Scottish documentary maker John Grierson: the man widely regarded as the father of the documentary.
It was a desire to make a drama out of the ordinary, to set against the prevailing drama of the extraordinary: a desire to bring the citizen’s eye in from the ends of the earth to the story, his own story, of what was happening under his nose.
I cannot imagine a less worthy recipient of that award than Theroux’ latest oeuvre. Manipulative; obscuring; unquestioning of the most salient facts – it was a publicly broadcast polishing of a curriculum vitae by one of the few people in possession of the facts that should be questioned.
I didn’t bother to watch the rest of the programme – why waste my time on nonsense?
Perhaps I am not alone in my despair at this lowering of journalistic standards.
As that Grierson award was being handed out, over at the Prix Italia festival in Lampedusa, one of our pre-eminent news journalists was sadly walking away from 34 years at the helm of BBC news.
To be frank, I worry about the direction in which we’re going. By “we”, by the way, I mean my profession, our profession – the media generally – not the BBC in particular.
Do we, the media, do enough today, to explain and explore? Or are we too busy moving on to the next thing, in thrall to the pace of news?
Yes, in a long and detailed speech, more than worth reading in full, Helen Boaden, doyenne of responsible news journalists, walked away from the BBC that she was once so proud to be part of – even as Louis Theroux was being showered with the Grierson award.
It’s a parable for our times.