A female victim of Jimmy Savile looks directly at Louis Theroux in Sunday’s documentary Louis Theroux: Savile and asks, with great shrewdness: “Do you feel like you were groomed?”
She’s not talking about sexual grooming, something at which Savile, we now know, was infamously, grotesquely adept. Theroux himself, who’s discussing his 2000 documentary When Louis Met Jimmy, says the term “grooming” is much too strong.
But we know what the woman means. Savile was a wicked, selfish, incorrigible manipulator of people in a way that was calculated to leave him free to destroy often young, vulnerable lives with an insouciance that was breathtaking.
Theroux was thoroughly taken in by Savile all those years ago, or taken in by the personality that Savile chose to project, probably because he liked Theroux. Sixteen years on, in this new documentary, Theroux tries to understand why and how he was duped by a man who became his friend. It sounds like a self-justifying exercise in self-flagellation. This is Louis Theroux, after all, a clever documentary maker with an ability to peel away the layers of some of the world’s most noxious people – from the bigots of the Westboro Baptist Church (motto “God Hates Fags”) to South African fascist thug Eugène Terre’Blanche.
So how did Savile breach Theroux’s defences? It’s a complicated question, though admittedly probably not a major consideration for Savile’s victims. Dame Janet Smith’s report revealed earlier this year that at least 72 people were sexually abused by Savile while he worked at the BBC. Roaming freely around the NHS, he also assaulted often very young victims at Stoke Mandeville Hospital and Leeds General Infirmary with ease and impunity.
Yet possibly Theroux got closer than anyone, at least to hints of a dark side. There was that memorable sequence in the first documentary when Savile, who didn’t know he was being filmed, talked about how he dealt punitively with troublemakers when working as a doorman at clubs in his native Leeds (“I tied ’em up and put ’em down in the bloody boilerhouse”). This was not the garrulous, gurning “Jim” that every- one knew. Though neither was it the predatory abuser unmasked only after his death, the man at ease with his own depravity.
But Savile was good at that, presenting different faces to different people. Or not even bothering to present a face to his victims, he just took what he wanted. A woman recounts how, as a patient at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, she was sitting on a bed, awaiting admission when Savile climbed in a window, assaulted and insulted her, and left.
It’s easy to see why Theroux is so troubled. Louis Theroux: Savile starts with footage of Savile leaving Theroux’s house as his host shouts after him that there’s always a room for him, whenever he wants to visit. Chillingly, with hindsight, Savile’s departing cab is seen driving away with little kids running behind shouting delightedly, “Jimmy! Jimmy!”
It must be tough as a documentary maker to know that you failed to do the one thing that documentary makers are supposed to do, get to the truth. Indeed, Theroux starts with the inten- tion “to make sense of my own failure”. And the BBC itself must still be holding this particular thought in its corporate head.
I think Theroux does reach some kind of understanding with himself at least, because like everyone else who would smile uncomfortably while muttering, “Ah, that’s just Jimmy Savile,” he was bamboozled by the man Savile chose to show him. Theroux asks the female victim what she thought when she watched the original documentary. She laughs drily: “I thought, ‘Poor Louis, he’s really, really been hoodwinked.’ ”
Theroux adds: “I feel ashamed now, knowing what I know.” It’s his attempt to put the record straight, but sadly it’s too late. We do know, all of us, and it’s unbearable.
Louis Theroux: Savile is on BBC2 at 9pm tonight