My Zoom link opens to reveal the screenwriter Neil McKay wearing dark glasses and a baseball cap in a room with lights down and curtains drawn.


His four-part drama The Reckoning, with Steve Coogan as Jimmy Savile, has been controversial – with objections that the story of the prolific sex offender should not be dramatised, especially not by the BBC, which employed him for more than 40 years. Does the writer not want to be seen?

"Apologies," he says. "I’m not in disguise. A migraine just descended. I’ve got lights in my eyes and a pain at the back of my head, so I’m trying to simulate a darkened room."

The fact that McKay declines an offer to defer the interview ­­– or leave it to Jeff Pope, producer of The Reckoning, who now joins us, fully lit, in another digital window – testifies to his desire to talk about a series that, in the three years since it was announced, has been subject to regular negative coverage led by The Sun newspaper.

"Clearly, we realise how controversial the project is," says Pope. "When I asked Steve to do it, he didn’t immediately say yes, but talked to his family and friends. And they divided into two camps – you absolutely must do this, and you absolutely must not. There was no one in the middle. And it was that polarity that made him want to take it on."

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Steve Coogan as Jimmy Savile in first look of The Reckoning wearing a red tracksuit, sitting smoking a cigar
Steve Coogan as Jimmy Savile in first look of The Reckoning. BBC/ITV Studios/Matt Squire

McKay acknowledges that he and Pope are used to a "degree of hostility". Titans of true-crime TV drama, their previous collaborations include This Is Personal: The Hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper and dramas about the serial killers Ian Brady and Myra Hindley (See No Evil: the Moors Murders) and Fred and Rose West (Appropriate Adult).

As a result, they have had a long time to consider the common complaint that horrific crimes shouldn’t be turned into peak-time fiction.

"I’ve faced that throughout my career," says Pope. "My view is that the quickest way to invite something like this to happen again is to ignore it.

"I passionately believe we have to explore stories like Savile. The same is true with Fred West, Myra Hindley and Ian Brady. The theme of a lot of stuff that Neil and I do is that it’s a warning from the past."

McKay adds: "I think what drama can do – which documentaries can’t – is put you right in the middle of these scenes. Savile started out as a dance-hall DJ in Manchester. And DJs enjoy controlling a room.

"I think he was a con man. What we try to show is how, in successive institutions – Leeds General Infirmary, the pop business, the BBC, eventually Margaret Thatcher’s private office and beyond – the mechanics of Savile’s con worked. That’s what I think only drama can give you."

It was, though, a documentary – Exposure: the Other Side of Jimmy Savile – broadcast on ITV in October 2012, a year after Savile’s death, that first exposed allegations of serious sexual assaults on children and adults that expensive lawyers and strong connections with the media and police had kept hidden during the presenter’s lifetime.

The film triggered multiple investigations that ultimately revealed hundreds of victims at hospitals and schools where Savile volunteered, and at the BBC. The position of the corporation was complicated by the fact that it had broadcast hagiographic obituaries of Savile, but pulled a planned Newsnight report into his paedophilia.

Pope understands why some question the BBC’s suitability to broadcast a Savile drama. "It’s important to understand that this is not a BBC production for the BBC. It’s an ITV Studios production for the BBC."

That is a small but crucial point. Although it may be of little interest to viewers, the fact is that major TV networks now make shows for each other. "So, in that respect, it is independent," says Pope.

"It sends a signal to the outside world that this isn’t the BBC 'marking its own homework'. And, to amplify that, I can honestly say that there was never any case of the BBC saying, 'You can’t put that in because it makes us look bad,' which I know is what people suspect. But that never happened."

In addition, explains McKay, "On all these dramas, we don’t even begin to do anything until we’ve spoken to people who experienced the crimes and we sense that we have a consensus to proceed."

Each episode of The Reckoning is bookended by interviews with four people whose assaults by Savile are dramatised. A newspaper report suggested that the BBC "ordered" these inclusions to make the drama more sympathetic to victims. Totally untrue, says Pope: "The real victims were in there from the first draft. We taped their interviews and then Neil used some of their words in the scripts. Later, we re-interviewed them on camera. But they were always there as a concept."

These Savile survivors are able to be shown because they have waived the lifelong legal anonymity that those who have suffered sex crimes are offered. Most victims haven’t, which is why, explains Pope, there are some composite characters and scenes: "People will obviously ask, 'Why are there invented sequences?' And the answer is that there are hundreds of Savile victims, most of whom can’t be publicly identified. But by combing through the hundreds of stories, you see a pattern."

Steve Coogan as Jimmy Savile in The Reckoning wearing a purple shirt and blue tracksuit jacket
Steve Coogan as Jimmy Savile in The Reckoning. BBC/YouTube

Crucial to McKay’s research were those who encountered Savile not as a victim but as an employee or friend. "There was a man called Charles Halligan, a fellow Catholic who knew Savile for most of his life and worked with him at Leeds Infirmary. I knew he was dead but managed to find his widow, Beryl, and got to know her in the last years of her life. She’s played by Siobhan Finneran in the drama and she and Charles are sort of us, the viewer.

"Charles is the one who’s gullible and taken in. Beryl – and this comes directly from her own experience – had his number very early on, but her husband used to say, 'Oh, that’s just Jimmy!' So that becomes an important dynamic in the drama."

No doubt viewers of The Reckoning will speculate to what extent Savile accepted guilt and expected exposure. McKay was strongly guided by Beryl Halligan on this: "She told me that every Mother’s Day she, Charles and Savile would go to Killingbeck, the Roman Catholic cemetery in Leeds, and they would put flowers on their mothers’ graves, which were near to each other.

"And Savile used to say, with reference to his family burial plot, 'I’ll be going in there one day.' But Beryl knew Savile right to the end, and she said that, later on, he suggested to her that he wouldn’t go in the family grave at all."

Instead, as requested in his will, Savile was buried in Scarborough’s Woodlands Cemetery in a gold coffin under a triptych headstone with the epitaph: "It was good while it lasted." At the request of his surviving relatives, that grave was levelled in October 2012, after the exposure of his crimes, and is now unmarked.

"Beryl," says McKay, "came to the conclusion he didn’t want his dead family polluted by his presence. That it was a sort of confession. And that strain runs throughout the drama. I think he thought that the past would catch up with him; it was a race against the grave. The grave won, much to the fury of his victims and survivors. But I think he knew that it was coming and made sure to avoid the bulldozers going to his parents’ grave."

Everyone, whether Catholic or not, struggles to understand how such a prolific and terrible criminal was simultaneously a Mass-going Catholic, one who probably feared that only his prolific charitable works might prevent him from an eternity of hellfire.

Savile’s Catholicism was revealingly idiosyncratic: he "jokes" in an autobiography that if St Peter won’t let him in through the pearly gates, he’ll break St Peter’s fingers. Do we think that, as Catholics are required to, Savile made a deathbed confession?

"I can’t answer that," says McKay. "People will have to watch the drama. But it’s fair to say the shape of the whole thing goes towards the deathbed and the breaking of St Peter’s fingers. It was just a matter of chance I found someone who could bear witness.

"I can’t reveal the source of this, but I talked to a person who was in there at the very, very end and is a Catholic, and you’re absolutely right – his [Savile’s] faith stayed with him."

Other revealing insights came to light when McKay visited Glencoe in the Scottish Highlands, where Savile kept a cottage. "I got to know the guy who was effectively the caretaker and also did various alterations. Savile got him to arrange a mirror so that, from his chair, he could see coaches coming down the mountain pass from Glencoe.

"The drivers of the tourist buses would say, 'Coming up on the right here, the home of Jimmy Savile. And, if you’re lucky, you might see him.' Savile, having seen the bus in the mirror, would go out onto the balcony and wave and throw his hands up.

"And because Savile, at the end, was lonely, this chap would go to sit with him and Savile would ramble a bit and say, 'I’ve never had a computer because that’s how they got Gary [Glitter].' But the most interesting thing was that Savile said that, in the dark at night, he feared there were bad men on the mountains who would come down and slit his throat. And that seems to me to go to something very deep in his psyche.

"I put that in the drama but there wasn’t bloody space for it and we couldn’t afford to film at Glencoe. I’ve never told anyone this, except Jeff. But I think it tells you a lot."

Charles Hullighan, Beryl Hullighan and Jimmy Savile in The Reckoning, gathered around a table
The Reckoning. ITV Studios/Matt Squire

Conspiracy theories have suggested that the unusually long three years it has taken from The Reckoning’s commission to transmission resulted from delays caused by sudden BBC nerves about the subject matter, but Pope insists not.

"What led to such a prolonged post-production period is that, at any given time, we were working in about four different dimensions. Is what we show on screen going to be triggering for victims? Also, there are paedophiles and perverts out there; we don’t want them to find 'useful' anything we put on screen. And, generally, there was the question of tone.

"In order to understand Savile, you have to humanise him to some degree, but you also have to see something of his depravity. So, in every scene, there were multiple decisions of taste and tone."

In the first episode, when Savile, dressed as a court jester, assaults a hospital patient, the camera is far away, at the other end of the ward – is the offence implied by reactions? "That’s a perfect example," Pope agrees. "The audience needs to know what happened, but they don’t need to see it."

The star of The Reckoning, Steve Coogan, has been an accomplished mimic since his Spitting Image days, and, in costume, he also bears a startling physical resemblance to Savile. Did he, like some actors, remain in character at all times on set?

"I had several lunches with him during filming," says Pope. "And it was someone who looked like Jimmy Savile but sounded like Steve. When we had victims on set – at their request and with all safeguarding support in place – Steve would come round the corner and you could feel the intake of breath because it was such an extraordinary similarity. So he made a point of saying, 'I’m Steve,' and he would have a conversation with them as Steve."

The Savile drama coincides with another series about a Yorkshire-born psychopath, Peter Sutcliffe. The title of ITV1’s The Long Shadow deliberately omits the criminal’s name and press nickname, while the BBC drama also rejects using the famous name in favour of a title that suggests a coming to terms with the story by victims, institutions – and the drama’s makers.

"There was a girl near us, growing up," says Pope, "who went on Jim’ll Fix It and we were all really jealous. Grotesquely, her fix-it was to meet Rolf Harris. That’s absolutely a true story. So it’s sobering and astonishing, five decades on, to be on the eve of showing who Savile really was."

The Reckoning starts Monday at 9pm on BBC One. Check out more of our Drama coverage or visit our TV Guide and Streaming Guide to find out what's on.


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