I feel a strange mixture of emotions at the passing of Jimmy Savile. Mainly sadness but also a slight guilt that I hadn’t seen more of him in the last few years. And also a sense of unreality that a man who seemed indestructible – and who was such a fixture of my childhood and then a kind of personal landmark in my own career – has now succumbed to the inevitable.
I actually started making my Jimmy Savile film out of a fascination with the macabre rumours that used to swirl around the man, many of them started by Jimmy himself.
One was that he didn’t actually like children, despite hosting one of Britain’s most famous childrens’ TV shows.
Another, written in his autobiography, that the few days he spent alone with his deceased mother’s body during her laying out was the time of his life.
That he was in charge of “entertainment” at Broadmoor where he would have tea with Peter Sutcliffe.
That he spent his spare time volunteering as a hospital porter at Leeds General Infirmary where he was known for wheeling bodies into the morgue
I thought if we could experience even a fraction of the darkness and complexity suggested by these stories it would make for a fascinating film especially when set off against the upbeat colourful charity fundraiser and TV personality we were all familiar with.
I started making the film with a sense of trepidation.
After two days of filming I wasn’t sure if it was working and we were considering pulling the plug. He was parrying my questions with catchphrases and Jimmyisms. “I am not a grass.” “Women are brain damage.” And so on.
What I didn’t realize until later was that Jimmy’s evasions were fascinating in themselves. And that without me noticing, Jimmy was working incredibly hard, putting up with”my pestering questions for hours on end, in actual fact “producing” the film just as much as me or my director.
Jimmy’s gameness and his creativity about generating stunts and ideas and pulling “moodies” (his word for pranks) in the end was the most crucial part of what made the film a success.
In the course of about two weeks my director Will Yapp and I went on a strange, fascinating and occasionally infuriating journey with Jimmy.
We saw his dark side. Well, Will did – I happened to be in bed on the evening Jimmy chose to discuss his years of “zero tolerance” in the nightclubs he managed, tying people up and leaving them in the boiler room if they were being lairy.
We saw the eccentric memorialization of his mother, “The Duchess”, whose clothes he had kept in her old closet and which he had dry cleaned once a year.
But we also saw the indefatigable game-playing, the teasing, the playful evasions and his gift for turning the various incidents in his daily life into anecdotes, adventures and, quite often, actual news stories.
When he broke his foot running on “his” mountain, he offered to keep filming. Or, he said, we could take him to hospital.
We opted for the hospital option though I don’t doubt he would have hobbled on if we’d decided it was important for filming (he had a fascination with the stoical martial ethos of the Royal Marines).
Once at hospital, he invited a friend to take photos, the better to place a story in the papers. But in typical Jimmy style, when I called him on this detail, he stoutly denied having laid any such plan.
I think it appealed to his sense of humour that he could produce a national news event under our noses without us noticing.
Seeing Jimmy on the road moving between his various residences – penthouse in Leeds, seafront flat in Scarborough, picturesque cottage in Glencoe – I was struck by his network of friends and helpers he had in each place and their loyalty to him.
I left Jimmy feeling that I was in a small way a part of his “London team”, as he called it.
My director and I were somewhat anxious about showing Jimmy the film before transmission. It was very much a warts-and-all portrait. Will travelled up to Leeds for a special screening. Afterwards Jimmy said, “Yeah, that’s good, that is.”
Every time I remember that I’m reminded how tough he was, how unfazed by negative attention.
In an age of agents, PRs, and media handlers, he was completely the opposite, utterly free of showbiz airs. He was as far from being a diva as one could imagine.
I kept in touch with Jimmy for several years after the documentary was finished.
Will and I would travel up to Leeds for an overnight visit.
We’d go out to the Flying Pizza restaurant with a camera and videotape Jimmy as he presided over the birthdays of strangers with a kind of papal authority. But the camera didn’t have tape in it – as Jimmy himself knew. He just enjoyed the idea that everyone thought they were being filmed and the sense of occasion it created.
He was a complete one-off. Wrestler, charity fundraiser, deejay, fixer, prankster, and professional enigma.
He was also a plainspoken Yorkshire philosopher and psychologist.
There won’t be another one like him