8 Oct 2012

Jimmy Savile: Cold, aggressive, menacing

There were already rumours about Sir Jimmy Savile when he became my first ever interviewee in 1988.

Jimmy Savile was my first ever interviewee when I became presenter of the BBC’s “yoof” discussion programme Open to Question. I was 18, rather naive and had not heard the rumours of his sexual preferences.

But he was a big disappointment: cold, aggressive, slightly menacing in his reaction to tough questions from teenagers in the audience – and I’ve never forgotten the creepy feeling he left me with.

The format of Open to Question was simple – a group of teenagers, encouraged to ask cheeky and tough questions, grill a public figure with questions that professional interviewers tend to avoid.

At school I had been one of the cheeky questioners, and now the BBC had asked me to step into the presenter’s chair. Jimmy Savile had a mixed reputation in those days – he was well-known as a charity fundraiser and supporter of Stoke Mandeville hospital. But his support for psychiatric patients like the Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe was more controversial.

And he had a name as a womaniser, with tabloid claims of hundreds of girlfriends. He was not used to being challenged on it – and certainly not by teenagers who he expected to be star struck by him.

So here we have a group of teenagers asking Savile about his attitude to women, what he’d do if one of his sexual partners became pregnant (as is reported by one of his alleged victims), and whether there was a contradiction between his claims to be a devout Roman Catholic and his sexual lifestyle.

His answers were contradictory – apparently admitting to hundreds of girlfriends one minute, then claiming it was all “juiced up” by the newspapers the next. He certainly alludes to what went on during his time presenting Top of the Pops. In the light of new allegations it is worth looking at again.

Like thousands of children in the eighties, I too had written to Jim’ll Fix it. I had wanted to be a detective for the day. And by the time he was sitting in my studio, I was basically still a child myself, albeit with a grown-up job.

I was no doubt naive but I am surprised by how many people say now that they knew all along about his abusive behaviour. Janet Street Porter, who says she knew about Savile when she was at the BBC, was my boss at the time. She didn’t produce Open to Question, but she was the executive in charge as head of youth programmes.

I can only assume she did not know about the Savile allegations at the precise time that her new young presenter was in a studio filled with teenagers and Jimmy Savile.

Certainly in the years that followed, I too heard the kind of gossip about Savile that flew about the BBC. But never from anyone in a position to know, or who’d actually met anyone in a position to know. And there were so many rumours about so many people that I never really believed any of it.

Now I fear that when the BBC do get around to investigating what actually went on at the time, when the police have finished their job, it might well be worse than we ever imagined.

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