In which we try and write about the Jimmy Savile play…

Come on Fraser. You’ve got a disappointingly small large glass of wine and they are playing – of all things -The First Cut is The Deepest in this bar. Just write about the bloody play. You’ve been failing to write about it for days now. When you had that panic attack at the station on the way home and that nice guard just kept saying ‘ma’am, why you shaking? What you shaking for? Just calm down ma’am, you’re ok’. Or when you were staring out of the window feeling sorry for yourself and your husband came in singing lay down your sword and shield, lay your weapons down and rubbed your forehead and it made you cry.

I know you don’t know where to start, that you keep coming back to that mother’s day picture your daughter made you at school, when she had to describe you and you were expecting ‘my mummy drinks wine and shouts at the neighbours’ and what she wrote was ‘my mummy wears pretty clothes, my mummy is special’ and it knocked you sideways because you didn’t know people said the word special and meant it, and when you read that Savile article and it said that abusers tell their victims they are special and a voice somewhere near the back of your head said is that not what all men say?

What’s bothering you? I know you’re worried about offending people. You’re worried about your jokes, that you are always too flippant and this is such a sensitive issue. Or you don’t want to Make It About You. But that’s what you do Fraser, just get on with it. Write about the play, and be yourself, you should have learned by now that you can’t do much else. Tell it how you want, that’s why you went after all isn’t it? Because you only really believe in art and the revolution, that you have to play around with things a bit to see things more clearly.

Write about what you learned. That Savile was a nasty, aggressive and powerful man, not the bumbling old cartoon character you had thought he was. That you thought it was very clever that when he was at his angriest and nastiest in the play he wore tiny, revealing shorts, and how you were glad you weren’t sat in the front row, and how you wish you hadn’t come by yourself. How you were struck by the misogyny, that you thought the play showed very well how Savile got away with being a rapist of adult women, that most of how every rapist gets away with it was summed up in the line ‘the answer to your question is a question, Do Women Lie?’. How it was easy to see that as Savile portrayed his victims as ‘badduns’ and ‘slags’ to people who were clearly almost as woman-hating as he was they didn’t stand a chance, but how in the question and answer session afterwards you wanted to ask ‘but how did this cover how he got away with attacking children?’

You could say how you learned that Savile considered himself a Catholic, and that you should have known this really because you saw him that time when he came to mass with that other fall-from-gracer Cardinal Keith Patrick O Brien. You could mention that, because it’s interesting, or how you were surprised that the other people at church didn’t seem to have a problem with Savile but you had always known he was a dirty old man because your parents worked in hospitals in Yorkshire in the seventies and eighties. And so when you had wanted to write to jim’ll fix it to ask to sing a duet with Jimmy Somerville they had said No, he’s a nasty piece of work. (Savile, not Somerville) But of course they didn’t realise how nasty.

And you should write about how this is one of the big challenges of the play and the discussion too, that you still remember the days when no-one thought too much of people just being a bit pervy, you yourself included. That Jonathan Maitland was certainly right to set the context of a time of ‘racism and carry-on films’, and that you feel Savile thrived on a discourse that put the ‘tit’ in ‘titillation’, where sex was Slap and Tickle or How’s Your Father. That you feel a people who are childish about sex are not the best at protecting children, that even when Maitland said ‘if you smacked a woman’s bottom nowadays you could get the sack, people in the audience laughed. Because this is 2015, and a play about rape and child abuse, and apparently the word bottom is still funny.

And I know you want to say that from your work, and the Far Too Much Time you have spent reading accounts of sexual abuse in boarding schools, those institutions not entirely unconnected from the legal world or the BBC, that you believe there is a very harmful tendency in certain circles to put the entire gamut of sexual experience, not only from vanilla to harmless-but-weird to deviant, but crucially from consenting to non-consenting, in one big box marked NAUGHTY. And that when you watched the play you had a strong sense of someone, who identified himself as a ‘token pleb’, who worked the discourse of titillation to his advantage. As if people were saying ‘look how earthy and common and open he is. He talks about breasts and dollybirds in a way we wish we could. He seems to take the lid off the naughty box quite happily, everything he does in it must be ok then’.

And I know you think this probably applies to all sorts of failures to address crime and abuse, how even now media reports don’t make adequate distinctions between people being tortured and murdered and people who just happen to like dressing up or being spanked or whatever. You don’t like to say it because you are not an expert on such things. But you did feel the pornography reform laws smacked of legislation written by eleven year olds, and you wonder if anyone else noticed the irony that Thatcher and Leon Brittan tried to ban sex toys. Somewhere in the inability to distinguish between what is harmful and what is not harmful, and what is consensual and what isn’t, seems to be the territory in which children and young people can be abused. Everyone knew Savile ‘liked young girls’, nobody asked whether they liked or wanted him.

But I know there is in an issue around young girls and consent that you keep getting stuck on, because you see yourself as inhabiting a grey area here. Most of Savile’s victims were between 12 and 16, and presumably a great many more than ever came forward believed they had consented to be with him. To suggest that, if they were under the age of sixteen, this was not possible, doesn’t sit completely comfortably with you yet does it? You have been in the situation where someone’s behaviour is altered by context, as when like a character in the Savile play you discovered you weren’t the only one. You wrote about it in a bid to claim your own story, or something, but that hasn’t brought you the answers you were looking for and you remain ambivalent, and anxious to cling on to that glimpse of your own agency and control, desperate to retain something as yours.

But you do wonder… You think about the bit of the play that you didn’t really like, where it lost you a bit. Savile’s victim confronts him and she begins to take some comfort in the fact that she believes she can see in his eyes he has done wrong, that he has to live with himself. Don’t do this, love, you found yourself thinking: don’t be that clichéd hurt woman who tells herself she is better off than her abuser. And don’t give him yet more power, don’t need something from him like acknowledgment or guilt. You thought about how you might have done this yourself, been all too prone to construct some grand narrative as to why someone is hurting you, because that is less painful than acknowledging they don’t give a shit. Anger is an emotion, hatred is a feeling, if these things are visited on you then at least you are in a relationship with someone, at least you are something to them. Rape can be about these things but sadly it can also just be the ultimate fucking insult, a statement of utter disregard for the feelings of another human being, a profound absence of care.

And you want to conclude by saying that it was this profound indifference, this total dehumanisation of his victims which meant it mattered not to Savile whether they were old, young, dead or alive. You don’t want to sound naïve but you would like to say something optimistic, about how we can do at least something to challenge the culture of child abuse in which Savile thrived by being rigorously adult in our attitudes to sex and agency and consent, and fastidiously human in all our dealings with people, not letting the rot of any crappy power relationships blight our self-esteem or that of the people we care about. But you are still stuck aren’t you. You are still struggling with this, can’t get your words out. Did something happen to you to make you doubt yourself?

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One thought on “In which we try and write about the Jimmy Savile play…

  1. A superb piece of work, Sally, capturing a legion of doubtful, doubting inner voices that goes way beyond an act of criticism or reviewing Jonathan Maitland’s necessary play, one that I’m afraid I don’t have the courage to go and see.

    You open out, nudge forward unanswerable questions, as opposed to closing them down – the kneejerk response of so many of us.

    I think that your approach is worth developing, as a way of trying to capture the elusive headfuckery of abuse.

    Thank you for taking me into that fearful territory: you’re a fine, steadfast companion.

    More power to your pen. I look forward to coming to see your own play one day.

    Best wishes,

    Mark.

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