‘An Audience With Jimmy Savile’ stage drama provokes mixed reviews

Jimmy Savile (Reuters / Paul Hackett / Files)
A new play, based around the lies and deceit of a ‘national treasure,’ the serial sex attacker Jimmy Savile, has raised questions about whether it’s right to turn such a chilling story into entertainment.

The drama, set in 1991 and centered on a This Is Your Life-style show, has provoked mixed reactions.

Comedian Alistair McGowan. Credit: Helen Maybanks

Impressionist Alistair McGowan stars in ‘An Audience With Jimmy Savile,’ stepping out on stage wearing a long white wig, training shoes and a blue shell suit – signature attire of the disgraced DJ.

Taller and somewhat less aged than Savile, McGowan nevertheless conveys a genuinely chilling presence. Complete with gold rings, medallion, a long cigar and a Leeds accent, it is as though the real Savile has emerged from the television archives.

One of Savile’s victims, Karin Ward, was among several who were consulted as part of the plays production process. After attending the preview, she told Sky News: “With the smell of cigar smoke, it was almost like stepping back 40 years.”

The play draws on transcripts of police interviews, witness statements and report findings and is set between two scenarios.

In the first, Savile enjoys soaking up fame and reverence – the money he had raised for charity and the dreams he had made come true were highlighted. In the second, Savile’s darker side is exposed.

This element of the show juxtaposes the Savile we see on screen with the Savile few knew existed. It focuses on a single victim, Lucy (Leah Whitaker), a 30-year old woman raped by Savile in hospital when she was 12. It charts her battle to convince her father, lawyers and police that her allegations are true.

Time and again, we see Savile liken girls to ‘slags’ as he hints at his darker side. A particularly affecting scene sees an old and weak Jimmy confronted by one of his many victims in his home, where a violent row ensues.

The play also offers insight into how Savile was able to threaten newspaper editors and police with legal action if they dared question his troubled past.

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Jonathan Maitland, the show’s author, who admits Savile ‘duped’ him, has been a journalist for 30 years and confesses it’s a story that just about everybody missed.

“I really understand the urge to sweep him under the carpet, but the trouble is what contributed to him and others like him getting away with it was because the BBC and the NHS, when people hinted towards it, put their fingers in their ears.”

After the scandal broke, the BBC insisted the ex-presenter was edited out of every Top of the Pops episode and launched a full-scale investigation into the corporation’s failings.

Speaking to ITV’s This Morning, Maitland rejected the claim the show is a moneymaking exercise, but simply an effort to expose the wrongdoing in a way a documentary can’t.

An NHS report in February found Savile was given free rein to sexually abuse over 60 people, including some below the age of 10, at Stoke Mandeville hospital, where he had once been praised for his charity efforts. To date, 450 people have come forward claiming to have been abused at hospitals and television studios.

Police are continuing investigations into sex abuse allegations as part of Operation Yewtree and have so far made six arrests leading to convictions.

An Audience With Jimmy Savile is at the Park Theatre, North London, until July 11.