The allegations brought out in the press last week about the late Sir Jimmy Saville sit uneasily with many people in Britain. They are described by the BBC as “disturbing accusations”. I saw an anger in Philip Schofield on This Morning while interviewing the women making the accusations: “Why now?”, he demanded “What are you hoping to achieve?” Indeed many fellow broadcasters have spoken of how the crimes of Saville were largely brushed over or ignored. But why? Because he was such a do-gooder? I feel it goes deeper than that. The man was a national treasure in the most traditional and justifiable sense of the term (sorry Chezza). There is a sense that accepting his complicit guilt brings a stain over something greater than the man himself. It affects the great British mythology of children’s television – the glory days of the 1970s when Jim’ll Fix It and Top Of The Pops were more than just television shows, but centrepieces of popular culture. Many look back on this as a time of great innocence, and characters like Saville were kings of it.
So what happens when the innocence is shattered with the realities of the truth? It looks fairly certain that these allegations are true – with helpful people like Childline founder Esther Rantzen proclaiming she’d known it to be an open secret for years (thanks for blowing the whistle love). Will the understanding that Saville was a manipulative molester of young girls tarnish his image as a colourful, charitable, eccentric children’s entertainer? In other words, how do the private misdemeanours of the man affect the public appreciation of the myth? And to what extent?
I ask to what extent because whether we realise it or not, as a society, we do have different levels of tolerance where this issue is concerned. Think about Gary Glitter – whose name has been thrown around as a possible accomplice of Saville’s. His career was destroyed when it was revealed he was a paedophile, and not just his career, but his legacy. I can’t think of anywhere where someone would find it appropriate to play his music now – his big Christmas hit banished from the festive compilation albums. And yet, despite the fact that the adult population are constantly willing to speculate on whether or not Michael Jackson committed similar offences, we’d never dream of resigning his music to a similar fate.
We must remember Jackson was cleared of his charges but most people will still crack a joke about it with a wink and a “of course he did!” (middle aged men who drink in pubs have a strange authority on this, I’ve found). So with Jackson, why doesn’t the mud stick? Why doesn’t the smoke mean fire? On the scheme of things, Gary Glitter’s music – and therefore his contribution to the world – wasn’t worth a great deal. But Jackson? Well, no need to remind you here, but his music was genius, revolutionary and fundamental to the lives of anyone who lived in the past fifty years, and outside of that, there’s the general belief that he was probably the greatest entertainer of all time. Even if he was guilty, it would never have affected his legacy. Even though we know he was a peculiar character, who led a strange life behind closed doors – whatever the details – it will never really impede on his work, because his contribution to the world was greater than that. And we accept that. When the history books are written, in 50, 100, 200 years and beyond, Jackson will only be remembered for the music, and the gossip of sex crimes will have long died out.
Where is the proof for this? Well look at Lewis Carroll – widely believed to have been a paedophile in the Victorian era, and yet Alice In Wonderland is an inescapable cornerstone in children’s literature. Oscar Wilde was ruined beyond modern comprehension when he was jailed for being a homosexual at the turn of the 20th century, and died as a result of his social blackening. Yet he remains the most famous playwright since Shakespeare, and remarkably, he is an historic figure remembered and revered mostly for the wit and demeanour which touted him as a ‘sodomite’ in the first place. How about Charlie Chaplin? An enemy of the CIA, he was famous for sleeping with young, young women (he married a 16 year old at 36, and an 18 year old at 54) – but his contribution to film, to culture, to civilisation, is so crucial, that all of that is simply put down to the folly of a man of genius. And finally there’s Woody Allen, who left his wife Mia Farrow for her adopted Vietnemese daughter, as soon as she came of age. They’ve been together ever since. It’s weird, it’s creepy, it’s perverted – but his career is still going, and his legacy is secure: because of his talent.
My point is not that talent excuses criminality, but it clearly goes some way to wiping it out. Behaviour fades into insignificance and is deemed irrelevant by the public if the work created and performed by the individual is of enough merit. The way I see it, someone like Gary Glitter didn’t stake a strong enough claim to cultural importance in the first place, and so he was easily dismissed when his crimes were revealed. But for Jackson, Wilde, et al, it’s the misdemeanours that are ultimately dismissed – because we recognise, however conscious or subconscious, that their contributions to the world immortalise them, and by far outweigh their momentary slip of respectability in life.
But the reason I wrote this piece is because I’ve been wondering where someone like Jimmy Saville fits in this spectrum of acceptance. Not exactly an artist, but something much more than an entertainer; he holds an important place in the cultural psyche of this country, and existed as more of a myth than a man, even in his own lifetime. To the extent where his colleagues neglected to report his crimes – because people wouldn’t have believed it, or they feared undoing his charity work, or of course, ruining his reputation. But now that the cat is out of the bag, will his reputation survive untarnished? Will he constantly be a man we think of as having two very different sides? Or will he be stripped of his knighthood and forever banished to the ranks of the unmentionable? For a much loved British figure like him, it’s hard to tell, and perhaps too soon to even grasp the scale of his crimes; but it is apparent that as a society we can remember what we want to remember, and forget what we want to forget. Time will tell for Mr Saville…