By Rana Dasgupta
Here the British novelist and writer Rana Dasgupta dissects the origins of Jimmy Savile’s sordid figure and the support he received from Thatcher and the establishment while explaining what the entertainer-entrepreneur’s grotesque caricature came to symbolise in political and social terms
Jimmy Savile turned out, in the end, to be a more exemplary British icon than most people knew. But we can only understand why if we take seriously his own parody of 1980s working-class vulgarity – the chains, the gold Rolls, the endless «shell suits». Talking about the rise and fall of Savile without class is like talking about OJ Simpson – a curiously parallel figure – without race.
Savile was a Yorkshire miner who became Margaret Thatcher’s darling just at the point she declared war on Britain’s miners, destroying not only jobs but also cultures, communities and lives. A genius of 1980s celebrity culture, Savile created a grotesque and hypnotic caricature of the working-class undead, which played an essential role in helping the establishment through its legitimacy crisis. Savile gave lessons in populism to Downing St and Buckingham Palace, and provided working-class endorsement for the destruction of the working class.
Much to Thatcher’s approval, his was a working-class image that made no demands on the state. The badly-dressed former wrestler took over the state’s work, in fact, raising private money to mend broken hospitals, run schools, etc. This was what would happen when the industrial working class was dismantled: workers would become entrepreneurial individuals, celebrities and millionaires. They would build systems instead of depending on them.
But it was all a lie. No one believed in, or desired, such an outcome. 1980s political elites did not truly want Britain to be overrun by working-class millionaires; their hidden dream was working-class annihilation. And this is why the two sides of Savile, overt and covert, were both important to his rapturous reception in London. No one could be more aware of the levels of working-class contempt than he – and he gave the ruling class what it wanted. In becoming part of the 1980s media machine, he internalised their contempt and operationalised it as actual annihilation.
Much to Thatcher’s approval, his was a working-class image that made no demands on the state.
His victims were Britain’s most powerless men and women, boys and girls: the poor, uneducated, abandoned, criminal, sick and disabled. There was no love or generosity in the institutions he funded and built: the private entrances and apartments he had in these schools and hospitals were places, literally, where he could fuck the class from which he had so vertiginously risen. (Had he, a working-class man, attempted to abuse the children of his fancy new friends, they would obviously have strung him up. But he was very far from being an idiot.)
Many societies are held together by obscenity. To join those societies, other people must whisper in your ear what «we» have done to others, or what they have done to «us». But Britain is held together by the denial of obscenity. To join British society, you must learn «good manners»: politeness, levity, obstinately trivial conversation. As a Catholic with a strong sense of judgement, and as a child abuser on a mass scale, Jimmy Savile brought unusual skill and intensity to this national cultural project. Whatever obscenity existed in his viewers’ lives – war memories, sexual misery, race and class hatred, etc, etc – it could never come close to the obscenity in Savile’s life. The levity *he* developed, therefore – the wacky humour, the clownish appearance, the proto-fascist festivity of money/royalty/church, the distractions and consolations of charity and «doing good» – it was sufficient to sooth an entire nation.
Savile gave lessons in populism to Downing St and Buckingham Palace, and provided working-class endorsement for the destruction of the working class.
Many of the people who are shocked by what was learned about Jimmy Savile were children in the 1970s and 80s, and remember their own innocence. But the 1980s were anything but innocent, and it is no accident that the mob chose to worship – above all the other people it could have selected – a vampire.
Rana Dasgupta is a British novelist and essayist. He is a contributor of The New Stateman, Granta and The Guardian. He has written two novels: Tokyo Cancelled (2005) and Solo (2009). In 2014 he published the non fiction Capital: A Portrait of Twenty-First Century Delhi. Le Monde listed him as one of the seventy people who is making the world of tomorrow.