Steve Coogan plays Jimmy Savile in the BBC’s dramatisation, The Reckoning: here’s our review of a contentious and controversial drama.
It is hard to think of another TV project with the same level of advance scepticism and anxiety as we saw with The Reckoning. The BBC’s four-part, largely dramatisation of the life and crimes of Jimmy Savile was freighted with ghoulish expectation, perhaps justifiably and understandably. He still feels like an open wound.
Some of this uncertainty no doubt swirled around the casting of Steve Coogan in the role of the disgraced DJ. Though known predominantly for an iconic career in comedy, Coogan is both an expert impressionist (evidenced by several seasons of The Trip with Rob Brydon) and a compelling actor in his own right. He was always going to nail the accent and mannerisms of Savile (being northern helps too). He even manages to convince visually.
The question was whether he could bring the darkness inherent in Savile to life in a project designed, for the first time, to shine a dramatic light on the man’s strange and retrospectively horrific life. Some perhaps feared Coogan might slip into caricature, transform Savile into a nightmarish Paul Calf, but this is to underestimate his skill. Coogan – a figure with his own personal demons – can express internal darkness. He can be sinister.
Many of his comic creations have a caustic, vicious underbelly to them. Take roles such as Paul Raymond or Tony Wilson in Michael Winterbottom’s The Look Of Love and 24 Hour Party People, creations flecked with sleaze and a sense of egotistical, obsessive power. Is there anyone better to play Savile than Coogan? I struggle to imagine an actor better capable not just of mannerism or impressionism, so key to the outlandish depiction of Savile’s outward eccentricity, but equally the faux-jollity masking Savile’s callousness. Coogan embodies him, to a degree he admits he came close to become lost in the sheer darkness of the man, as he described to the Observer:
The court jester thing that Savile put on for his career, and for his subterfuge, was a suit of armour for him. And in showbusiness, there’s a lack of structure or protocols, compared with other professions, so it is a fertile environment for people to act outside of the norm … On the last day of filming I remember I was so glad to think I would never have to look like that again. There was a sense of relief. What stopped me going into a really dark place was working with a crew and colleagues and being there to do a professional job.
The Reckoning chooses to play with the format cemented into the Savile expose: confession. Anyone of a certain age will remember the documentary When Louis Met Jimmy, whereby roving experiencer Louis Theroux spends time with the aged Savile, roughly a decade before his death, and which retrospectively plays like Savile toying with Louis over revelations regarding his crimes that might emerge after his death. Savile seems preternaturally aware he will live his life getting away with it, albeit haunted and dogged by the rumours in plain sight. He knows people who know him know who he really is.
The first episode of The Reckoning begins with Savile’s now almost sickening state-like funeral, filled with tributes from the rich and famous, lined with adoring well wishers, before we see several of his real-life victims talk to the camera, documentary-style. The one man, Kevin, a former altar boy, simply states: “He groomed the nation,” a point it feels hard to rebuke. We kind of all were. I remember wanting to go on Jim’ll Fix It when I was a boy. It ran for almost 20 years until 1994, so I watched it growing up as a child of around 10–12. My wish was to ride in Herbie, the magical racing car, who I was a bit obsessed with as a child. Thankfully, my Mum never took my request seriously.
As we moved through the post-modernism of the 1990s, teenage-geared shows such as The 11 O’Clock Show, TFI Friday or Meet Ricky Gervais platformed stars of yesteryear as they became ironic ‘legends’ in an age of self-aware comedy and celebrity.
Savile, who certainly appeared on Meet Ricky Gervais, fell into this bracket when I was at university in the early 2000s. He was just there.
Theroux was so distressed at the original documentary he made after the truth emerged, he re-litigated it in 2016 with Louis Theroux: Savile, in which he talks to one of the victims talking here, Sam, as he grapples with why he too seemed bewitched by Savile in their time together. Dan Davies (Mark Stanley), the writer of ‘In Plain Sight: The Life and Lies of Jimmy Savile’ (whose book serves as inspiration for The Reckoning), who tries to get Savile’s story in a framing device leading into flashbacks across his life, seems acutely designed to be Theroux in all but name. He is our avatar – the normal human being facing down a television God, an iconic national treasure unlike any other convinced of his own invincibility, having spent almost 50 years fuelled by power. Almost immediately, Savile is manipulative, evasive and mercurial as Dan grasps for lurking truths or long-suspected confessions.
We must consider the religious aspect in Savile’s life, as the dramatic reconstructions from his past make clear through his mother Agnes (played by Gemma Jones). Contrary to what appears an absence of faith from Savile himself, she is a devout Christian from an entirely different age. When we first meet her in 1962, she is already pushing 80 years old. This is a woman who was a teenager by the time Queen Victoria died. The emerging world of The Beatles and 60s counterculture is anathema to her. Savile is also slightly too old for it himself, pushing close to 40. The series avoids characterising his own youth as one of the first emerging DJs in the post-war 1940s. By the point we enter The Reckoning, he is famous enough to be recognised and have young men who sneak into his DJ sets beaten by heavies, without consequence.
Agnes knows there is something amiss with her youngest child, the last of seven, and a boy she admits in an important scene to her priest in the opening episode that she never wanted. She recognises something of the Devil in a man who doesn’t have a wife, is seemingly devoted to the mother he calls ‘the Duchess’ (his father having died in the early 1950s, already a man close to 70), and who she anguishes could be seen as a homosexual due to his friendship with Ray (Robert Emms), a hanger on who we see join him in bouts of sexual abuse aimed at naive local ‘groupies’. This is presumably why Savile is incapable of confession. He grew up with that faith, that repression, that Victorian morality. And he seems to have, even unconsciously, ran away screaming from it.
Trying to characterise Savile is easy. Understanding him is the hard part, and The Reckoning is at pains to avoid the obvious traps. Does he control people because he was obsessively controlled? Maybe, but Agnes is not portrayed as a woman ignorant of Savile’s distinct weirdness. She knows. She is afflicted by the glamour he cast on many others, once he buys her a fancy pad on the Scarborough sea front, replete with her very own television. She becomes entranced by his fame as Top of the Pops leads to a broader level of national renown (a marked difference from the hospital porter he went to school with, whose dignified rise she lionises). Almost everyone Savile comes into contact with, from the Duchess down, seem incapable of confronting what is, as the series states, in plain sight.
Perhaps even more interesting that the dramatisation within The Reckoning is what draws us as audiences to watching Jimmy Savile’s heinous history dramatised at all. Coogan, his regular producing partner Jeff Pope and writer Neil McKay, seem acutely aware that they are on a hiding to nothing making this at all. Coogan elaborates:
There is no approach that we could have taken with this drama that would stop people using it as a stick to beat the BBC if they want to. If they had avoided making a drama, they would have been attacked for that. I’m no agent of the BBC and it often annoys me, but sometimes it seems like a beacon in a sea of darkness.
At the same time, on a more cynical level, the BBC understands that we have a ghoulish predilection as audiences for true crime entertainment. Consider the litany of examples across streaming services, many of which have led to dramas such as Dahmer, or even Pope and McKay‘s series Four Lives about the gay serial killer Stephen Port, that strike a chord, engage people in conversation and do gangbusters for ratings. Whatever the controversy, we seem compelled to look under the hood of these crimes. Remember the furore around The Execution of Gary Glitter in 2009? A Channel 4 drama that saw Glitter hung at the climax, in harrowing fashion, for his own paedophilic crimes. It was a means of exploring the question of capital punishment primarily, but it also felt exploitatively a means of ‘punishing’ Glitter for having so betrayed the public in the worst kind of fashion.
Is that why we want programmes like The Reckoning? Certainly for Savile, is it a means of trying to reconcile with our own complicity in platforming and allowing the man to get away with truly grotesque crimes? Savile seems different to me that someone like Glitter, or Port, or even Peter Sutcliffe whose crimes have just been re-explored in The Long Shadow. Savile got away with it. He died as a knight of the realm, with only rumour largely haunting him. He got to, essentially, rub the truth in Louis Theroux’s face for us all to see. He got that aforementioned funeral. His legacy might be forever tarnished but he never suffered for grooming the nation. Maybe that’s why we’ll never be able to quite forget him.
It feels also key to why The Reckoning is worth making, beyond all of the documentaries or books that will be written about Jimmy Savile. When you characterise, and free of the spectre of libel, you can truly give people a sense of the person underneath the performance. Steve Coogan achieves that, across decades of the man’s life, as the BBC and beyond defiantly ignore a truth directly before them, allowing us to see the monster underneath the string vest.
He can’t hide anymore. Which might be enough to help us, and most crucially his victims, find some peace.
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