It is the drama that absolutely no one was asking for. The one about Jimmy Saville and his crimes. For anyone who does not know Jimmy Saville was a DJ and entertainer for decades presenting hit tv shows like Top of the Pops and Jim I’ll Fix It. Throughout his career there had always been rumours swirling about his sexual predilections, enough that even in the Highlands of Scotland I had heard them. The rumours did not stop his career through, and he undertook a hefty stint of highly publicised charity work as he became more and more well connected, and even received a knighthood. He was also given unprecedented access to hospitals, including Broadmoor, a state hospital where some of the most violent or dangerous offenders are treated.
It was after his death though that evidence started to come to light. There were literally hundreds of people, who over the years had met Saville, and who had been sexually assaulted or raped by him. Many of them were children, some of them young. His offending knew no bounds, it happened at the BBC, at hospitals, while he was recording radio programmes. The sheer scale of the depravity, the manipulation of a whole nation was astounding. And still is.
The Reckoning at the beginning of every episode tells you that the drama is there to examine” how he was able to hide in plain sight, using his position to commit countless serious sexual offences, many against minors and how the voices of so many were ignored and silenced.” The device feels a little clunky to me. I’ve always considered that one should never have to tell the audience what to think about ones work, it feels a little patriarchal, a touch authoritarian, it is possibly far better to lead the audience to a conclusion, but not to force one upon them.
It does not for me however, feel as though the drama is offering it’s audience much new in the way of understanding Saville. His behaviour was picked over in multiple inquiries by different institutions he was involved in, as well as by the police and the NSPCC. The National Society for the Protection of Children from Cruelty. It found an avalanche of not just abuse, but also cover up, with several journalistic investigations into Saville when he was alive being shelved.
It is unlikely that any other mans adult life has been as poured over as Saville’s. His childhood however remains a complete mystery. So unless you have purposely avoided all mention of the man, and not many would blame you if you tried, it is unlikely that The Reckoning is going to give you a new perspective, or any extra insight. Steve Coogan, who is reported to have spent a long time considering if he should play the role, is eerily like Saville. He is able to portray Saville’s clownish exterior while also giving us glimpses of his steely utterly self-absorbed centre, and at times for short sharp burst is able to show us something really terrifying.
Coogan is not the only great turn in The Reckoning. It’s full of great performances. The problem that I, and maybe other have too, is that it does not really do what it sets out to do, and this is explore how Saville was able to hide in plain sight. Instead The Reckoning tends to follow the Great Man Theory of history, as espoused by Scottish writer, historian and philosopher Thomas Carlyle. The Great Man Theory posits that the history of the world is shaped by great men, or heroes. Individuals who are so special, and have such great natural intelligence, gifts and attributes that history is essentially something that happens in their wake, because of them, while the rest of us are caught up in it’s aftermath. It’s a hop, skip and a jump to eugenics, and the idea that some people are just born better than others. In many instances normal morality or ethics appears to be something the great man does not need to be concerned with. Meaning that the “great,” within this context means less “really, really good,” and more “big.”
In The Reckoning, Jimmy Saville is essentially the “great man”. He is focused on, the centre, the beating heart of the drama. Every scene involves Saville, even when he is not physically in one he is being talked about. He’s everywhere and it leaves a cloying sense of disgust to watch him commit crimes, and then see him carry on with impunity. Even the last episode that shows Saville’s increasing sense of panic as his influence becomes less powerful as he ages, but also as society around him begins to change, has Saville still front and centre, although bowed with illness and infirmity.
There are attempts to include the victims. We see shots of some of them, some of them speak about what happened. It is moving however, it is not enough to balance out what is essentially a Jimmy Saville biography, without the standard tragic inciting incident in early life. If we compare The Reckoning to She Said, the 2022 film about uncovering the abuse of Harvey Weinstein, we can see in She Said a different way to approach dramas about abuse. Weinstein and Saville are similar figures, both appeared larger than life, both had money, had fame, had power and influence. Both had powerful connections and the ability to quash stories before they could get to public attention. Both of them also used rape culture and a pervasive disbelief of women as a way to operate in semi-secret for years.
In She Said New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Meghan Twohey follow a tip about Harvey Weinstein, which leads them to other women, many of them afraid to speak out, who have similar stories of assault, rape or abuse. They struggle to get past lawyers, and non-disclosure agreements, but they do eventually publish an article in 2017 after which eighty-two other women come forward with accusations against Weinstein. What is different in the way that She Said handled the Weinstein case is that at no point in the film do you see Weinstein’s face. She Said centres itself on the two reporters and the victims, their emotional states, their resolve. The only time you see Weinstein is when he comes into the office of the New York Times, and you only see the bulk of his back. He has been given plenty of opportunities to speak, and the film makers weren’t going to give him yet another.
It feels fitting for a man like Weinstein who did so much to bully other people in silence that he is given so little screen time. It was his power and influence that allowed him to abuse so many people, so why allow him more by making him such a big presence on the screen as well? It also throws The Reckoning into sharp relief. There are multiple angles which The Reckoning could have been shown from. The police, the victims, the prosecutors, the staff in the NHS and BBC, the journalists who’s stories got spiked. There could have been more exploration about the pressures to keep quiet, about what made others brush off complaints – was it naivety or lack of compassion – about the general cultural attitude towards sex, and therefore sexual abuse.
One of the most telling scenes is when Saville’s friend Charles Hullighan finally asks his wife, Beryl, if Saville ever tried anything with her, and she tells him he did. The scene ends with Beryl comforting Charles, a man who had backed the perpetrator repeatedly, rather than the other way around. It’s a small part of the whole thing, but in itself speaks so much to women’s experience of trying to tell the men in their lives about sexual assault, which the vast majority of us have experienced, and what it is like to exist in the world as a woman. It is a standout scene, and had it been replicated more we could have possibly got a rounder view of the scandal, not just the same information about the man at it’s centre.
It has to be obvious that the great man theory is one of the things Saville, and those who swept accusation and rumours about him under the carpet, used to hide behind – the idea that he was so special he didn’t have to play by others rules. That and Schrodinger’s douchbag, where a person waits to see the reaction of people around him before deciding if what they said was joke or not So it is a shame that in making this drama we couldn’t decide to put the great man theory to rest, and make sure Saville and the ideas that protected Saville when he was alive, are not used to mythologise Saville now he is dead.