I was out walking with my parents recently when my father said, “I suppose we used to watch ‘Jim’ll Fix It’ as a family, didn’t we?”
It was a domestic confession many British people have been making over the past few weeks. “Jim’ll Fix It” was one of those early evening BBC shows that millions of families watched in the 1970s, when there were only three channels in Britain: BBC1, BBC2 and ITV. Children would write in with their humble ’70s longings — “I want to work in the elephant house,” “I want to fly a plane” — and the BBC would arrange and film the fulfillment of their dreams. We would see the children, awed, monosyllabic, sitting with the host, Jimmy Savile, who would jolly them through their story before hanging a medal round their necks engraved with the legend “Jim Fixed It for Me.”
It now appears that some of those children found themselves afterward in the host’s dressing room, being persuaded or forced into sexual acts. Mr. Savile, who died a year ago at 84, is suspected of sexually abusing hundreds of people, mainly girls and young women, many of them patients or residents at the hospitals and care homes he patronized through energetic fund-raising work.
Three of the remaining publicly owned British institutions not yet sold off to the private sector — the National Health Service, the police and the BBC — stand accused of turning a blind eye to his crimes. The BBC canceled an investigation into Mr. Savile’s sexual predation.
I don’t remember anyone in the ’70s — or ever — really being fond of Mr. Savile. In trying to be forever young he came across as forever old, a gaunt, haunted imp with a pageboy cut, lurid tracksuits and a twitching cigar. At times it seemed the national creeping out was palpable, and I’d like to say that we, the viewing public, had our suspicions. But we stuck with rumors and dark jokes, through almost 20 years of “Jim’ll Fix It” and 42 of his co-hosting the prime-time BBC show “Top of the Pops.”
The Savile storm finally broke last month, when I was in the United States promoting my new novel, and it wasn’t until I started getting messages along the troubling lines of “Jimmy Savile — well done!” that it occurred to me that people might think there was something prescient in the portrayal of Ritchie, one of the book’s central characters.
Ritchie, a middle-aged former rock star who has become the producer of the BBC reality TV show “Teen Makeover,” is secretly having sex with a 15-year-old girl from the audience. All those working with Ritchie know there’s something wrong but try to convince themselves that he’s having an affair with an adult, so they don’t have to face the institutionally terrifying truth.
Mr. Savile, too, cultivated the image of a free-spirited sexual scamp, somewhere between Don Juan and naughty shepherd lad. Once, when interviewed on the BBC’s satirical quiz show “Have I Got News for You,” he was asked about the years he spent living in a mobile home, and what he did there. “Anybody I can lay me hands on,” he quipped. The screenwriter Graham Linehan called this “a smokescreen comprised of the truth.” It let those in senior positions in the BBC and the N.H.S. imagine that the rumors they were ignoring related to adult women yielding to sexual pressure from Mr. Savile — bad, but not criminal — rather than the abuse of powerless children.
In Mr. Savile’s astoundingly frank 1976 autobiography, he described how he and another man had spent the night with six girls young enough for their mothers to come looking for them. “To date, we have not been found out,” he wrote. “Which, after all, is the 11th commandment, is it not?”
Don’t get found out. It’s the idea that you’re not doing anything wrong as long as the only people who know what you’re doing are you, the person you’re doing it to, and the people you’re doing it with. The defenses against this 11th commandment are, on one hand, the fixed, eternal rules of religion and tradition, like the original 10 commandments; and, on the other, finder-outers like the media and the police, supposed to uncover what powerful people want hidden. In Britain, in the wake of the church’s sexual abuse scandals and the tabloid phone-tapping affair, neither bulwark looks credible.
The BBC is to be subject to two separate inquiries over the Savile affair. Increasingly, British public life seems to be a dismal march from scandal to inquiry to report to the next scandal. Complacency will be condemned, procedures will be tightened, but the deeper human flaw will be ignored. How can those who follow no commandment but the 11th be made to believe that when you do something wrong, it’s just as wrong when it’s a secret as it is when everybody knows?
James Meek is the author, most recently, of the novel The Heart Broke In.