Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Well that's another fine mess....

Should anyone be mad enough to turn my rag-and-bone cart of a life into a TV sitcom, prospective writers are welcome to use the following as my onscreen catchphrase: "What a mess...!".

To provide some artistic direction, it should be exclaimed with an exaggerated, exasperated sigh in the manner of Tony Hancock's "Stone me!".

Granted, "What a mess...!" would not be as memorable as Captain Mainwaring's "You stupid boy!" in Dad's Army, "I shall zay zis only once..." from Allo Allo, or Diff'rent Strokes' "Whatchu talkin' about Willis?!" - diamonds in the rough all. But it does at least conform to the basic rule of sitcom catchphrases, that they occur regularly enough to satisfy audience expectation, and, with a suitable pause beforehand, you can see them coming a mile off.

My character's repeated use of "What a mess...!" for comic effect would at least be a faithful example of art imitating life. Because, for the last 12 months, I have been noted to exclaim - on average, twice daily - "What a mess...!" in response to the John Terry-Anton Ferdinand saga.

As this blog has noted regularly in the year since it all began, the story refuses to go away, springing up when least expected like a jack-in-a-box with a faulty clasp. And then, when you think no one could make it any worse (and the original antagonists haven't created enough brouhaha of their own), Ashley Cole - who must have missed out on this year's Nobel peace prize by the thinnest of margins - goes and discovers Twitter. "What a mess...!" indeed.

However, as the story nears its first anniversary, it has been kicked into touch by the British media's voracious pursuit of another story that can easily be characterised by "What a mess...!" - the matter of a now-dead stalwart of Saturday night family entertainment and his allegedly wandering hands.

It would be childish to suggest that Jim posthumously fixed it for Terry, Ferdinand and Cole to disappear from the media for a week or two, but the footballers have much to thank Sir Jimmy Savile for. And it is a mess. A right mess.

What began as one or two women coming forward to claim that, when they were in their teens, Savile acted inappropriately in his Top Of The Pops dressing room, has turned into a paedophile scandal on similar national scale to the lurid tales that have escaped from Belgium and various geographies of the Catholic church.

We're now learning that Savile may have been abusing children as far back as the 1950s when he was a northern nightclub DJ and professional wrestler, long before he joined the BBC, and long before his celebrity created access to what is appearing to be questionable-looking voluntary work at hospitals like Broadmoor and Stoke Mandeville. What a mess. What an absolute mess.

Who knew what? Did people at the BBC turn a blind eye to all this? Did the BBC itself turn a blind eye to this? Were others complicit in his actions? How could such an apparent scale of abuse be perpetrated by one individual who, even if weirdly private, was still one of the most identifiable stars in British entertainment, made more identifiable by his latter choice of gold lamé tracksuits and 10-inch cigars.

The Daily Mail, the newspaper with a habit of fizzing like dentures in Steradent over even the slightest misdemeanour by the BBC, is now feasting on an apparent "culture" of loose morality at the corporation. BBC Trust chairman Lord Patten even handed the Mail the perfect gift by referring to the Savile affair as a "cesspit". Other British newspapers are making claims that other former Radio 1 DJs had a tendency to grope anything in a skirt.

I'm not saying it's not possible, and I'm not saying that it is, but having spent a bit of time in and around showbiz people in my time, especially TV presenters, you can certainly say there was never any shortage of people with a 'tactile' approach to engagement. The issue, then, is at what point does a bit of over-familiar luvviness become a matter of sexual abuse?

However, the Mail stretched its moral high ground a little too far last week when it suggested that the Fleet Street phone hacking scandal was "...utterly deplorable, but a footling matter" when "compared to the molestation and rape of 13-year-old girls." Really? Is there now a points system for rating how far off course a moral compass has taken you? The Mail - indeed any newspaper - would be wise to steer clear of making any comparison between phone hacking and anything, let alone the behaviour of television personalities.

But back to Savile: the BBC's reputation has certainly now been stained by the revelations about him. That he was regarded as a fixture of both the BBC's television and radio 'brand' long before such a phrase was ever applied to it merely makes the allegations worse.

Savile's BBC career took off with Top Of The Pops. He launched the program on New Year's Day, 1964, in which it was broadcast from a chilly Manchester church, of all places. It went on to become a British TV institution, charting the pop explosion of the 60s right through to its cancellation 42 year later.

Although TOTP would draw other presenters from the BBC Radio pool, Savile was, in its heyday at least, the defining host. It will now be impossible to watch an old edition of the show, with Savile or any of the other DJs who presented it, with their arms draped over the shoulders of female audience members without wondering "Oh yeah? What else?".

But then you have to remember that, in the first decade or two of Top Of The Pops, the presenters were rock stars in their own right. And like rock stars, I'm sure they got away with whatever they could get away with. If the bad boys of rock were doing it (and you only have to read the various biographies about Led Zeppelin and their ilk to note that the ages of groupies was never particularly well policed...), then the somewhat naughty boys of pop radio were going to have fun too.

The difference being that these presenters were more likely to be opening your local supermarket, or guesting at your local nightclub, than rock stars, putting them in easy reach of fans, and impressionable fans in easy reach of them.

Savile and his colleagues were big business. And Savile, in particular, seemed biggest of them all, with his "As it 'appens" and "Guys and Gals" catchphrases, and his eccentric tracksuits (which appear now to have a more nefarious purpose than simply running charity marathons...).

By the time I was watching Top Of The Pops as a small child, Thursday nights at 7pm on BBC1 was the only fixture in my life, school and six-monthly dental check-ups not withstanding. Each week Savile and cohorts would be flanked by slightly awkward looking schoolgirls. When I first went to see a Top Of The Pops being recorded for myself (courtesy of my father, who was a BBC cameraman), floor managers would meticulously pick the best looking women to stand alongside the presenter for each link. Again, this doesn't seem so innocent now.

With the launch of Jim'll Fix It, Savile's Saturday teatime show devoted to make kids' dreams happen (though always within the BBC's budget: "Dear Jim, please could you make it possible for me to fly on Concorde" would end up with a visit to Concorde parked at Heathrow...), he became an avuncular children's figure, rather than the slightly weird (i.e. "eccentric") old bloke introducing Kajagoogoo on the "Pops".

Now there has been the inevitable revelation that amongst Savile's alleged victims was a Cub Scout who visited Jim'll Fix It as part of a pack outing. As someone who also, as a Cub, went to at least two recordings of the show, my skin - which had hitherto been mildly irritated - has now started to crawl. And thankfully, I didn't get any closer to Savile than my row of the bleacher seating.

So, with government enquiries, and Prime Ministerial declarations, promises of root-and-branch investigations at the BBC and still more frothing - understandable frothing, I have to say - in the British tabloids, the posthumous disgrace of Sir Jimmy Savile, and the increasing nudges and winks about his Top Of The Pops contemporaries, it's clear this story isn't going to disappear any time soon.

The saddest thing of all is that, while never a personal hero of mine, he was a part of my childhood.  And now we're discovering that he ruined so many other childhoods privately. What a mess.

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