In recent weeks many of us have been shocked by the case of Jimmy Savile and the BBC, and wondered how someone who did so much good in the world could turn out to have such a dark side.
The case of Jimmy Savile should make us all look with new eyes at the cult of celebrity, at the nature of good and evil, and at the capacity of human beings to appear as Angels of Light and yet to have dark hearts beneath.
Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness explores this, as does Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
This is what celebrity is all about: people who seem to be, who look and sound and do good. And we so much want to believe in them.
So many people were hypnotized for so long by the power of Savile’s Celebrity Personna, and his Good Works.
Today I learned on the Radio 4 Today Programme that Philip Pullman is re-telling 50 Grimms Fairy Stories. Neil Gaiman was also in the studio to discuss the archetypal appeal of fairy stories. Why do fairy stories work? Neil Gaiman gave this as his number one reason:
Fairy stories warn us “There are monsters out there. Beware of strangers – beware the wolves in the wood.”
Running through archetypal story structure, we find wolves in sheep’s clothing, fair maidens who turn out to be evil sorceresses, beautiful queens who are power-hungry murderers.
These characters form part of the “giant glorious background clutter we carry with us into adulthood”, says Neil Gaiman.
In the case of Jimmy Savile, and in other notorious cases in recent years, we have seen cunning people playing with and subverting the English tendency to say something and mean exactly its opposite, conveying this purely through subtle changes in tone of voice.
I’ll never forget somebody I met years ago (working at the BBC) saying in my presence, “I am a black hole in the spiritual firmament.” We were all sitting in a recording studio, making a programme for religious schools radio about the Iona Community. This colleague was a great character, probably one of my favourite people in the office: funny, colourful, down-to-earth, with a subversive sense of humour. “If holy people see me coming in on the radar,” he went on, “they’ll say: ‘Watch out, there’s something alien coming in here’.”
We all laughed, and later I wrote it in my journal, I was so amused and intrigued by his words.
Of course he was probably joking.
But so did many many people persuade themselves Savile was joking. So did Fred West convince neighbours and acquaintances he was joking. So did Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, convince work colleagues he was joking.
Convincing yourself people are joking is an excellent way to avoid responsibility to follow the promptings of your first instinct.
Of course these are exceptional cases, and there is a very high probability that when my amusing work colleague spoke those words, it could simply have been a theatrical way of saying, “I’m not religious”. Or it could have indicated bad feelings about himself arising from negative messages received in childhood; or it could have meant that he knew he had done – and perhaps continued to do – bad things that we didn’t know about.
Should not reasonable people be able to see “something alien” coming in on their radar?
Many people were blind to that “something alien” in Jimmy Savile. Human beings have a vast capacity to deceive.
What is your take on this? Please share your thoughts on the case of Jimmy Savile, or any reflections arising from it.
11 thoughts on “The Big Bad Wolf, the Human Capacity to Deceive, and the Case of Jimmy Savile”
I think it’s something to do with the idea of shame that many abused children feel – that it was their fault and they ‘should have said no’. Abusers are very clever at making them feel this, effectively silencing them.
Thank you for your comment. Yes, I agree this is a major part of the reason why abuse victims fail to come forward. I do take heart, though, from the fact that this issue is coming so much to public attention now; wide awareness and education, will contribute to a much better chance of understanding and support for victims.
I never liked Jimmy Saville: I found him creepy. Did you hear the Catholic commentatoron this today (radio 4)? He was excellent. Girls from my school (nice, private, in a good area, clever girls) went to Top of the Pops… jealous then, but glad now my mother was savvy enough to say No in such a way that it was kind of possible to perceive that this wasn’t parental stuffiness, there was indeed something evil to be found beyond stage doors & in star’s dressing rooms, but not to either want to subvert parental advice nor need to be told the details. The cult of celebrity is dangerous. The trend to encourage subversion is unhealthy. However can virtue be made interesting, exciting, and desireable?
Thank you for your comment. The word “creepy” is interesting – I think probably many people felt this about Savile. And it means “this person is not what he appears to be” – or at last that’s part of the meaning. One thing I was very conscious of was this: whenever I watched “Jim’ll Fix It” I noticed the children often didn’t smile, especially at the big moment when they were being told by Savile that they had won the opportunity to fulfil their dream. I always found that weird and uncomfortable. I suppose I did accept Savile as an eccentric entertainer, but I never particularly liked or warmed to him as a character. But the one thing that stands out in my mind is the failure of the children to smile, and respond in a way I would have expected happy, excited children to respond.
sorry misspelled in earlier post
Jimmy Saville, like the murderous GP Harold Shipman, was effective over a long period of time at persuading people he ‘just wanted to help’ while concealing horrific wrongdoing using every trick in the book to do so. This teaches us that some liars are very plausible indeed. Can anyone think of any of our politicians who might fit that description?
In an essay ‘Is Creationism Divisive?’ I wrote on the Creation Science Movement web site, I referred to the many warnings of Jesus and the Apostles that we could expect false teachers ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing’ who would lead many astray. I wrote that these evil liars, deceivers and deceived, do not come with tattoos on their foreheads that read ‘I have come from Satan to devour you’ but seem plausible and caring, telling us they have only our best interests at heart.
I wish that it were not so, but it is so. Probably we need to be more suspicious, a horrible prospect but better than waking up too late and realising we have been deceived to our ruin.
Saville, like the murderous GP Harold Shipman, was effective over a long period of time at persuading people he ‘just wanted to help’ while concealing horrific wrongdoing using every trick in the book to do so. This teaches us that some liars are very plausible indeed. Can anyone think of any of our politicians who might fit that description?
In an essay ‘Is Creationism Deisive?’ I wrote on the Creation Science Movement web site, I referred to the many warnings of Jesus and the Apostles that we could expect false teachers ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing’ who would lead many astray. I wrote that these evil liars, deceivers and deceived, do not come with tattoos on their foreheads that read ‘I have come from Satan to devour you’ but seem plausible and caring, telling us they have only our best interests at heart.
I wish that it were not so, but it is so. Probably we ned to be more suspicious, a horrible prospect but better than waking up too late and realising we have been deceived to our ruin.
Thank you for your comment, which gives us much to reflect upon. The observation in your last sentence made me think once again of Jesus’s words, telling us to be “innocent as doves and wise as serpents.”
One of the reasons that Saville got away with it seems to have been that his victims didn’t think anyone would believe them. Which seems to me to say something, not just about the cult of celebrity, but about people’s perception of justice. There is an ingrained feeling that wealth and fame can buy justice, poverty and obscurity just has to manage without it. I’m sure that many, particularly in the Justice system, would deny that that is the case – but as long as people continue to see it that way, then things like this will continue to happen.
Yes, you are right. The people against whom he committed his crimes kept quiet, because they believed they would be laughed at and disbelieved. One of the victims said she was persuaded not to press charges because “there wuld be a media circus”. I found myself thinking, So what? What’s wrong with a media circus – that’s what we have right now. And the bottom line is that people don’t have faith that justice will prevail.