The Big Bad Wolf, the Human Capacity to Deceive, and the Case of Jimmy Savile

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.

Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf by Gustave Dore
Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf by Gustave Dore

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.