Monday, October 08, 2012

Jim, fixed.


The British broadcasting world has recently been rocked to its foundations (as people say when they are faintly surprised that something they long suspected turns out to be true) by televised allegations that Sir Saint Jimmy Savile was a child-molester.[1] 

The Daily Mail led the charge with an article quoting several women as having been sexually assaulted or outright raped by him in the distant past, and the article was followed by a TV program (which I haven't seen because I live in the wrong country) last week.  Following those allegations, about half the UK seems to have remembered that they knew this already, but for some reason hadn't told anybody.

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I didn't know, I have to say. I heard the rumors after he died at 84, a year ago this month, at which time I watched a documentary on his life that showed him to be a lonely, mother-fixated individual who had difficulty relating to others. Before that, and especially during his heyday in the seventies, I thought of him as an unattractive, loud and garish TV presenter with the personality of a used car salesman and the musicological depth of a freeze-dried tardigrade. I couldn't stand the premier music TV show of the age, Top of the Pops, being presented by an ancient, ludicrously-dressed bottle-blond whose behavior was so thoroughly creepy it could have been harnessed to (slowly) transport shipping containers between major distribution centers. On the other hand, he was from Leeds (as was I), had been a miner, and did vast, huge and cosmically large amounts of fundraising for charity, particularly for Stoke Mandeville Hospital spinal unit. On top of that, he presented Jim'll Fix It, which my parents watched and therefore so did I, where he read out the wishes of sick or deprived children, which he then made come true…and filmed the resultant boundless happiness.

All the time, allegedly, he was using his star power and entourage to meet underage girls and coerce them into giving him sexual favors.  

From here in the US  the outrage seems to have convulsed the whole UK, possibly because Savile was so ubiquitous in broadcasting and was, after all, a Sir.  Britain has never been able to stand a nonce, particularly one it thought was the bees knees for thirty years and whose behavior was ignored so well that he was able to become a knight of the realm.


Despite the usual suspects baying for his head (even though he's dead), there's an undercurrent of well things were different then. And I have to admit that's true. After 1963 (when sexual intercourse was invented) and the resultant revolution, there was a recognition that teens were sexual beings. There was the Oz Schoolkids Issue, for one. The sainted John Peel regularly sang the praises of schoolgirls, and Good Morning Little Schoolgirl was a staple of pretty much every blues band in the country. As someone who was 14 in the Seventies, I would have been happy to hang out with at least one rock star who famously liked that sort of thing, and although at the time the rumors caused a lot of tut-tutting, they didn't result in prosecution or even censure. (I'm not going to mention his name even though it's all over books and the web, because in today's climate, he probably will be prosecuted for it.) Bill Wyman 'waited for' 14 year old Mandy and married her at 18.  Elvis waited for 14 year old Priscilla to be legal. 

At the same time, the old sexist culture was still in full swing (no pun intended). Men had absolute authority. Humor was the execrable Bernard Manning at the worst end, and at the best the miniskirt-chasing buffoons of Carry On, with a wide swath of what-the-window-cleaner-saw movies and On The Buses in between. Even Monty Python is filled with cringe-worthy moments as the team, in pursuit of slaying what they perceive to be Sacred Cows, display blind spots the size of Betelgeuse as they enact rigid gender roles without the slightest awareness that those roles may not be innate. Generally speaking, being pursued and fondled by a powerful man was either flattering or highly amusing, depending on the circumstances. The word "fondle" still sounds funny to me, in fact. Fondled fondled fondled. "If we complained, we were [thought of as] being silly," says Janet Street Porter in this ineresting article about the broadcasting "culture" from a woman who was there at the time. DJ Liz Kershaw talks about being repeatedly groped by a Radio 1 DJ here. "When I complained to somebody, they were incredulous and said, "What? Don't you like it? Are you a lesbian?""

But even in those days, when people like Bill Wyman and Elvis Presley 'waited' until their girlfriends were of age and then married them, there was a perceived difference between falling for young groupies who wanted to spend time with you and coercing unwilling girls into sex acts by telling them that no one would believe their words against those of a star and there was no escape. Both are illegal. One of them I'd still tell my younger self to go for.

The other one? I'd tell my younger self to go to the police, of course. But things really were different then.   Almost all the bosses were men, almost all the police and almost all the people you would have to face in order to make a charge stick. A lot of them were complicit in rape culture (still are – but they are less effective now they've been diluted a bit), and even those who weren't had a tendency to believe a grown man over a young teenage girl.  And on top of that, if you were told that publicizing what you'd seen and heard could result in Stoke Mandeville losing millions in charity, or Jim'll Fix It going off the air, or the BBC undergoing some indignities, I guess you'd keep quiet.

Actually, I don't guess. I know you'd keep quiet. Because you all did.[2] 

Let's hope things really are different today.


[1] I'm not going to say pedophile (or even paedophile) as that describes someone with interest in prepubescent children. I'm fighting a bitter, losing, rearguard action against it being used as a term to describe sexual interest in 12 or 13 year old British or American girls.  That would be a hebephile.  It's still illegal, of course, and in Savile's case it seems to have been sheer sexual assaults on minors. 

[2] Though Savile didn't.

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