Review - Louis Theroux: Savile
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Words - Austin Collings
Fifteen years ago BBC2 aired a documentary called When Louis Met Jimmy. Last Sunday - 2 October - they showed a second film - Louis Theroux: Savile - which attempted to unravel how the broadcaster duped the filmmaker back in the early Noughties.
Unlike Will Gore at The Independent or The Guardian’s TV critic, Sam Wollaston, I wasn’t swayed by the ‘soul-searching’ or the ‘brave and bold’ content of Louis Theroux: Savile. In fact, I saw it as cowardly and conceited and a missed opportunity to cast a new light on this awful dark puzzle that has obliterated the banalization of modern celebrity.
Never was the original 2001 doc. a serious investigative piece of TV journalism as he reminded us so incessantly and desperately throughout the programme. Theroux's revising the past there. It was very much in the mould of all his other programmes where he adopts an arch - and in my opinion condescending - stance over his subject like that other moral arbitrator Jeremy Kyle; only this time he met a demonic master of one-upmanship and he's still clearly smarting from the fallout.
With his new Scientology documentary nearing release, was this latest Savile-foray less a heartfelt attempt to explain the terrifying wounds that Savile has created and more of a public plea to clear his own name/association with the BBC's worst member of staff before he begins the publicity bandwagon surrounding L Ron Hubbard’s bizarre legacy?
It’s hard to tell with Theroux. He may appear deeply shocked but then he’s been mocking appearance for decades now. This is his routine, his mask; the clever, yet bumbling Englishman who exposes the truth through the limits of polite convention by appearing innocent and daft – a man adrift in a state of educated childishness – always waiting for people to make mistakes: the British Columbo, Police TV, in effect; he’s filched part of this schtick off the documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield, only he’s unable to develop it beyond wide-eyed incredulity or a reaction-shot gurn so it’s hard to believe in him.
Faced with the charged events of Savile’s afterlife and the despairing chorus of his victims, this mocking mask of his appeared to be biting into his own face last Sunday. It was the look of a man who has bargained with the devil and lost and now he seems to need Savile’s victims to remind himself who he once was.
Take the way in which he unscrupulously re-used two (unseen and unheard) victims to shift the onus; suggesting that if they'd told him more at the time then he would have been better equipped to challenge Savile in 2001. In truth, he was out of his depth in that original – and again in my opinion overrated - programme; keen to make a friend and not challenge his subject. There was a distinct absence of personal courage at the meek heart of his approach; remain mute or resort to dinner-party inanities but never confront, never break the boundary of TV, of your job.
Overlook the argument of hindsight. As detailed in Dan Davies' prize-winning book In Plain Sight, Savile's atrocities were common knowledge throughout the BBC; his foul actions, beyond rumour. And here was an opportunity to seriously quiz the man at the centre of these disturbingly perverse suggestions.
Theroux nervously asked Savile about these allegations in a now famous exchange in the back of a car. Savile rebuffed the accusations with a twisted reply about 'hating children'. Why didn't he force the issue in the space of those ten precious days he spent with him?
Interesting how many reviewers have attempted to comfort Theroux recently by saying, ‘how was he to know?’ because they themselves didn’t know, sat at home watching When Louis Met Jimmy. But there’s a gaping hole in that argument. How could they have been privy to the secrets of the BBC like so many members of the BBC? Of course they didn’t know, they were not working for or with the BBC at the time but Theroux was and it’s quite likely he, at worst, knew, and at best, had suspicions. Why ask that question in the car if he didn’t?
Another, far bolder and braver documentary should have been made by another filmmaker – Broomfield, for instance – in response to the original film. One that shifted the focus from Theroux's bruised ego by interviewing him alongside members of the BBC and other people who came into contact with Savile and had been affected by this warped character, this deranged, demonic and distinctly middle-of-the-road light entertainer, one that dispensed with the ghoulish mood music, the pointless cut-aways to forlorn-looking dogs and Louis asking to take his shoes off before he enters a house.
Austin Collings is the author of The Myth of Brilliant Summers, published by PARIAH PRESS: