An Audience with Jimmy Savile, a new play about the double-life of the DJ, presenter, charity fundraiser and serial child abuser, opens at Park Theatre, London, on 10 June 2015. It is written by journalist and author, Jonathan Maitland and stars Alistair McGowan.

The play is set in 1991 and follows one woman’s quest to be believed about the abuse she suffered at the hands of the recently-knighted Savile, who has been called ‘the most trusted man in Britain’.

Drawing on transcripts of interviews, witness statements and official reports, the play aims to show how Savile used fame, intimidation and manipulation to fool the very institutions we trust and how one brave woman fought back.

Criticisms

Unsurprisingly, the production of An Audience with Jimmy Savile has been criticised in some areas.

Peter Saunders, CEO of The National Association for People Abused in Childhood (NAPAC), doubts that many survivors of child abuse would consider the play to be in “good taste”. He also believes that the producers are “cashing in on pain”. Referring to abuse survivors, Saunders has said that Savile’s face “is a face they don’t want to see again”.

This is a view echoed by Matthew Ellison, whose petition on the website argues that “Jimmy Savile is a stain on the British consciousness that needs to be erased for good.” Ellison calls for the play to be “banned in its entirety and for all actors and supporting theatres to withdraw and issue a full and frank apology.”

The petition has attracted 215 signatures as at the date of writing.

Support for the play

Contrary to the accusation that the play is exploitative, Maitland believes that, far from being exploitative, this play gives the survivors of Savile’s abuse a voice. “The victims were exploited by not being listened to and this play is giving them a voice.”

Despite being a journalist for 30 years, Maitland also believes that drama can sometimes be more effective in telling the true story than current affairs television

Maitland also assures us that the play is not about “making jokes”. While the inclusion of comedy impressionist Alistair McGowan may not immediately support this assertion, Maitland has reportedly spoken to some of Savile’s victims about the play and how it intends to address the issues. It has been widely reported that the reaction from victims has been favourable.

The Savile Effect

Following his death in October 2011, Savile was found to have abused dozens of children and young women in hospitals and schools throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

The courage of Savile’s victims to break their silence and speak out about the abuse sparked a huge investigation by Scotland Yard into the allegations of abuse by Savile and others. With the increased interest from the media, the authorities and the public that followed the scandal, there has been a massive proliferation in reports of child abuse. In turn, more and more survivors of abuse continue to come forward.

The revelations about the predatory deeds of Savile and other high profile figures from the world of TV, radio and politics (amongst others) has led to the establishment of enquiries such as The Goddard Enquiry and The Dame Janet Smith Review.

The public and political landscape for the survivors of child abuse has now changed and the revelations about Savile were the catalyst.

Bolt Burdon Kemp experience

For many abuse survivors, the spotlight on child abuse has given them the strength they need to break their own silence and tell their stories.

We hear from many of our clients that they found the courage to come forward as a result of the increased public interest and awareness of child abuse following Savile’s unmasking as a predatory paedophile. This may be because they now know there is support out there for them or because the increased media interest has given them the courage to address their own pasts. Whatever the reason, many have recognized this as one of the first steps to being able to deal with the abuse they have suffered.

Returning to An Audience with Jimmy Savile…

I think we have to appreciate that a story about Savile’s abuse was somewhat inevitable; it was going to be told by someone at some point: it was only a matter of ‘when’, ‘who’ and ‘in what format’. The fact that this play aims to focus on the perspective of the survivors of that abuse must surely be a positive thing.

It was also inevitable that the first play, film or TV drama about Savile was likely to create a lot of media interest, whether good or bad. The closer the story is in time to the actual events, the more likely it is to create media interest and debate.

Despite Matthew Ellison’s petition, I think we can assume that, with the abandonment of theatre censorship in Britain on 26th September 1968, An Audience with Jimmy Savile will almost certainly not be banned. The arts have always been a conduit through which difficult issues have been explored. For the benefit of society, this must be allowed to continue, provided – in this case – we are sensitive to the suffering of Savile’s victims and we are not trivializing Savile’s actions purely for entertainment purposes.

Looking to the Future

Clearly, Jimmy Savile is a stain on the British consciousness, but should we erase the memory of what he did (and is this even possible)? Or should we learn from it and put measures in place to ensure it does not happen again?

The study of history allows us to analyse events that took place in the past, how they evolved and the consequences of those events. From this, we can learn valuable lesson to try to ensure that these events do not happen in the present or in the future. For example, if the world had erased the memory of Adolf Hitler, how could we possibly learn the crucial lessons about racism, genocide and democracy that the study of Hitler, the Final Solution or the Second World War raises?

Savile’s victims will want to move on with their lives, but they would probably be the first to accept that they will never forget about the abuse they suffered. Also, as can be seen from their apparent support ofAn Audience, moving on with their lives does not necessarily mean they wish to brush the abuse under the carpet.

For society as a whole, it is important that we never forget what Savile and people like him have done and we must never again brush it under the carpet. We must learn how these people were allowed to operate so that we can stop this happening in the future; we must continue to explore the issues surrounding child abuse that are raised by the story of Savile’s victims; and we must continue to push for justice for the survivors of abuse.