Now then, now then. This is all about Alistair McGowan’s performance as Jimmy Savile, and much less about the worthy busy-work hauled up around that performance in order to justify it. An unconvincing reckoning, a stilted disbelieving father, and the uncomfortably voiced testimony of victims of sexual violence; all are problematic for their naive faith in the powers of theatrical representation, dim encumbrances at best.
McGowan’s exhumation of Savile is dense, dazzlingly grotesque, detailed and technically excellent. Standing there like a malevolent christmas tree: shiny lime triangles on the tracksuit, festooned in medals and rings, he turns joy inside out. Very precise, very controlling, puffing himself up somewhere between a statesman and a schoolboy on a sportsday podium.
It’s a consummate portrait of this gothic light entertainer and domestic monster. Coy, cajoling, threatening. He breathes the same foul air. The stringy white hair resembles an unwashed Stormtrooper or Cardinal’s ecclesiastical hat; the actor captures the papal airs, and the constant expulsion of regal bull.
As a character Savile writes himself. Literally in one wry scene, dictating the questions he is to be asked to and by the genially acquiescent chatshow host, played by an excellent Graham Seed, mixing dry-oil unctuousness with old-boy sub rosa discretion.
One feature of Savile’s rhetoric is revealed to be the sheer weight of repetition. The apparently compulsive self-disclosure that comes readied and pre-packaged, predigested and prestidigitative. It’s the raconteur’s machine gun persistence, the conjurers legerdemain, here as a process of continually making and blotting itself out lest a stain appear.
Part of Savile’s schtick was a performative reluctance to perform. The strained patient tone, shot through with bad gags, is designed to suggest exactly that we are imbeciles. From within the cartoon he talked to us like we were children, and as though we and children were imbeciles.
In this way McGowan’s Savile stands for a reveal of the mass media subject. Made for television, honed in clubland, Savile did not give anyone time to think. His anti-critical gift was to be so broadly drawn as disallow the suspicion of something more complex; and so minutely jointed and articulated as to build misdirection into every ‘odd’ gesture.
To the point where he could joke about ‘teenage girls’ and impropriety. We knew. The big secret is that there is no secret, Savile was known to say. And, as pointed out by Dan Davies in his exemplary book on the subject In Plain Sight, this was the very apogee of the man’s calculated ambivalence. That in general discourse of living rooms, as in complicit power-worshipping institutions, everything was out front. Patriarchal depravity was, in effect, normalised.
Formal concerns aside, if any victim finds solace in the difficult testimony of rape being aired, or the awkwardly manufactured reckoning, then the play is doing good. It’s curious, risky, literal and maladept show with a stellar performance in its centre. An attempt to throw a spotlight on a darkness that was already well-lit, bathed in the warm glow of the affections of a nation’s audiences and institutions.