Coogan captures the charm and creepy depravity of the notorious abuser. But this is a horrific tale most of us already know – and the BBC’s depressing drama adds little of value
Playing to his greatest strength … Steve Coogan as Jimmy Savile in The Reckoning. Photograph: Matt Squire/BBC/ITV Studios
If you are among the vanishingly few people left in the country who do not know that Jimmy Savile was an absolutely evil man, then I recommend watching The Reckoning, a dramatisation of his story written by Neil McKay and starring Steve Coogan as the necro-paedophile, OBE.
If you do know who he is – well, I wonder. Stripped of context, The Reckoning is a rigorously well-made and polished thing. It takes us from 1962, as Savile’s career as a DJ on the northern club circuit began to gain traction, through his years as an increasingly beloved and powerful figure on radio and then television, and on until his much-mourned death in 2011 at the age of 84, untouched and then untouchable by any revelations about his awful secrets. For some reason, it is interspersed with a lot of archive footage of the real Savile that interrupts the viewer’s engagement. Stopping your tale to remind people that truth and the man at the heart of it were even stranger than fiction is an odd decision.
The scenes in which he terrorises, assaults or rapes girls, young women and occasionally young men – at home, in clubs, in hospitals, anywhere – are handled very well. I don’t think I have seen many dramas that evoke that particular terror so well – that moment when a man “turns”, the air becomes charged, and the imminent victim becomes aware of the sudden threat and terrible truth. Importantly, it manages to do this while still showing almost nothing of the physical events.
Coogan is brilliant in the role. He is a fine actor as well as a fine impressionist, and the part of Savile gives him the chance to blend the two in perfect proportions. He captures the mannerisms, the voice, the vibe entirely without ever veering anywhere near caricature. He shows us the layers of charm and malevolence slipping and sliding over each other, depending on who was near and what he wanted from them, and then, at certain moments, the core of absolute depravity in whose service they were all deployed. Above and beyond that, Coogan was born to play creeps. Coogan has a calculating coldness he can easily push towards horror. From Paul Calf to Alan Partridge to the recent Chivalry, creepy is his greatest strength. (Partridge is the rare non-sexual creep, but only because his insecurities run too deep to allow him to be a proper predator. Discuss, animatedly, but later).
But The Reckoning does exist in a context. And that context is a world already full of dramas and documentaries – including one very recent, very thorough and harrowing one about Savile – that mine trauma (particularly female trauma) for content. To justify adding to that pile, you have to be adding something really valuable to the subject. It is here that The Reckoning falls down. It is a careful recounting of what we already know, and posits no more explanation of how Savile came to be and how he managed to operate untrammelled for so long than we have already learned or would intuit alone. The suggestion, based on scant evidence, that his predilections were due to “the duchess” not loving him enough, as an unwanted seventh child, is to indulge our worst impulses to blame the nearest, easiest person – the mother.
Also problematic is the lack of interrogation, in a drama shown on the BBC (though it is technically an independent production by ITV), to the BBC’s role in enabling or protecting the valuable property they had in Savile. A lot of emphasis is given to a couple of fairly inconsequential investigations into his conduct there. But a lot more emphasis is given to the failures of NHS staff to protect their patients at the various hospitals Savile was allowed unfettered access to, to editors caving in to pressures to shut down a Fleet Street exposé, and the many other failings by individuals and institutions (sometimes indistinguishable – such as when Thatcher, whom we see charmed by Savile at Chequers, gave him the knighthood he longed for) that turned a blind eye to the red flags he scattered with an increasingly lavish and contemptuous hand.
To watch The Reckoning is to come away depressed but unenlightened. It is bookended by brief testimonies from some of his real-life victims, as if this is meant to justify the programme’s existence and exonerate it from any claims of exploitation or voyeurism. But to do that, you have to do more than repeat what is already in the public record. Reminding us that evil exists and walks untroubled among us is not enough.
The Reckoning aired on BBC One and is on iPlayer.