Reckoning with the past
The BBC will come under scrutiny for its decision to commission The Reckoning, a factual drama about how former presenter Jimmy Savile committed hundreds of sexual assaults over several decades. But for the team behind the series, it’s a story that needed to be told.
There have been reports and investigations; reviews and documentaries. Now the BBC has turned to scripted drama to explore how Jimmy Savile, a former presenter for the UK pubcaster, was able to commit hundreds of sexual assaults over a 50-year period.
An eccentric but often beloved former TV star, campaigner and volunteer who rose to fame as a DJ before fronting BBC programmes such as Top of the Pops and Jim’ll Fix It, Savile died in 2011. But after his death, he became one of the most reviled figures of modern British history following revelations of extensive and horrific abuse.
Savile used his involvement in multiple organisations, such as the BBC, hospitals, prisons and charities, to legitimise himself, forging friendships in showbusiness, politics, journalism, the Catholic Church and even the Royal Family to cement his status.
The Reckoning, a four-part series that begins on BBC One tonight, aims to use drama to explore how Savile, played by Steve Coogan, was able to use his celebrity and powerful connections to conceal his crimes for so long, often hiding in plain sight by making such ‘jokes’ as “I’m feared in every girls’ school in the country.”
It also explores his conflicting relationship with his Catholicism and his somewhat strained relationship with his mother Agnes (Gemma Jones), who he called The Duchess.
Produced by ITV Studios, the series comes from executive producers Neil McKay and Jeff Pope, who have built a reputation for handling difficult subjects with care through fellow factual dramas such as Appropriate Adult and The Moorside.
“These guys are the best in this field with the sensitivity a really challenging subject like this demands,” says Charlotte Moore, the BBC’s chief content officer. Moore admits they did discuss whether Savile’s was a story that needed telling, but they agreed drama has a unique ability to set events in their historical and emotional context in a way documentaries cannot.
“We all felt there was a story to tell and although the BBC’s a big part of this story, that’s not a reason to not tell this story,” she continues. “I think we all felt it was incredibly important that we continue to talk about this.”
So important was it to get it right that Moore trusted McKay and Pope to set the approach to dramatising Savile’s story, after the pair first discussed bringing it to the screen a decade ago. “I thought it was important they should have the editorial freedom to tell the story they wanted,” she says. “I said there are no boundaries to where you should go.”
Pope says he and writer McKay are drawn to stories that carry a warning, but when they determined that Moore and BBC commissioning editor Lucy Richer were serious about the project, they knew their reputations could be on the line.
“This couldn’t be seen to be the BBC marking its own homework,” he states. “Very early, it became clear to us that we weren’t going to have anyone on our shoulder and that we were going to be free to make the film we wanted to make. There wasn’t any part of the process where we felt censored or put under pressure to make changes, to go lighter on the BBC. We made exactly the story that we wanted to make.”
What the BBC did do was challenge them to show the trail of evidence for everything in the drama. “But that’s a normal part of the rigour of making these kinds of pieces,” Pope notes. “It has been a very, very long process. But it’s strange how it doesn’t feel that way. It was one of, if not the most difficult pieces I’ve ever been involved in. Every part of the process was incredibly challenging. We had to get it right.”
The series opens as an elderly Savile is approached by journalist Dan Davies (Mark Stanley) to tell his life story and reveal the true character behind the showbiz flair. Then through flashbacks, we see Savile’s rise from dancehall DJ in the early 1960s to his rise at the BBC and his varied charity work – particularly at Stoke Mandeville Hospital and Broadmoor Hospital – that led him to mix with prime ministers, the Royal Family and the Pope. Then at different stages of his life, we see Savile carry out some of the devastating attacks that would only come to light after his death.
McKay’s research began with meeting numerous victims and survivors of Savile. The drama was then built around the experiences of four people in particular who each encountered Savile at different stages of his life and in different circumstances. The real people also appear at the start and end of every episode to discuss their experiences.
The decision to put the victims on camera was discussed between Pope and McKay early in development, and their interviews were part of the first script drafts, literally giving them a voice in a drama that also establishes the different eras of the story through the use of archive footage.
“We wanted to make sure that people remember that this might be fiction, it might be a drama, but it’s absolutely true,” Moore says. “The decision to have the voice of the survivors was incredibly important. It’s very powerful to remember this happened to people.”
“It’s essential to me that these are the voices of ordinary people, unheard voices,” McKay says. “That’s the essence of it; we speak up in these dramas for ordinary people who don’t necessarily have a voice. They didn’t have a voice while Savile was alive and that’s why we’ve done it. There’s no greater story, I don’t think, that serves as a warning to people about sexual offending and grievance.”
Describing Savile as a conman, McKay found telling a story set over 50 years “dramatically difficult” and says finding the right structure for the series “wasn’t easy.”
The drama shows how Savile’s crimes were twice nearly exposed, once by a standards inquiry into music show Top of the Pops and later by a newspaper investigation. Over time, his crimes became harder to hide as procedures tightened at the institutions where he would corner his victims – at the BBC and in hospitals. But as the drama reveals, not even the tightest regulations could stop him. One particularly distressing scene later in the series shows how Savile exploited his freedom to roam hospitals unsupervised, leading him to carry out an assault in a morgue.
“It was really disturbing. What can you say?” says Coogan. “It’s as disturbing as it looks.” But the actor says the scene spoke to a creative problem facing the series, one that meant the show now airs almost three years to the day since it was first announced. Filming took place between October 2021 and January 2022, with scenes depicting the North East England town of Scarborough filmed in Llandudno, Wales, while most of the rest of the series was shot in Bolton and Greater Manchester.
“The reason it’s taken so long isn’t because anyone got cold feet, it was because of diligent forensic application about trying to make sure all the right decisions are made,” Coogan explains. “There’s a tension between showing too much of Savile’s offences and it being grotesque or sugar-coating them, which is also wrong. You have to strike that balance. You don’t want to upset survivors and you don’t want to anaesthetise the full effect of the full horror of what he did.
“I’m really comfortable, from my point of view, because I’m going to be associated with this and I have to put my name to it, that all decisions were the best ones that could have been made.”
Coogan is best known for playing comedic characters, most notably the hapless radio DJ and TV presenter Alan Partridge, but he has taken on more serious roles in recent years. Once upon a time, he was also known for impersonations, with Savile among his repertoire.
The actor believes there were only a “handful” of people who could have played the disgraced star in The Reckoning, including himself, but he admits he still had “great trepidation” about taking on the part.
“I knew it had the potential for catastrophic failure if you get it wrong, but that’s not a reason not to do it,” he says. “So I moved forward with it. I remember talking to Neil and Jeff about [the fact] the script has to answer the question that everyone would ask, which is, ‘Why are you doing this?’ I felt comfortable it was being made for the right reasons.”
But when it came to playing Savile, Coogan treated it just as he would any other role – which came with six different make-up looks to cover the show’s 50-year span.
“I’m professional. I’m being hired to do a job as professionally as possible,” he continues. “That means not to do something that has any caricature or comedic content, nor to render him as some sort of pantomime villain, which ultimately would be a disservice to the survivors and victims of Savile.
“To understand how this happens, you have to show the things that perhaps initially seem counterintuitive, which is to show that he was charismatic, undoubtedly, because that was part of the Trojan horse that he created to go about his sexual assaults. The court jester character that he created was his armour, and it served him very well.
“It wasn’t enjoyable; it was a professional challenge I wanted to take on,” Coogan adds. “But from watching him very closely, you start to learn these techniques he had. One of them, for example, is that he used his hands a lot and waved them a lot around in your field of vision, almost distracting you in the way a magician would. That speaks to his very clever duplicity.”
But does The Reckoning hold the BBC to account for the way the corporation enabled Savile’s crimes over many years? The drama does seek to put the Beeb in the spotlight, highlighting how Savile was continually backed despite ongoing rumours about his behaviour.
However, as the series concludes with Savile’s death, it is left to a postscript to address how the corporation was mired in another controversy when a Newsnight investigation into his history of sexual abuse was scrapped.
“The whole purpose of the piece was how did he do what he did? Why did we let him do it?” Pope says. “We did deal with what happened after his death, but the whole point of the story is he dies without what he did being brought to light. That was the story we wanted to tell.
“We didn’t try to ignore the fact that the BBC dropped Newsnight and put out a glowing tribute instead. But we felt the way we dealt with it was the right way. We told our story about Savile, and after he died, then his true character emerged. No one watching that would think, ‘Oh, the BBC comes out of this smelling of roses.”
“I don’t think we shy away from the BBC’s part in this,” Moore adds. “It’s very clear people who worked closely with him, who supported his promotion from one show to another, had warnings of rumours and people saying, ‘I don’t think this is the right thing to do.’ We’re very clear about that. Whatever rumours then, no one was asking the right questions to get the right answers.”
The Reckoning ultimately speaks to a desire to shine a spotlight on what Savile did and try to ensure it never happens again.
“We need to have the courage to talk about it,” Moore concludes. “All institutions where there is power need to understand how predators manipulate situations and hide in plain sight. It’s an extremely effective, impactful drama. The most important thing is we have the courage to tell these difficult stories.”