independent

Friday 18 April 2014

DJ, TV legend, coalminer and wrestler: howz about that then!

Jimmy Savile, who has died aged 84, was a disc-jockey, television presenter and charity fundraiser who became an eccentric adornment to public life in Britain.

For almost 30 years, as the presenter of BBC's 'Top of the Pops' and 'Jim'll Fix It', Savile was an ubiquitous and distinctive face on television -- an improbable figure with a helmet of platinum hair, dressed in a lurid track suit and bedecked in ostentatious jewellery. As he waggled an outsize cigar, he would utter a series of catchphrases ("Howzabout that then", "Now then, now then ... ") which were usually punctuated by a bizarre yodel, and were a gift to even the most limited of television and nightclub impressionists.

His trademark mixture of gurning and garrulity, pioneered on 'Top of the Pops', inspired an entirely new genre of television presentation -- what one observer called the "attention-seeking, nutty-prankster school" -- but Savile also saw himself in a more serious role as the King Solomon of pop, dispensing words of wisdom and advice to young musicians. "I never forgot they were the talent and we were just presenters," he explained.

Savile was chosen to host what turned out be the world's longest-running television music show in 1963 -- and later claimed credit for thinking up the new show's title.

From the outset Savile strove to make the show his own, and became its longest-serving host.

Although he shrank from presenting every programme, fearing overexposure, Savile quickly established himself as the face of the show. With his stripy Dada-like outfits, wobbly spiel and clownish persona -- he once dyed his hair tartan -- nothing quite like him had been seen on television before. He soon became, as one of the show's chroniclers noted, "charmingly certifiable".

Savile's arsenal of sartorial and verbal oddities was also vividly deployed when he presented 'Jim'll Fix It', which ran from 1975 until 1994, and in which he played the role of benevolent uncle, granting wishes to the nation's children.

Savile's ability to make dreams come true made him a powerful and mysterious figure. At the height of the UK programme's popularity, up to 20,000 children a week would write in, asking Jim to "fix it" for them to sing with their favourite pop group, meet their favourite actor or play for Liverpool.

Savile's role as cheery national benefactor was further reflected in his tireless charity work.

It was once estimated that he had personally raised more than £40m (€45m) for various charitable causes, and that up to 90pc of his own income was given away, although Savile never disclosed the extent of his charitable donations. He took part in more than 200 marathons and innumerable "fun runs" for charity, without ever bothering to train: "I just turn up and run." He completed the London Marathon in 2005.

Savile was born in Leeds on October 31, 1926, the youngest of seven children in a Catholic family. His father Vincent was a bookmaker's clerk. Savile would later claim that the family was so impoverished that his Christmas present was to be taken simply to look at the toys in a Leeds department store -- he never expected to be given one himself.

At the age of two Jimmy fell desperately ill, probably with pneumonia, although he was never sure of the exact diagnosis -- "in those days if you were poor you just died". In anticipation of his demise, the doctor left a signed death certificate on the sideboard. Jimmy's mother Agnes hurried to Leeds Cathedral to pray, and by the time she returned home the child had started showing signs of recovery. His sister Joan always believed it to be a miracle.

Savile left school at 14 and began work as an office boy and later in the mines. He might have remained there but for an accident that was to prove strangely fortuitous. An explosion intended to dislodge a rock face almost killed him, and he was told he would never walk properly again.

But a passion for music and a talent for entrepreneurship provided a fresh start. With a collection of swing records and a turntable, Savile began putting on shows at local parties and pubs, and in 1948 he organised what he would later claim was Britain's first disco, in an upstairs room in Leeds where customers were charged a shilling each to dance to records by Glenn Miller and Harry James.

This led to Savile becoming a Mecca dance-hall manager, and by the late 1950s he was responsible for the entertainment at 45 Mecca ballrooms across the country.

At various times Savile also worked as a professional cyclist and professional wrestler. But he first came to broader public attention in the early 1960s as a Radio Luxembourg disc-jockey. Then, in 1964, he presented the first ever edition of 'Top of the Pops' on the BBC -- and would go on to host 300 episodes over the next 20 years.

It was on television that Savile developed his uniform of tracksuit and jewellery, and the exaggerated vocal mannerisms that were to be become his trademarks.

But it was 'Jim'll Fix It', also on the BBC, that made Savile a national institution. Over the course of 19 years, the programme received more than three million requests.

Savile always claimed that the key to his success on 'Jim'll Fix It' was that he actually disliked children, although in later years he maintained that he had offered this explanation to allay any untoward suspicions that he liked them too much. Rumours of under-age sex circulated for some years, although the fact that no allegations of impropriety ever appeared in print seemed to confirm Savile's own insistence that he had "no past, no nothing".

But he was always careful to guard against the possibilities of any misunderstandings, and the predatory intentions of parents or the press. When children knocked on his door for autographs, he would refuse to open it, instead passing the signed photographs and scraps of paper back through the letter box.

In later years he even refused to have a computer in his home, explaining that he did not want anybody thinking he was downloading child pornography.

Savile never married, but in his early years as a dance-hall disc-jockey, he displayed an indefatigable enthusiasm for the opposite sex. However, he professed never to have been in love, nor to have spent so much as a night with a woman.

"My logic," he once explained, "has always been to sip at the cup of life and never gulp at it."

His closest relationship was with his mother Agnes, whom Savile called "the Duchess". Following the death of his father in 1953, Savile continued to live with his mother, first in a terraced house in Leeds and then in a flat at Scarborough, keeping a caravan parked nearby where he would entertain lady friends. Agnes was his constant companion, at film premieres and on holidays at the Imperial Hotel in Torquay, where her favourite pastime was playing the one-armed bandits in amusement arcades.

After her death in 1973, Savile sequestered himself with her body for five days, which he subsequently claimed were the "best five days of my life ... She looked marvellous. She belonged to me. It's wonderful, is death".

In later years he felt obliged to explain that he had not buried her sooner "because the ground was icy". He continued to keep her room exactly as it was, and would have her clothes dry-cleaned once a year.

By persuading the Green Shield trading stamp firm to donate 60p to charity for every complete book of stamps, he raised many thousands for good causes. Savile was appointed OBE in 1971 and knighted for services to charity and entertainment in 1990. It was also in 1990 that he received the honour of Knight Commander of St Gregory the Great from the Vatican.

He relished his association with pillars of the establishment. He referred to the Duke of Edinburgh, with cosy familiarity, as "the Boss", and once reportedly asked the queen mother: "Will you send me to the Tower if I said you were beautiful?"

Savile spent copiously on jewellery and holiday cruises, and owned a succession of Rolls-Royces, which he seldom drove, but otherwise led a spartan, almost ascetic life.

Savile always claimed that if he was catering for himself his favoured meal was a tin of baked beans microwaved in the same pint mug which he would also use to wash his hair. When travelling, he would carry only one pair of underpants, which he would wash each night.

He claimed to have "thousands" of acquaintances, yet seemed to have few close friends. Away from public view, he could be prickly, impatient with journalists. He was a man who distrusted displays of emotion, and eschewed introspection or self-analysis.

A member of Mensa, Savile prided himself on being "logical": in his own words, "the essence of boring common sense".

But as a man who divided opinion without ever appearing to care much what anyone thought of him, he was simply an odd chap.

Irish Independent

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