When Louis Met… Jimmy

Thursday, April 13, 2000 by

Fellow of the Royal College of Radiology, Papal Knight and an ex-wrestler “feared in every girls school in the country”, Jimmy Savile has endeavoured to make himself likeable to people for aeons; his latest ruse was to dress up another bout of vain self-promotion as amiable participation in a piece of investigative filmmaking: When Louis Met… Jimmy.

Here Jim, one of those figures scarred so virulently into the national collective consciousness that, like Maggie, Winston and Richard & Judy, his surname is irrelevant, had cleverly consented to participating in a documentary with no real brief other than to allow nosey Louis Theroux to observe him going about his business for a few days.

That this business happened to include a charity gig, an ostentatious public appearance on a cruise ship, and a meandering train ride across most of the UK, fortuitively provided Louis with a narrative this programme conceit so desperately needed. With Jim proving waspishly, frustratingly unforthcoming and oblique in his utterances from the outset, the production team had to hang the film on something, and it was fortunate these events offered at least the potential for entry points into the fabric of Jim’s scatological lifestyle.

It quickly became clear the central thrust of the programme was not what we were going to learn about Jim, but how we were going to be allowed (or not) to learn it. The pair played tiresome verbal jousts and sparring for much of the 50 minutes, revealing little than each other’s propensity for winding the other up. Louis seemed helplessly unprepared for this and more or less wasted the first half of the programme limply fielding Jim’s meaningless aphorisms, oxymorons and ripostes. Louis’ ineffectual tactics resulted in much crowing from Jim (“He’s on the ropes!” he cackled to the camera, mocking Louis as “the piranha fish of all interviewers”) with the result that he was never really able to unpick a fraction of Jim’s persona. Consequently the whole structure of the programme remained as addled and jumbled as Jim’s syntax.

The aesthetic of “Jim” is as much a part of his character as his curdled voice and bizarre morals. We saw him shambling about in oversized waterproofs, cigar thrust forth in some gruesome phallic construction, tottering between chip vans and numerous railway platforms, bedecked in huge hats, goggles and the obligatory shell suit. He would then appear out of the gloom of the narrative like some mythical Yeti, thrashing about at Louis and his demons and his predilection for “lifting the toilet lid of life.”

The production team had to manufacture a climax and conclusion out of this whole desperate liaison and a soiree to Glencoe provided one, with Jim “falling off my own mountain”, barking to a local hospital “bear in mind I’ve given you a lot of machines”, orchestrating favourable press coverage while nursing a broken ankle, then choosing to sulk in his camper van in -8C rather than sleep in a warm hotel. Louis seemed to believe Jim had actually died during this ordeal, but of course he hadn’t, and re-appeared helplessly chanting “can’t break the routine” like a mantra (or mea culpa) as he hobbled off once more.

Underneath all of this patter, behind the sheen and cloak of bumbling self-regard and ranting was … what? Anything? Louis insisted that his time spent with Jim had imbued him with a “new found respect” for the long-haired crone, but it was hard to believe him – he hadn’t offered up any proof or established his case for such a conclusion to ring true. In retrospect Louis really threw away the chance to nail this curious OAP within the first few seconds of meeting and letting Jim immediately take utter control of the situation. Consequently the most telling moments in the film were those in which Louis either didn’t appear or did not precipitate: Jim’s late night confession to “inventing zero tolerance” at his nightclub where he used to “tie people up” at “fucking two o’clock in the morning” being the most memorable.

What a fascinating, yet repellant thing Jimmy Savile appears to be. He certainly got the better of Louis, winning him over with his promise to “fix it” if he got into any trouble in later life. This self-dubbed Godfather, unable to come to terms with the death of his mother The Duchess, yet who carries a fresh pack of condoms on his “cruise”, remained as much of a caricature at the end of this programme as he was at the start. Though a fascinating study of mind games and the clash between personality codes rooted in jumbled irreconcilable generations and agendas, this was ultimately a protracted paper chase where nothing was proved. All it did was to usefully highlight the methodological constraints involved in this kind of documentary filmmaking and that how you obtain information (and what you then do with it, how you use it in argument) is ultimately more significant than what that information is in the first place. Given it was shown during a week where similar notions of what is history and how it can be manipulated were dramatically played out in the High Court (where historian David Irving had his racist neo-Nazi Holocaust denial ideology utterly repudiated), this turned out to be also a very timely and worthwhile programme.


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