Claire Smith: My time with Jimmy Savile

Claire Smith with Sir Jimmy Savile at his 80th birthday party. Picture: TSPL
Claire Smith with Sir Jimmy Savile at his 80th birthday party. Picture: TSPL
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Scotsman reporter Claire Smith squirms as she looks back on her encounter with the disgraced DJ

I REMEMBER when I got back to the office after going to Sir Jimmy Savile’s 80th birthday party, the news editor asked me: “Well, what’s he really like?” I said: “I have no idea.”

Jimmy Savile at his birthday party in Glencoe. Picture: TSPL

Jimmy Savile at his birthday party in Glencoe. Picture: TSPL

After decades of playing cat and mouse with the media, Savile was giving nothing away. He was cagey, evasive, clever, funny and completely inscrutable. There was no way I was going to get anything out of him.

Looking back on that encounter now, six years later, it becomes clear why he had these defences in place: he had much to hide.

The past two weeks have brought fresh allegations of sexual abuse involving young girls on a daily basis, and the content of our conversation – his conversation – makes me shudder as I recognise its significance with the benefit of hindsight.

Who would have imagined that behind that popular personality there was a shameful double life that now has police pursuing 120 separate lines ofinquiry into abuse allegations.

Like everyone else, I had heard the stories. I grew up in Leeds, just a half a mile from where Jimmy Savile had his decrepit penthouse overlooking Roundhay Park.

He was in the hospital when my brother went into accident and emergency after breaking his nose. He used to eat at the pizza restaurant where Damien Hirst once worked as a chef. There was a 14-year-old girl at my school who everyone said was Savile’s “girlfriend”.

Everyone knew the stories. As someone said to this week: “Who knew? Everyone.”

When the recent revelations were made public, I thought back over my own dealings with Savile – when working on the Seven Wonders of Scotland series for The Scotsman.

I had been given the job of finding champions for Wonders of Scotland and I hit on the idea of approaching Savile.

I knew he owned the only private house in Glen Coe. I knew he had a special relationship with the area and with the Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team. I wondered if he would be our cham­pion for Glen Coe.

I can’t remember how I got in touch with him initially; I suspect it was through the BBC. But I ended up having to negotiate though a woman in Leeds who worked as a hospital secretary. She kept telling me it wasn’t really her job – but she was the route to Jimmy Savile.

He started calling me at the office playing a long drawn-out game of whether he would or would not write the article. Eventually he agreed.

He wrote a piece for The Scotsman about how he hadridden on a bicycle through Glen Coe at the end of the Second World War and how he had fallen in love with the wild landscape. When the valley was shortlisted as one of the Seven Wonders, I had to ask him to write another piece – which once again turned into a complex series of negotiations about what he would and wouldn’t do.

It was only the snowy weather that prevented him from turning up to our awards ceremony – when Alex Salmond flew back from New York to collect the prize for the Forth Bridge. But Glen Coe was one of my favourite “wonders” and I liked what Savile had written.

After the dust had settled, I asked if I could visit him in his Scottish home.

He agreed and I drove across Rannoch Moor to the whitecottage where the Yorkshire flag and the Scottish flag flew side by side. But when we met, I got the impression that he was dis­appointed; as if he had expected, from our telephone conversations, someone younger.

We talked in his living-room, with its mouse-eaten white leather chair, where a cheap mirror hung from the roof so he could be ready to wave at the coach parties travelling past.

Savile claimed he was nothing special, not a star, not a talent, not someone like the Beatles, Elvis Presley, or Frank Sinatra. But he loved being famous.

DURING those few hours I was with him, when I went to his birthday party I saw how much he delighted in surprising people – leaping out and saying: “Look! It’s me!”

He ambushed a couple on their honeymoon who were staying in the hotel where we went for his birthday meal. He seemed more interested in the young couple than in the small group of friends who had come for his party.

I remember how uncomfortable he was when the conversation turned to the ghosts of Glen Coe. He kept trying to change the subject. “If there are ghosts – why do none of them look like lap-dancers?”

His conversation was characterised by inappropriate sexual innuendo. This was an uncomfortable surprise: it did not meet my expectations of a children’s entertainer.

There were regular references to “young ladies” in his suggestive banter, which might have jarred in the unreconstructed 1970s, never mind 2006. He asked me to call my mother, then took the phone and told her that I’d come for a job at The Golden Hands Massage Parlour. “She says you can give her areference,” he told my mother.

He was not being flirtatious, just odd. Very odd.

And he spoke just like he did on television – in short staccato bursts with a full stop in between each word.

He was clever. He was funny. He was sharp. But he wasn’treally warm. He wasn’t really likeable.

Looking back, I’m amazed how much he was managing to cover up – and how he kept it hidden for so many years.

WHEN Savile died, there were lots of news articles about him lying in state in the Queen’s Hotel in Leeds. Every bizarre detail of the funeral was written about. He had planned it all. He had stage-managed the publicity around his death, just as he stage-managed his public image when he was alive.

A few rumours surfaced, but the smokescreen remained in place. First, a “secret love child”, then a “secret girlfriend” came forward. But it took an ITV investigation by child protection expert Mark Williams-Thomas for the truth to come out.

When the ITV special was shown late at night, on the graveyard shift, I watched it. Suddenly it all made sense.

The testimony of those few brave women, who had been too young and confused to under­stand what had happened to them, could no longer be denied.

Like so many journalists who met Savile, I wondered if something could have been done sooner to uncover what he did.

I noticed that Louis Theroux, who made an in-depth documentary about the DJ, had tweeted about the allegations.

“Very strange about Savile. Still struggling to get my head round it,” he wrote.

Another journalist, writing in one of the tabloids, confessed that Savile routinely used to answer the phone, saying: “She swore she was 16.”

Joking about the ever-present rumours was all part of the smokescreen. He also used to claim he hated children, as he told Louis Theroux.

After I watched the ITV documentary, I couldn’t bring myself to read the article I’d written about going to Savile’s birthday party. I couldn’t bear to think I had helped support the myth which helped him conceal his true nature.

A man who kept a room at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, who went on endless cruises, who said he had been married lots of times, but only for a couple of hours.

I REMEMBER asking him why he liked to stay overnight in hospitals. I recall finding it very weird that the hospital authorities allowed him to sleep there. With hindsight, his explanation is chilling.

“Hospitals for me are better than clubs. I can drop in any time of the day or night and there’s always someone to talk to. It’s like having your ownprivate playground.”

He was not averse to a bit of name-dropping and claimed to have helped various journalists progress in their careers.

I remember him talking about Prince Charles and saying: “A nice fella… but very naive…very naive.”

After I watched the ITV documentary, I got a call from my mother. She used to run into Savile at the pizza restaurant and in the park. Som etimes they used to sit under twin hoods at the hairdresser.

“Have you heard what they are saying about Jimmy Savile?” she asked. “What do you think? You knew him.”

I told her I thought he was a paedophile. There is too much evidence. The reason it never came out was because he was the worst kind of abuser. He picked on girls who would never be believed, who were young and damaged and vulnerable and who, speaking about it 40 years later, would say they didn’t even really understand what was happening to them at the time.

I’ve thought about it a lot. I’ve thought about those poor girls and about all those years when they wondered whether what happened was their fault.

If there is one thing that comes out of this, it is that we should all learn to trust our instincts. Everybody who was a child in the Seventies found Jimmy Savile and his “guys and gals” and “’ows about that then” a bit creepy and weird.

It sounded creepy and weird because it was creepy and weird.

Savile on…

Having a room at Stoke Mandeville

“Hospitals for me are better than clubs. I can drop in any time of the day or night and there’s always someone to talk to. It’s like having your own private playground.”

His mother, “The Duchess”

“She was a definite character. She was convinced all her life that I was a thief. She couldn’t believe anybody would pay a penny to look at me, and every time I’d go home she’d say, ‘Be careful’.”

Relationships

“You’ve asked me a question. So I’ll tell you. I love getting married. But only for about two hours”

Children

“I don’t want any kids running around here. Not mine or anybody else’s. Most people like to extend their lineage, but I’m not like that. I have a wandering existence.”

Fame

“I’m a character. I enjoy it. They enjoy it. You can’t ask for anything more in life.”

His reputation for strangeness

“A lot of people think I’m odd. But I don’t think I’m odd. I’m 100 per cent natural. I just get on with it.”