Steve Coogan delivers a powerfully slithering performance as Savile but The Reckoning seems uninterested in the institutional indifference that enabled the DJ’s years of sex abuse
The crimes of Savile, for decades one of the broadcaster’s biggest stars, are well documented. Less so are the alleged cover-ups at the BBC and elsewhere that allowed him prey with impunity on young people. But this controversial four-part chronicling of Savile’s loathsome rise to national treasure status seems uninterested in the institutional indifference that enabled the DJ and presenter become a depraved figure hiding – if that’s even the word – in plain sight. The unspoken message is that this man was a depraved force of nature: who could have stopped him?
As Savile, Steve Coogan delivers a powerfully slithering performance. However, it is also slightly cartoonish: there is a hint of a demon Alan Partridge about his Savile. That isn’t to deny the horror as, buzzard-like, he circles his victims.
A scene at Leeds General Infirmary where he approaches a young girl while dressed as a jester is perhaps the most stomach-turning in the first of four episodes (part two follows on Tuesday with the concluding instalments to follow next week), though, to be sure, it has lots of competition.
But it feels important to separate Coogan’s portrayal – and it is honest and lacking in vanity – from the manner in which Savile’s monstrousness is framed. One striking decision by writer Neil McKay is to explore his abuse not in the context of his career at the BBC but through the prism of his Catholicism.
In an early sequence in which an ageing Savile holds forth to a biographer, he talks about feeling the hand of the “big fella” on his shoulder. In flashbacks, his mother is framed by a crucifix in practically every scene. Would McKay have obsessed over Savile’s faith had he been a devout Anglican? You have to wonder.
The Reckoning opens with interviews with four victims. “When I heard he’d died I was actually pleased that horrible specimen was dead,” says one. “He groomed a whole nation,” adds another. But he also groomed the BBC and it’s telling how incurious The Reckoning is, in part one at least, about the broadcaster’s role in his rise. It has been confirmed that The Reckoning will not cover the suppression of a Newsnight report into his crimes shortly after his death. But why not make a drama about that scandal rather than put Savile where he always wanted to be: squarely in the spotlight?
Savile was wicked and degenerate – these facts are plain as day. But what about the broadcaster which beamed him into livingrooms across Britain and Ireland for decades? And yes, again, that Newsnight investigation – an incident hat has echoes of the subterfuge of the Catholic hierarchy in Ireland. In the wake of recent claims about another former BBC employee, Russell Brand, it is disappointing that a series about one of Britain’s favourite entertainers should be so lacking in soul-searching.