I’m standing in the back of a British Telecom van, hanging onto a shelf. There are no windows. Jimmy Savile wants to arrive unseen in Leicester Square – he’ll be mobbed, he says, if we go in a car with windows.
I’ve just picked Jimmy up from his Regent’s Park flat.
It’s a far from routine day for me – I work for a ‘business communications’ consultancy (the kind of place where you argue whether it’s communication or communications) and we don’t do celebrity launches. Today, though, that’s exactly what I’m doing. I’m helping my client out of a hole. A new, controversial design of phone booth’s being unveiled in Leicester Square (yes, this is a while ago) and he needs a ‘celeb’ at short notice.
It’s interesting, organising it. Betty, friend and former colleague, gives me Jimmy’s phone number after clearing it with him. I ring and reach an answering machine: ‘you fool, you’re speaking to an empty room!’ says a Goon-like voice. Maybe it is a Goon* – after all, Jimmy’s famous.
He rings me back at my serious, business-like – and let’s be honest – rather snooty workplace. Our receptionist puts through the call. Next minute she’s there, listening, like everyone else in my open plan office, expressions ranging from sneer to surprise, plus a dash of curiosity.
It’s just one of the things that fame does. It makes everyone pay attention, take notice, be impressed despite themselves.
So anyway, I’m travelling, in a confined space, with fame. His eyes are definitely appraising me – but at the ripe old age of 28 I’m big enough to look after myself, I’m not worried.
Turns out he’s appraising not me but my business potential. I get a call later – he’d be happy to meet the BT people, he’d be ‘available’ to do a campaign for them, like the ‘clunk-click’ one he did for seatbelts or the ‘age of the train’ for British Rail. He gives me a lecture about well-worn wheelchairs and train door dimensions, just to prove how serious he can be.
In fact, Jimmy teaches me quite a few useful things. You can’t hire a celebrity for a couple of hours’ work, for example. No matter how long an event’s scheduled to take a real pro knows it will take longer. The briefing, the travel, the false starts, the mobbing fans (it happens) – and so on.
As we stand by the van, waiting for the cameras, he looks up.
‘See that plane flying over,’ he says, ‘a jet engine could fall off and drop on us at any moment – you just never know.’ Thanks for that, Jimmy.
It’s a sad little episode in the end. The press turns up, photos are taken, interviews given, but few of the media cover the story. Jimmy phones me from his flat that afternoon. He’s heard it on the radio – a London station, not even the BBC. His star is in the descendant.
But that was then.
Jimmy Savile lived to shine another day – with the BBC.
I ask myself, why? Why did he become such a star? Why did he become such an untouchable?
Was he anyone’s pin-up? Those kids on Jim’ll Fix It – did they idolise him before they went on the programme and had their wishes – oh dear – granted?
It wasn’t as if he was lovable, cuddly – or even just plain silly – like other DJs of his era.
Did his enigmatic life style make people believe he was special?
Was he special?
Did the public care about Jimmy Savile? Did the Tarzan-wailing, cigar-smoking, bleached blonde misfit bamboozle the powers-that-be into believing the public cared? Did the BBC convince itself that people cared? Was it all a house of cards?
Ah yes, I nearly forgot. The cigar.
We bought one for him from Dunhills at his request. Part payment. Have you any idea how expensive a big cigar can be?
Blimey. Bonfire of the insanities.
So, to finish, I have to say, never assume. If in doubt, ask the question you think it’s too stupid to ask. Someone might just be waiting to tell you the answer.
*popular humorous show on the radio, Prince Charles reportedly one of its many fans