Jonathan Maitland on why his new Jimmy Savile play answers ‘the most important public service question’ of all
- Credit: Archant
An Audience With Jimmy Savile, starring Alistair McGowan, feels too soon for some, but its creator argues this should have happened decades ago, finds Alex Bellotti.
As soon as his latest play was announced, Jonathan Maitland began to feel the backlash. “He might get attacked,” said one commenter online, while another labelled it “an absolute dog of an idea” in a statement typical of many.
Dramatising the biggest scandal of the decade was always going to be divisive, but as its creator explains, there are “compelling reasons” for staging Park Theatre’s new show, An Audience With Jimmy Savile.
Starring actor and impressionist Alistair McGowan as the former DJ, the play examines the key question of why the television personality was allowed to abuse dozens of children and young people throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s.
A similarly pertinent question though is whether this drama just comes too soon.
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“It’s very difficult to know when too soon becomes the right time,” says Maitland, whose previous show at the Park Theatre, Dead Sheep, examined the ousting of Margaret Thatcher.
“I think you have to be guided by the people who were affected most and the people I’ve spoken to who were affected most don’t think it’s too soon at all. Their issue with timing is that it should have been a lot sooner actually; it should have been done 30 or 40 years ago.”
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Set in 1991, the play shows two sides to Savile’s story. One strand depicts celebrities paying homage to him on a This Is Your Life-style television show about the recently knighted ‘Most Trusted Man In Britain’; the other tells the darker journey of a victim he abused trying to convince people of her story.
As part of his research, Maitland met with and talked to several of those abused by Savile. During the first interview he conducted, he was struck by the victim’s “mixture of strength and damage”.
“As somebody else who was a Savile victim, who’s now a psychotherapist, told me, people who are abused can ‘present’ very well. That means to make you think they’re really together.
“I think what was interesting about the first lady I met was that she was incredibly together, but then something she was saying made me realise she was putting on a very good show for me, but there’d been some very dark moments on the other side.”
As a good friend of Maitland’s, McGowan agreed to look at the script and was impressed enough to offer to read for it shortly after. “The inconvenient truth is that Savile was, I’m afraid, entertaining and charismatic and obviously Alistair can do that bit, but he can also do the horrible dark, wizened psychopath side of him as well and that’s very important for any portrayal,” Maitland adds.
So why a play? The writer points out that most shows tend to operate at a loss, and to further disprove any suggestions of exploiting tragedy for commercial gain, the team has pledged to donate a “substantial proportion” of any profits to the National Association for People Abused in Childhood.
“The key reason for doing it is that you make people understand something that they wouldn’t understand nearly as much if they saw a TV programme about it. I’ll give you an example: there was an interview the police did with Jimmy Savile in 2009.
“You read the transcripts and it’s unbelievable the way he manipulated and intimated the police – by the end of it they were saying, ‘Yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir.’
“I saw a TV documentary recently and they had a close up of the transcript and said this just wasn’t a very good interview. The audience would think, ‘Well why wasn’t it?’ There was just no sense of what that interview contained.
“When we recreated that interview at the read through of the play you could hear jaws hitting the floor and people came up to us afterwards saying, ‘That was unbelievable, was that true?’ I said, ‘Yes it’s virtually verbatim’ and they replied ‘My god, that’s really interesting. So that’s how he got away with it.
“That’s precisely what theatre can give you, a reconstruction and answering the most important public service question, which is ‘how did he get away with it?’”
An Audience With Jimmy Savile runs at the Park Theatre from June 10 until July 11. Visit parktheatre.co.uk