Jimmy Savile died today. I hope you don't mind me reprinting an interview I did with him some years ago for Mensa Magazine. RIP Sir James. It was good meeting you.
Sir James Savile, to accord him his correct title, is more than just flash jewellery, bonhomie and platinum blonde hair. These are merely the superficial manifestations of a very practical and thoughtful man. My aim for Mensa MAGAZINE was to meet the man behind the mask.
Few knights would conduct press interviews in zip-up carpet slippers, white socks, a red sports shirt, a yellow dressing gown and what looked suspiciously like blue pyjama trousers. The characteristic huge cigar was clamped in his teeth. I asked him if smoking had any effect on his running. "None whatsoever." Does he inhale? "No, no, no, no. You'd die in four seconds if you did. It's just for the aroma. And also they kill all known bugs dead."
I suggested he identify five pivotal moments in his life. The first one, "being born", was dealt with swiftly. The second came 15 years later when he realised that, "although still being totally in love with my parents, I'd have to de-learn a lot of the stuff of life they'd handed down to me. For example, my dad was a bookmaker's clerk so he had an inbuilt distrust of policemen which I grew up with. I had to de-learn that policemen were a problem in life, but that didn't affect my respect for my folks."
His third pivotal moment involved "the taking over of the gentlest form of control. My parents brought me up for the first half of my life and I brought them up for the second half of theirs. I realised that I had a clearer outlook on life than they did. Also it was obvious that I was earning ten times more than they ever dreamed about so, for their benefit, I then re-educated them that life wasn't like they thought it was from the Victorian days."
This looks, I know, a bit smug in print, but when Savile talks you can sense a warmth and affection for his parents who, apparently, were just as enthusiastic for the reversed roles as he was.
I suggested that they must have been very special parents to listen. "It's not so much that they listened, so much as they accepted. We never discussed it in anything like detail, because I realised that there's no point in discussing it. Later, after my father had died, I took my mother – I called her the Duchess – from the family terraced house to live in a sea front flat in Scarborough, with me. She had a beautiful place looking out at the sea. Whereas the way that she and my father were doing things, God bless him, we were looking out in somebody's back yard."
Did she regret anything in terms of old friendships and social connections? "Not at all, because of the thing called the telephone. The telephone is a lifebelt to old people. They should all have free telephones. Not free calls, though, because other people will come in and use it."
The fourth moment came when he realised, "the enormous sums of money that I was earning weren't going to ruin me, change me or kill me. When you get in the big bucks those are three things that can happen. The present day is studded with stories of people who have acquired lots of money which, in several cases, has led to their early death. They were more successful than I but not necessarily as clever because they're dead and I'm alive."
I asked him what traps they fell into. "Corruption. All round corruption. Corruption of the body, the spirit and the mind. That's what happened to them. As simple as that." Savile's fifth pivotal moment was, "the eventual realisation of your life long goal and, with some trepidation, you look at it to see if the goal was worth fighting for in the first place. My goal was simple: to be loaded, with nothing to do. To me that was eminently sensible. Because to be loaded with nothing to do delivers you ultimate freedom."
He based the amount of money he'd need on the assumption he might live to 110. "I'd gone up, as it were, the rapids of life, and had gone into the calm waters of the lagoon at the top and the lagoon was everything that I hoped it was going to be on the way up. So there was no disappointment. No saying, 'Cripes, I've wasted my entire life becoming loaded with nothing to do and it's not nice.'" So the final realisation was, "Yes, I'm loaded, I've got nothing to do and it's bleeding marvellous. It's bleeding fantastic. It means that I don't have to bother to earn money, which means that I do things because I choose to."
"Other people opt for different things. You can imagine me as the trunk of a tree with no branches and my juices shot straight up the trunk to the blossom at the top. Whereas every other human being that I know developed branches – wife, family, dog, cat, son, daughter, and their juice gets diverted and doesn't usually get right to the top because it's drained off. I will never have the emotion of a wife and two kids where they're all safely tucked up in bed and I go and lock the house up and go to bed. That must be a very satisfying thing. I don't have that. Likewise, they don't have this single-minded pleasure of setting out for something, achieving it, and saying, 'Hey ho, how about that then?'."
I wondered whether he thought about doing good when he was on the way up. "In the early days, my folks were always on the fund raising kick because it was a way of life. It provided a social life – whist drives, dances, all those things. It was not only a fund raising thing, it was a pleasant evening and it had a purpose of profit to give to somebody else at the end of it. At the end of the day, you'd hear them talking 'We've made one pound four shillings. That's very good. We'll give that to the Little Sisters. They'll like that.' And I used to think, 'Cripes there's about nine people grafted their balls off for about five days. They've got one pound and four shillings. Equated out that makes it about tuppence ha'penny each. There's got to be an easier way.' It was undeniably pleasant, you understand, but then I realised that they did it as much for the way of life as they did it for the gain. But all this went into my computer up 'ere." He taps his head.
"Then I realised that if I made myself independent, eventually, I might be of more use to people. So I didn't do very much for anybody for the first ten years. And then, as it got obvious that that I might just stay, I started to do that bit more. Then there came a period where what you did for people overtook, time-wise, what you were doing for yourself. And now the ratio is I work, we'll say, one day a week for me and six days for everybody else, for free. I don't see that that's giving at all. I see that's sensible because, exactly like my folks, it also gives me a lifestyle which I quite enjoy."
I asked him what major problems he thought the world faces. "The common denominator of world problems must be, again, corruption. It is patently obvious that individual corruption has ruined many an emergent African state. It's patently obvious that corruption has ruined the country of, shall we say, Iraq. Somebody like Saddam Hussein who professes to work with God on his side but at the same time builds himself a fifty million pound palace and gasses the Kurds. Which he did. Then obviously, the guy is a con man. If he is not a con man, he is totally deluded in what he is thinking."
"Corruption spreads. If the boss is corrupt then the deputy boss is corrupt. And so is the deputy's deputy and so on and so forth, right down to as far down as it can possibly reach. If one poses the question, 'Will you ever eradicate corruption?', the answer is, 'No'. Because the resolution of the vast majority of things in the world is attempted by debate. But very few bring into the frame the thing called human nature. Corruption, in all its forms, is the bedevilment of the world."
"The alternative is within your circle, to do what you can starting with yourself, to resist corruption. At the end of the day, you have to be prepared to jettison those people who won't knock corruption on the head and get on with your own little thing. Conversely, you can have ceaseless, endless, pointless and stupid debates about so-called global problems when it's comfortable not to acknowledge the real problem, which is corruption."
Another answer, he suggests, is "sensible and honest education. Education is different things to different people. If you have a nationalist group that instructs its children to sing nationalist songs and actively hate those not of its nation, that is not education, that is corruption. So corruption can be passed on by education."
I couldn't leave without asking him about his three major honours. The first, his OBE in 1971, came while his mother was still alive. He shared her disbelief that a child from such humble origins could be so honoured. In 1980 he became a Knight Commander of the Order of St Gregory, an honour bestowed by the Pope. "That," says Savile, "was a tremendous honour because, as a Catholic boy, to get a papal knighthood was totally unthinkable and was the source of much inner comfort and humility as well."
This experience was repeated in 1990 when he received a knighthood from the Queen. According to Savile, "I found all these awards of high fun content, high dignity content, and some small acceptance that whatever I was doing I must have been doing it right in the eyes of man, if not necessarily in the eyes of God. But I've got to pay that bill as and when it comes. The second bill."
I'll tell you now, I wasn't looking forward to meeting Sir James Savile OBE. Although I loved programmes like Jim'll Fix It and Savile's Travels, I was convinced he'd bury me in banter. I am delighted to say that I was wrong. He was extremely pleasant and courteous and gave very thoughtful answers to my questions. The man is undeniably kind. He is relentlessly logical. But the thing that impressed me most was the quality and strength of his convictions.