The Reckoning is on BBC One and BBC iPlayer from Monday 9 October.
The four-part series will air on BBC One at 9pm on Monday and Tuesday night for two weeks, with all episodes on BBC iPlayer from Monday 9 October.
Interview with writer Neil McKay and Jeff Pope, Executive Producers for ITV Studios
Why did you want to make the series?
Jeff: This series is something that Neil and I have discussed for the best part of 10 years. We’ve had a long and very fruitful working relationship, where we have tackled some of the most difficult and challenging factual stories in our careers together. We’re both old enough to remember watching Jimmy Savile as kids and then watching his career throughout our lives. When I started in television in 1983 and worked for ITV, within a year or two I was aware of rumours about him to do with improper behaviour at Stoke Mandeville and Broadmoor. Distasteful stuff about bodies in morgues and so on, which of course stuck in my mind.
I think we wanted to make this series because, like the other pieces we’ve done over our time working together, it’s an enormous and important story. This man was abusing and assaulting hundreds of people, essentially in front of our eyes. That leads to some very simple questions which we wanted to explore in this series: why and how did he get away with it? And how can we make sure it doesn’t happen again?
Neil: With the dramas that Jeff and I have made together, there’s an underlying theme which you could say is a ‘warning from history’. Savile was a sexual predator and a con man. He conned his way through our society to the very top. To me Savile is the ultimate warning from history. Often people who have been exposed for committing multiple, heinous crimes were invisible to society when they were committing them, but Savile couldn’t have been more visible. He did these terrible things as one of the most famous men in the country.
As Jeff said, he was aware of these rumours when he started in TV and I know many others were too, but it was never allowed to become more than rumours, often Savile was just the source of jokes and innuendo, when there were so many people who he preyed on suffering alone. That’s something worth looking at in greater detail, to ask how and why. This series is a cautionary tale. A massive cautionary tale.
Could you tell us about the research process and what it involved?
Jeff: It was an exhaustive process which went on for many years. Charlotte Ingham and Alice Wilson put lots of work into the research. We reached out to a large number of people. This included people from Broadmoor, Stoke Mandeville and from Leeds General Infirmary. Everything was carefully documented and there was lots of reading. We engaged with victims’ groups, spoke to survivors, and we spoke to Dan Davies, who wrote the book In Plain Sight, which was a helpful source of material for us. And through our research we found two people from Jimmy Savile’s past from Leeds General Infirmary: Charlie and Beryl Hullighan, who are depicted in the series (played by Mark Lewis Jones and Siobhan Finneran).
Neil: In addition to speaking to those impacted directly by Savile’s abuse, we spoke to people who, at the time, worked at the institutions Savile was synonymous with – so the BBC, Leeds General Infirmary, Stoke Mandeville and Broadmoor. This gave us a broad picture. The most crucial element of research was speaking to the survivors and victims, of whom I spoke to a considerable number. We didn’t feel it would have been appropriate to contact people out of the blue who may have been victims of Savile, unless they were already in the public domain from speaking about it. It had to be done carefully with great sensitivity. I went all over the country talking to people. And some came forward when they heard we were making the series.
Bit by bit, I met other victims and survivors who are involved in the series and I formed very strong relationships which persisted over the entire time we worked with them. We worked with four survivors in particular to show their stories in greater detail across the four episodes, and who also appear on camera interviewed as themselves. The scripts were read and shown to them, and they were kept abreast of every single thing that happened and we have shown all four of them the episodes. Without wishing to speak for them, I know they feel that this is a story that should be put out there.
A question that often gets asked about factual dramas is why are they making this when it might cause distress to people? Jeff and I both agree that it’s incredibly important that we do all we can to avoid causing distress with a programme like this, and that we alert people to it being on and do everything we can to direct people who may have be affected towards organisations that can support and help them. Our view is that you can’t erase people like Savile from history, because they’re there and people have suffered at their hands in many different ways. You could try to pretend they don’t exist, but I don’t think it ever works. I know that Sam, who worked with us a lot for this series – she’s one of the four survivors interviewed on camera – says that pretending someone never existed and not talking about them can’t be right, because she needs to be able to talk about what happened to her, and it’s part of her coming to terms with what happened and also a way to hopefully stop others from going through similar to what she did. I know that she doesn’t want to hide it anymore, having had to spend years doing that, which is how many – but of course not all – survivors feel. Speaking openly about abuse is a way to stop it from happening again, and we know that many people directly affected do want it to be known.
Did any people decline being involved?
Neil: There were no issues with any of the organisations involved, for example talking to prison officers at Broadmoor. There were certain individuals that had gone public with their experience of Savile who did decline, some of them had health issues or other things going on in their lives which was the reason that they didn’t want to talk to us at this time. And some didn’t want to talk to us because they didn’t want to talk to us or be involved in the series, which of course we respected.
Jeff: I remember some Stoke Mandeville survivors who said ‘good luck with it but I prefer not to go through all this again’ and politely declined. There were a couple of instances where we were challenged about why we were making this by people who felt it wouldn’t serve a purpose raking it all up. It’s a fair point and we respected that. We wrote back and answered honestly and said we felt a duty not to sensationalise or put anything gratuitous on screen, but that a proper, intelligent and sensible examination of what has happened was in the public interest.
How did you turn so much research into four hours of drama?
Neil: A lot of the previous series that Jeff and I have worked on have spanned only three or four years, so they’ve been more contained in time. Here, we’re spanning decades and that’s extremely difficult technically.
Jeff: We knew there were certain key events in terms of his career – Top of the Pops, Jim’ll Fix It, getting a knighthood, his relationship with the paedophile Ray Teret – which we needed to cover, alongside the abuse he carried out. We then worked in the stories of the four survivors – Darien, Kevin, Sam and Susan – who helped shape the piece. The thing that unlocked it in the end and allowed us to jump around the different decades was the notion of Savile being interviewed.
He was so desperate for an audience that he entertained Dan Davies, who was writing a biography of him. Davies came close to the truth on a number of occasions. TV audiences could see similar happening with Louis Theroux, as he charmed Louis but if you really move aside all the “now then now then” and Tarzan noises, you actually can see that he’s getting close to admitting stuff. That, together with knowing the key moments in his life, meant we were able to move between the decades by constantly coming back to the present day – which in this series was the last year or two of his life. This allowed Neil to weave in and out and cover five decades in four hours.
Neil: We know that over the years part of Savile’s personality, partly due to his Catholicism, was that he wanted to confess or get close to confessing and to see how close he could get without ending up in prison. His two ghost written autobiographies, which were written quite a while ago, pretty well tell you that he’s a paedophile. Then over the years Anthony Clare interviewed him for In The Psychiatrist’s Chair for BBC radio, Lynn Barber, David Frost and Krishnan Guru-Murthy in Open to Question – all these people got very close to the truth and he seemed to relish that. He deliberately engaged with those people. We could have included other interviews with him from over the years, but chose to focus on his interviews with Dan Davies, which helped to structure the series. The character of Davies brought a questioning presence and Savile’s answers to him in the drama show Savile as an unreliable narrator to his own life. We counterpoint the dishonest narration that he gives with the reality from the survivors.
There’s a lot covered in the series that isn’t in the book. The book is remarkable but there are no interviews with survivors in it. Some of the people we met, he hadn’t met and we looked well beyond that book for this series. Beryl is a prime example of that, as she had vital insight to tell us.
Jeff: Savile had this tremendous armour – ‘now then now then’ and all that. That weird staccato way of talking meant that you couldn’t really engage in a conversation with him. You’d ask him something and he would make a pronouncement or a witticism – it was a very successful deflective armour. Beryl gave us first-hand knowledge of the day-to-day moments with him, beyond all the defence mechanisms, because she and Charles saw him away from the cameras when he dropped a lot of the ‘fun’ act. She really helped us get close to that and she was a key source for us.
Charlie had passed away, but Beryl was still alive for much of your research process?
Neil: Yes, Charlie had died a long time ago and I knew Beryl would be quite elderly. But we had an address and wrote to her, and she phoned to say she’d be very happy to meet and talk about Savile, and her story and account of him had never been told. In the series, Beryl and Charles kind of are us, the viewer. They are ordinary people swept up in Savile’s wake. Beryl’s husband Charles had known him since childhood, so he regarded him as a friend, and through Charles and Beryl’s work at the infirmary Savile used them in a number of ways, mostly secretarial duties. Beryl was able to provide incredible insight into Savile when he was away from the cameras and the public eye. We maintained a good relationship with Beryl until her death. She kept saying how she wanted to see this show broadcast and that it should have been done and dealt with a long time ago. I wish she survived to be able to see it. She’s a figure in the series who is never fully taken in by Savile. He attempts to force himself onto Beryl sexually early on, which she is able to knock back, and from then on she is always suspicious that he might not be revealing his true character to the world.
Alongside Siobhan Finneran as Beryl Hullighan, another key figure – in the early episodes at least – is Gemma Jones as Agnes Savile.
Jeff: Neil discovered and worked into the script how complicated Savile’s relationship with his mother was, and how she had grave doubts about him. Over time, as Savile became so wealthy and successful, he swept her doubts away. Gemma had to play that and I was actually nervous when I was watching it because had we not have had someone like Gemma, who had so much depth and nuance in her performance, that wouldn’t have been pulled off and it would have damaged the piece.
How did the on-screen interviews with the four survivors come about?
Neil: It was always the intention to include such testimony, and actually we have included similar things in previous dramas we’ve done. For the interviews that appear on screen, Jeff and I spent time in the studio with Darien, Sam, Susan and Kevin talking to them in sessions across two days. You could have used those interviews alone for an incredible documentary. It’s a strange thing of course for them to come into the studio with the lights and the camera to open their hearts in such a way. It was very moving and I’ll always remember those two days.
Jeff: The point about drama is that it has the ability to place you at the heart of events, and feel what people were feeling at key moments. We do that with Sam, Darien, Susan and Kevin in the drama, but we also have them as themselves speaking in the present to add vital and powerful further context and insight into how they felt then but also now. I remember in his interview Kevin, the cub scout who was assaulted as a young boy, said “he groomed a nation”. We put that into the final series as I just thought ‘wow’ – he summed up so much in one line.
Some people may ask why we included four survivors on camera, when there are hundreds more. We thought long and hard about this and there were all kinds of considerations, not least the impact on the survivors going through this process and reliving everything and recounting in great detail to Neil and the team. That’s a lot to put on someone’s plate when they’ve already gone through so much. We’re in awe of the four people – Darien, Kevin, Sam, and Susan – that we focus on across the four episodes. We always knew that we wanted to give some real context to the drama and we had always planned to have on-screen moments with victims and survivors. We kept working our way through the research until we felt we had a cross section that would best represent the huge number of other people out there who Savile abused.
The four survivors interviewed all encountered Savile in different areas of his life. Darien had two horrible encounters with him, but her first was when she was 13 or 14, very early on in his career at the Mecca Ballroom in Leeds, before he was any kind of national figure. Susan met him in Leeds and appeared on Savile’s Travels, Kevin at Jim’ll Fix It, Darien during the dance hall days, while Sam was at Stoke Mandeville. They all helped us but they all had different experiences. They’re very different people, from different walks of life and different parts of the country so they all had different experiences to share and that shows the large scale of Savile’s abuse. One of the common things we heard from survivors is that many felt guilty that they hadn’t spoken up about it at the time, as it might have prevented Savile from doing it to other people. They carry a survivors’ guilt in that respect. The wrong people have been made to feel guilty in this story, which is so often the case with sexual offenders.
What were the main challenges of the series?
Jeff: The number one challenge, and I can remember Neil having many sleepless nights, was finding the balance. What haunted us was that, in making this series, a lot of people out there are going to be reminded of horrible events in their life and that we were going to be responsible for that. We had to find a way in the shoot and in the edit of letting the audience know what had happened, but not turning it into something that was gratuitous or triggering for victims.
Neil: I second that, and I knew Jeff felt that equally there was an enormous sense of responsibility. To do it carefully enough and with enough thought and sensitivity is a challenge. In the end, you feel what sustains you is that we shouldn’t forget this. Forgetting anything like this is the best guarantee you can have that it will repeat itself. That’s why all of these awful figures in history should be remembered.
The BBC is depicted throughout the series – what research did you do about it, and who did you speak to?
Neil: We spoke to producers and production staff involved in Savile’s BBC programmes, plus survivors, such as Kevin and Susan, who featured on those shows (Jim’ll Fix It and Savile’s Travels respectively), in order to gain a comprehensive picture of his BBC career. Savile’s time and his crimes at the BBC are also so extensively covered in the Dame Janet Smith report, which was a vital source for us and is on public record, and there’s a lot of material about the BBC in Dan Davies’ book too.
Jeff: This series has been commissioned by the BBC and we’ve had their support throughout the process – but Neil, myself, and the production team are not BBC employees. It’s important to note that we’re working for ITV Studios and the series has been made by ITV Studios, which is demonstrably and historically independent of the BBC, so this series is not a case of the BBC marking its own homework.
Neil: I second that. I felt no censorship from the BBC. There have of course been discussions throughout this process about sensitivities towards the people Savile abused and how best to minimise causing distress, but that was it when it comes to what the series covers. There has been no censorship on us as programme makers whatsoever, which might surprise some people but it is of course entirely right when the BBC was such an integral part of the Savile story.
How did the casting of Steve Coogan come about?
Jeff: Right from the beginning we had the idea of Steve. After we pitched it to him, he asked all the right questions – why we were doing it, what it’s going to cover, and what are the lessons we can learn from it.
Did you have any concerns that Steve is so well known for comedic roles?
Jeff: Not from me, no. I’ve never worked with him on comedy. I had previously worked with him on Philomena and Stan and Ollie – which obviously had lighter moments, but were dramas.
Neil: Same with me, because I had seen his dramatic work. Steve might be best known for a comedic role, but primarily he’s a talented actor.
Jeff: As people will see, it is utterly uncanny how he inhabited the character. It was an effective make-up and wardrobe job. Physically, he transformed into a vigorous guy in the late 1950s to a very old man in 2010s, and he played that whole span. We always knew he would be pitch perfect at the ‘impersonation’ of Savile – but the thing he did which we were so grateful for, and the piece wouldn’t work without, is that he gets beyond that and the well-known mannerisms. He played the script and the factual drama. The character happened to be Jimmy Savile, but he was playing a fully-realised, deeply unpleasant person and not a caricature.
Neil: He absolutely respected the script and all the research and people’s testimony that had gone into that, and he didn’t improvise. He totally respected and trusted the script to do one part of it while he was doing another part. That’s quite striking from someone who is a performer, writer and producer who is so often responsible for creating his own lines or his own version of a scene. He did the job and I was incredibly impressed by that.
Why is the series called The Reckoning?
Neil: Primarily I hope it works on the level that the series is a reckoning with Jimmy Savile’s reputation. It’s our reckoning with him as a nation, while also being a reference to his Catholic faith and belief in hell.
Jeff: It works on two levels – in reference to his appalling crimes and what that might mean for the afterlife he believed in. But also, as a society, we have to address and think about what has happened and how we can learn from it, so it’s a reckoning in a wider sense as well.
The series depicts many real life people, while some characters are fictionalised and each draw on elements from a number of different people. Why is that?
Jeff: It’s a very frequently used dramatic device. An example from recent years is the film Bombshell, about Roger Ailes. The lead character in the film, played by Margot Robbie, is a composite character. They pulled together strands of a number of women Ailes had assaulted and thought the fairest way to represent them is via a composite character, designed to represent them. A lot of factual crime dramas do it too, as in any murder investigation you might have 40 or 50 detectives involved and you have to boil that down to three or four for a series. So, the same is true with this, we had to get the most accurate and widest snapshot of what Jimmy Savile did. Sometimes we were able to highlight specific instances of abuse by Savile by depicting real people, and other times we depict composite characters who are based on multiple real life testimonies, in order to represent many more survivors and victims of Savile’s abuse. That was the process we went through in order to draw on such an enormous body of research and events over decades, but still boil it down to a coherent four-part series.
It also allowed us to anonymise victims and survivors who spoke to us in order to protect their identity, while still representing their experiences. Victims and survivors also feature in an anonymised way in reports into what he did, such as the Dame Janet Smith report or the Leeds General Infirmary report, so again they were an important part of telling this story and another reason for the use of fictionalised, composite characters who represent the many, many more people who were impacted by Savile’s crimes.
Neil: It was key to depict a comprehensive picture of what he did while never dwelling on the sexual assaults, but to the show the range and breadth of it, the ubiquity of it, and to represent more survivors’ stories. This way allowed us to represent the scale and frequency of his crimes in a way that can be depicted in a four hour tv drama and remains respectful to those who need to remain anonymous.
What do you hope viewers will take away from watching this series?
Neil: I’ll go back to my earlier point – it’s a warning from history.
Jeff: I agree, that’s exactly right. The ‘lovely’ man off the telly in Jim’ll Fix It in the early 80s is the last person many thought was a danger to their children. We can’t ever allow anything like this to happen again.