The Reckoning is the BBC’s examination of the life and criminality of broadcaster Jimmy Savile (played by Steve Coogan), which aired over the last fortnight on BBC1 (available on iPlayer). It is billed as a ‘Factual drama examining the crimes of Jimmy Savile, with testimony from survivors.’ and that is an accurate description, but its existence is puzzling. Who is it for and why was it made? What does it add to what we already know about Savile’s crimes?
Proceeding on the basis that a landmark BBC1 drama, over three years on the making, is not brought into our homes without thought, there is arguably very little point to it. It is beautifully crafted, expertly designed and performed, but in a world of prestige TV drama this is not enough to make it remarkable. Most notably, it is on the BBC, the institution that made Savile and failed to break him – so is there an attempt at institutional narrative control in this commission?
The BBC announced commissioning The Reckoning in 2020. Controller of BBC Drama Piers Wenger stated in the press release:
We do not intend to sensationalise these crimes but to give voice to his victims. We will work with survivors to ensure their stories are told with sensitivity and respect and to examine the institutions which Jimmy Savile was associated with and the circumstances in which these crimes took place.
There is something coy in the tone of Wenger’s words, as he simultaneously highlights the BBC within the parade of guilty institutions and displaces its centrality by using the plural: all these sites, none more than another, provided the context of Savile’s crimes. There is further displacement of institutional responsibility in the programmes themselves: the second introductory plate, show at the start of each episode states:
This drama examines how he [Savile] was able to hide in plain sight, using his position to commit countless serious sexual offences, many against minors, and how the voices of so many were ignored and silenced.
This dissipates any individual responsibility through the emphasis on the scale of his crimes. To suggest this is the primary intent of the series is too harsh, however – the BBC has not denied its responsibility. So…why the series? Achieving any additional explanation of ‘how the voices of so many were ignored and silenced’ beyond the (absolutely necessary) plethora of investigations (academic, legal, institutional) already undertaken feels unachievable. What is the BBC trying to say?
The series does some things extremely well. The blend of archive and dramatisation delivers an unsettling sense of the scale of Savile’s fame, how far he reached within the upper echelons of power and society, and how embedded he was there. This is particularly well done with the amalgamations of real / fake Savile with real / fake Margaret Thatcher, Princess Diana and Prince Charles – in the UK, he was as famous as they were. The abuse is sensitively handled, and each episode bookended by testimony from survivors. Certainly, The Reckoning illuminates the power differentials that facilitate abuse, as well as the ways in which institutions can displace and avoid responsibility, while simultaneously be genuinely ignorant of wrongdoing within their walls because reporting mechanisms are inadequate. Because it is unknown, the scale of Savile’s criminality cannot be quantified so has to be suggested by the scale of his fame, shown in the series by his traversing the country and being welcomed wherever he arrives.
However, the early accuracy of the portrayal and emphasis on Savile’s prominence slightly undoes the BBC in episodes three and four, when it is suggested that he faded from note. In fact, he was not on screens on a weekly basis, but he did not disappear. Savile had an afterlife beyond the end of Jim’ll Fix It (BBC 1, 1975-1994), making over 25 appearances across the channels (not including repeats, used to fill airtime on the newly launched digital services) between 1994-2008 (see BBC Genome project for details). This includes the infamous Louis Theroux interview (BBC2, 2000), which isn’t mentioned at all and is a curious omission from the narrative.
This suggested fadeout is conflated with a suggestion the BBC was actively inhospitable to him. When, in episode 4, a producer gives Savile the news that Fix It is being axed, he says “The BBC is changing”, suggesting that Savile was ejected and deemed no longer relevant – but the BBC’s actual programming shows otherwise. Therefore, the implication that Savile had faded from view in the final years of his life is not true – and in fact, the obituaries that poured forth when he died are testament to this (the radio bulletin reporting his death featured in episode 4 of The Reckoning describes him as ‘one of Britain’s best-known broadcasters’). It was the BBC’s own glowing obituaries which caused the Savile scandal that engulfed the corporation. His reception certainly changed, but he was a stalwart of the nostalgia programming that characterised the period of Savile’s later life (Aust & Holdsworth, 2016).
This depiction of the culture at the BBC from the 1990s as a place where Savile was unwelcome results in the sense this period is glossed over – and it is indeed tricky terrain. The senior management of 1990s-2000s BBC are mostly still alive with many still prominent, and it is always difficult to dramatize the lives of those still living (for an exhaustive list of BBC management in the 1990s, see Will Wyatt’s 2003 book, The Fun Factory), and the labyrinthine management structures of post-Birt BBC (see Georgina Born’s Uncertain Vision, 2005) would not make for exciting viewing. Certainly, in dramatic terms, depicting 1990s BBC management could not be simplified in the way that the 1962 commissioning of Top of the Pops is shown in episode two. But the BBC in this period facilitated Savile’s afterlife. Instead, in The Reckoning, this period – Savile’s renaissance – is depicted as inexorable decline: from Savile’s (possibly fictionalised – it is unclear) disappointment at a lack of prominence in the final transmission of Top of the Pops (BBC1, 1964-2006) and an appearance the same year on Channel 4’s Celebrity Big Brother. There is also an implication that the 2006 appearances catalysed a spate of reporting from Savile’s victims (that nonetheless did not result in Savile being arrested or charged, despite him being questioned by police). The inference is that investigations everywhere – by the police and by institutions – were unsuccessful, and by that logic, that nothing more could have been done.
Savile’s capacity to evade investigation is further demonstrated in The Reckoning by the recreation of the Dan Davies (played by Mark Stanley) interviews – presumably from Davies’ transcripts, as the dictaphone is made prominent – for Davies’ 2014 book In Plain Sight (Davies is credited for his contribution to the series).These have the function of relieving the BBC of a level of responsibility. They place Savile’s confessional persona, of his existence “in plain sight” as away from the television studios, the production offices and the various sites of broadcast recordings: the BBC could not see here. Indeed, when Savile is seen using Savile’s Travels (BBC Radio 1, 1968-73) as a mechanism for abuse, it is when he is working solo and remotely, out of sight. The abuse that takes place on BBC premises is depicted as enabled by ignorance not malice, by individual lapses in safeguarding not managerial negligence – even after internal investigations have taken place. Davies, meanwhile, seen interrogating Savile directly, couldn’t get him to crack. It was no-one’s fault if even Davies couldn’t breach the facade. This is the sleight of hand the series achieves – the suggestion that Savile was so calculating and devious in his criminality that no one could have stopped him.
This slight defensiveness is tempered, throughout episode three, by a sense of admission without confession: when BBC Head of Entertainment (and later Managing Director) Bill Cotton (played by Michael Jibson) says “We have to look after the talent”, the hierarchy of television life is laid bare, with “talent” (aka one-screen talent) preeminent; the coy prominence of Newsnight announcing the resignation of Thatcher, foregrounding the later, infamous spiking of the Newsnight / Savile report; the BBC producer, when axing Savile from Fix It, expressing disgust at the camper van “forever parked out there, curtains drawn” on Television Centre premises. These scenes simultaneously acknowledge the BBC was culpable – an apology, while retaining a sense of ‘we did our best’.
If The Reckoning is read as an apology to the victims of Savile, this also raises the possibility that the BBC is attempting to reclaim the archive with the series. Savile has largely been excised from the BBC archive and for good reason, but he cannot be erased from the corporation’s history (ibid.). In this way, The Reckoningserves as redress: Savile will always lurk in the corporation’s psyche, but the corporation knows he was a monster and it is sorry. The most affecting sections of the series, away from the visceral horror of the depicted abuse, are the testimony of the victims. The final words are given to Darien, who says tearfully “Don’t let this ever happen again, please.” Who is this plea to? Broader society, to be vigilant against predators like Savile? Is it a request to institute effective reporting and conviction mechanisms, whether within the police, the health service, the press, the church or the broadcasters, at all the institutions Savile was allowed to roam?
The Reckoning cannot be an absolution for the BBC. The omission of Savile’s late-stage BBC career (and criminality) means it did not use this series to explore fully its role in Savile’s offending. Nonetheless, there is a palpable awareness throughout that the BBC failed the victims of Savile’s crimes. The Reckoning is the closest thing to an apology the BBC can make. There is no explicit admittance of guilt but using the only medium available to it and by restoring a parametered, explicated, monstrous Savile to its archive, the BBC is – as much as it can – saying sorry.
Rowan Aust is an ex-TV producer and is now Co-Director at ReelTime Media, which provides consultancy and training on flexible working and equitable practice in TV and film production. She got her PhD in 2019 and from 2019-2023 taught TV production and industries at the University of Huddersfield, as well as being Co-Director of Share My Telly Job, an industry-based group which advocated for all forms of flexible working. She has published widely on ethics and practices of care in TV and film production.
(She is not a fan of Steve Coogan.)
Aust, R., & Holdsworth, A. (2016). The BBC Archive Post-Savile: Irreparable Damage or Recoverable Ground? In C. Mahoney, C. Shaw, & J. B. Kay (Eds.), The Past in Visual Culture: Essays on Memory, Nostalgia and the Media. Jefferson NC: McFarland & Company, Inc.