Men were different in the 1970s. In the unflattering fashions of the time — hairy chests, drooping moustaches, gold chains, centre-parted hair, safari jackets — they were frequently physically unattractive. But they didn’t notice their unattractiveness. They had a confidence in being male that arose from the structural integrity of the patriarchy. The world was arranged by and for men, as it had ever been.
Women existed for men’s delectation when they were nubile (birds) and men’s scorn when they were menopausal (silly old cows). There were page three girls, topless barmaids, rugby songs, wolf whistles and doubles entendres, and anyone who questioned these things was a hairy-legged women’s libber who needed a good … Sexual culture was based on masculine desire. This understanding was upfront, unremarkable and unquestioned.
They could act with an impunity derived from their intact masculine confidence. For example, older men went after younger women in a way now only seen in Woody Allen films. A couple of my father’s friends cracked on to me when I was an adolescent.
My father was a civil engineer working for an American company that was building a dam in the Ivory Coast. My parents lived in the camp site that housed the ex-pats who worked on the project. It was a multinational affair, American, British, French and Italian; French was the lingua franca. I was at boarding school in England and in the holidays I often accompanied my parents to dinner parties with their friends. At sixteen I was bright and self-confident. I loved talking with adults and in those days I could speak a mix of French and English all evening.
Jean-Louis and Christianne were my parents’ best friends. At one dinner party, when I was seated next to Jean-Louis, he pressed his leg against mine for the whole evening. I thought it was funny, if pathetic. Later on, one Saturday, I was walking back home from the pool at the clubhouse when he pulled up alongside me in his pick-up truck. He asked me if I was coming to see him that evening. I was confused, then half-remembered he had suggested recently I visit him when Christianne would be away at the weekend. I had never given the conversation another thought, but was now shocked to realise he had been expecting me all along. I was flustered, but he got it. He was pleasant and polite and drove off.
It was a weird little moment. I wonder if Jean-Louis really imagined the teenage daughter of one of his friends wanted to have sex with him, a man in his late 30s. I wonder if he considered what my father would have done if he knew. Perhaps Jean-Louis thought it was all harmless fun. He fancied me — so, I probably fancied him back, and there was no reason not to try it on.
The encounter provided an entertaining anecdote to relay in the dorm in the post-holiday debrief at the beginning of term. My friends and I had all learned that men — even nice, respectable ones — could be opportunistic. Predatory was not a word we used, but we recognised predatory behaviour and were adroit at avoiding unwanted attention. I never mentioned to my parents what happened with Jean-Louis — it would have ruined their friendship — but now I would label his actions as predatory.
Despite growing up in a culture that privileged masculine needs and desires, my friends and I saw ourselves as the equals, if not the superiors, of men. We were rarely impressed by them. My first job after school was as a cabaret dancer in a hotel in Minakami, a spa town in Japan. Two of my school friends were in the troupe as well, and we took the gig to get our Actors’ Equity card. We were eight girls and two boys, all English, performing our third-rate show every day for six months. When we arrived in Japan we discovered gender relations were much more starkly pronounced than they were in Britain, and we were shocked at the subservience of the women and the sexual aggression of the men. It was disconcerting to be openly stared at.
The troupe made friends with the Japanese musicians in the hotel band and we’d all drink together in a tiny bar after the show. The toilet was a sand closet and the smell was unbearable, so the men went outside to pee. We (the girls) wouldn’t let them rejoin the table unless they washed their hands. The musicians thought it was hilarious we were so bossy, but they complied. We hated the way Japanese men urinated in the street ad libitum. It was a symbol of their ability to do what they pleased while women remained constrained, forced to use foul-smelling dry toilets. Late one frosty night when we emerged from the bar, two hotel guests were peeing against a wall. One of the girls in the show, Elaine, shouted ‘Chottomatte, chottomatte,’ (wait a minute) and made a big show of lifting her coat and squatting down. Our musician friends laughed with us, and the pisseurs, embarrassed, twisted their necks to see what was going on. But a guest singer in the show who was with us that night, Miss Mariko, was horrified: ‘No, ladies no,’ she kept saying. She didn’t get the joke. All the Japanese men did, but she didn’t.
These incidents are trivial but when I thought about them later they brought to my attention the gender inequality around me. I didn’t like the 70s — the music, the fashions, the jack-the-lads, the dirty old men — and I was eager for change, for greater sophistication. While I was oblivious to structural sexism, I was aware that norms were being challenged by feminism and society was changing. I was confident about women’s place in the world and that men were going to have to make way for us — chottomatte, we demand the freedom to piss against the wall (metaphorically) as well.
All of which brings me to what I really want to talk about, the heart of darkness, Jimmy Savile.
It wasn’t just everyday men who were unattractive in the 70s: so were musicians, actors, sportsmen, comedians and TV personalities. There was a far greater gap then between beautiful and ordinary people. In the 70s, ordinariness was ubiquitous and ordinary-looking blokes like Savile could get ahead. Personalities embody cultural values, so if a certain kind of masculinity is prized, well-known identities reflect that back to the culture at large. So I barely noticed that someone as unprepossessing as Savile was on the telly.
I neither liked nor disliked Savile, he was just background noise in my childhood. His voice was as familiar to me as my grandfather’s. He re-entered my sphere of awareness when his crimes were revealed after he died in 2011, and with my adult sensibility, I suddenly understood there had always been something off-kilter about him. I sought out Louis Theroux’s first documentary about him, When Louis Met Jimmy (2000), not long afterwards, and I was transfixed by the nastiness of the man. I could hardly comprehend how he was viewed as avuncular and charismatic, and it chilled me to think the prevailing culture was much more unpleasant than I had been exposed to in my cosmopolitan adolescent cocoon. Just how unpleasant, I discovered in Theroux’s second documentary about him: Louis Theroux: Savile (2016), which I viewed — devoured — recently.
It is now well known that Theroux had an inkling there was something troubling about Savile when making When Louis Met Jimmy, and he is mortified he not only failed to interrogate his instincts but he also formed a kind of friendship with Savile afterwards. The second doco is his quest for atonement. He interviews several women who worked with Savile and were ignorant of his deviant side, and two women who were his young victims. As one of them, Cherie Wheatcroft, narrates her story, the scene unfolds like a thriller.
Cherie was at school doing her A-levels when ‘all hell broke loose’, and she fell pregnant. She was too scared to tell her parents and ended up giving birth in hospital alone. There was more trouble ahead when she fell forward on an electric two-bar heater and had to be transferred to Stoke Mandeville Hospital with serious burns to her hands.
Later, as she was coming round, she was sitting alone at the edge of the bed, hands in bandages, looking out the window. She saw a man out for a run and ‘as they were running they looked at me,’ she says, ‘and, of course, I was looking at them.’
Then the runner changed course and made directly towards her. His eyes locked on her: Savile. He climbed in the window and jumped down into the room: ‘I was in shock. I could not believe it.’ He was smiling but he ‘came straight at me, went to kiss me and stuck his tongue down my throat. Obviously, I couldn’t use my hands.’ The tongue kissing went on and on, and then ‘he started jabbering, “you’ve been a naughty girl, haven’t you; you’ve been a naughty girl with your boyfriend, haven’t you?” He kept on repeating it and, because I didn’t answer, he kept repeating it.’
Theroux is haunted by his failure to get to the truth of Savile and to bring him to account. Professor Karen Boyle takes issue with his mea culpa for focusing entirely on ‘individual and not institutional culpability.’ Moreover, by only interviewing female colleagues and victims of Savile, he ‘pits woman against woman,’ thereby inadvertently contributing to a culture ‘in which women are held responsible for men’s violence against them.’
Those charges are salient; nonetheless, I was unsettled to watch Cherie and to listen to her account, and that of the other victim, Sam (who does not give her family name). Having them speak on camera vividly invokes the human dimension of Savile’s crimes and makes them a concrete reality in someone’s life. Cherie’s husband watches while she speaks, as do Sam’s two daughters. The protective gaze of these family members widens the circle of concern and serves as a poignant reminder that the stain of trauma seeps into other lives.
Andrew O’Hagan tackles institutional culpability when he writes about the deep and unsavoury history of sexual abuse at the BBC. He describes the careers of Lionel Gamlin and Derek McCulloch —radio stars in the 1950s, the presenters of Hello Children and Children’s Hour respectively — who were both predatory homosexual paedophiles. He quotes a friend of Gamlin’s: ‘Broadcasting House was well stocked with men interested in sleeping with young boys.’ Apparently, in those pre-TV days, there existed a certain ‘milieu’ at the BBC, and ‘people who sought to be sexual predators knew that.’
In O’ Hagan’s view, this activity is inextricably at one with the seedy sensibility of British popular culture: ‘There’s something creepy about British light entertainment and there always has been.’ Savile emerged on the scene as radio was overtaken by TV, and he exuded a quality required of the new medium: Personality. His deranged oddness suited light entertainment, a world that, for O’ Hagan ‘is largely paedophile in its commercial and entertainment excitements’, and that embodies the nation’s worst fantasies and its deepest shame. From the death of Little Nell to the hacking of Millie Dowler’s voicemail, the British psyche has long taken a sentimental but prurient interest in the suffering of children. For O’Hagan, Savile got away with his serial abusing for so long ‘because the nation wanted him to.’ In this construction, culpability ultimately lies with the British public, egged on by the tabloid press. ‘For 40 years,’ O’Hagan goes on, ‘people believed Savile was the hero of Stoke Mandeville Hospital and for 40 years the red-top papers promoted his image as the nation’s zaniest and most loveable donor.’
Savile ranged at the top of the food chain, picking off the delicacies that came his way for 50 years. O’Hagan makes his argument against British culture in 2012, shortly after the death of Savile when the story was unfolding and it was thought he may have abused 200 children and young people. It is now established Savile’s victims number 500, mainly young girls like Cherie and Sam (who was 11 at the time of her abuse), but boys as well. It is indispensable to a reckoning of ‘how we were duped’, as Theroux puts it, to look at all facets of this ultra-predator, and one aspect that is implicit but overlooked in O’Hagan’s account is the one that I noticed when I was a teenager: the deeply internalised ideological assumption that men were the primary sex.
This assumption was then the bedrock of gender relations, not just in Britain but further afield. Male sexual activity encompasses a spectrum of types and behaviours. The experiences I had growing up were at the banal end and those of Cherie and Sam were at the cruel end, but they were all enacted by men and predicated on male sexual dominance. O’Hagan dissects two cultures that co-mingled to place Savile in his element: Light Entertainment as a department at the BBC and light entertainment as a fixture of British culture. When I viewed popular TV in the 1970s I was more conscious of its sexist than its more twisted paedo orientation — which, admittedly, is harder to recognise as a teenager. It was departments of Light Entertainment on ITV as well as the BBC that produced sit-coms portraying women in that strict binary of dolly-birds or has-beens. All those seaside-postcard jokes on Are You Being Served about Mrs Slocombe’s pussy were about — well, a middle-aged woman’s pussy, ewww.
Mainstream humour was masculinised humour and it was a man’s view of sex that was reflected back to the culture because it was a man’s world. That’s what made men different in the 1970s. Savile grew up with assumptions of masculine primacy and dominance. In her report, Dame Janet Scott criticises the BBC’s ‘macho culture’ for refusing to sanction him. ‘There were few women in management positions,’ she notes. ‘Women found it difficult to report sexual harassment.’ Let alone children. But these conditions predominated throughout every domain in society — the church, schools, workplaces, homes. And sexual violence, perpetrated by and covered up by men, was going on everywhere. There was a collective ignorance of the seriousness of these crimes and of the damage done to its victims, even to the possibility it was going on. ‘It was a different era,’ says Janet Cope, Savile’s PA for 32 years, to Theroux. Savile didn’t even address her by name when he unexpectedly sacked her at a meeting of doctors and administrators at Stoke Mandeville in 2001; nevertheless, she couldn’t accept he was capable of his crimes.
And yet … the spirited contempt that my friends and I held for men reveals there were fissures in the patriarchy. Social change was in the air, much of it driven by the hairy-legged women’s libbers. For transformation to continue, men have to face up to the horrors that can be unleashed by untrammelled, unequal power. I agree with Boyle that Theroux could have gone further in his critique, he could have been more indignant and angry, he could have drawn attention to the fact that no men would be interviewed on camera. But by retracing his steps, locating women within Savile’s orbit, bearing witness to their testimony and admitting his own blindness, Theroux shows how men —OK, not all men, but some men and increasingly more men — are different now.