Jimmy Savile is entirely unknown to Americans. Which is as it should be. He was a British disc jockey and children’s-TV host, but, even by the debased standards of those callings, he didn’t appear to have any particular talent. Yet, for half a century, until his death a year ago, he was one of the BBC’s biggest stars: He hosted the first edition of Top of the Pops on TV in 1964, and he was there for the last in 2006. He had no discernible interest in pop music, but for millions of Britons his radio show was the accompaniment to roast-beef-and-Yorkshire-pud every Sunday lunchtime. He had, it was widely reported, an active dislike of children, but his Jim’ll Fix It was a fixture on the telly for two decades. And throughout this time he was also a serial pedophile, as his many fans belatedly discovered only last month.
In American terms, he was a combination of Dick Clark, Mr. Rogers, and Jerry Lewis in telethon mode. But that doesn’t quite do justice to the freakishness of his personality and its equally bizarre indulgence by Britain’s establishment. The other day, while researching a bit of post-Thatcher Brit trivia, I chanced upon this sentence from the wife of the former prime minister John Major, which could stand for a thousand similar asides in a thousand political memoirs: “We had been shown around the Spinal Injuries Unit by its most celebrated and dedicated fundraiser, Sir James (Jimmy) Savile wearing an unforgettable gold lamé tracksuit.”