The Reckoning: Steve Coogan on playing Jimmy Savile in harrowing drama

The name Jimmy Savile sends shivers down spines. Once a beloved TV personality, Savile became one of the most reviled figures in modern history after his death in 2011, following revelations of extensive, horrific abuse.

Posthumous investigations revealed that he had been a prolific sex offender, amassing hundreds of allegations of rape and sexual assault of children and adults over a number of decades.

The scale and severity of his abuse shook the nation, and the survivors of his crimes have had to come to terms with the fact that, since allegations about Savile were only properly investigated after his death, he never faced justice.

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An ITV documentary titled Exposure: the Other Side of Jimmy Savile, broadcast in October 2012, a year after Savile’s death, first revealed allegations of the serious sexual assaults.

Steve Coogan plays Jimmy Savile in The Reckoning. Photo: Matt Crossick/PA Archive/PA Images.Steve Coogan plays Jimmy Savile in The Reckoning. Photo: Matt Crossick/PA Archive/PA Images.
Steve Coogan plays Jimmy Savile in The Reckoning. Photo: Matt Crossick/PA Archive/PA Images.

As time went on, it was understood that Leeds-born Savile had committed a large number of sex crimes – mostly against young girls, but affecting people of all ages – which had been covered up throughout his lifetime.

Now, a decade later, a BBC drama is set to trace the life of the man who used his position as one of the biggest stars of British television to cause pain and misery to hundreds.

The Reckoning sees Steve Coogan, known for his Alan Partridge character, portray Jimmy Savile as the story follows his early years in the dance halls of northern England, his career with the BBC, and his latter years as he tried to dispel the growing rumours about his life behind the scenes.

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“To play Jimmy Savile was not a decision I took lightly,” says Coogan, 57. “Neil McKay has written an intelligent script tackling sensitively an horrific story which – however harrowing – needs to be told.”

As the details of Savile’s abuse unravelled, it became apparent that he’d used his position in many organisations – including the BBC, hospitals, prisons and charities – to legitimise himself as he hid his crimes in plain sight. The drama, made by ITV Studios for the BBC, will explore how Savile was able to use his connections and celebrity status, including exploiting institutional failings, to commit and conceal his crimes.

“The purpose of this drama is to explore how Savile’s offending went unchecked for so long, and in shining a light on this, to ensure such crimes never happen again,” says Jeff Pope, executive producer at ITV Studios. “Steve Coogan has a unique ability to inhabit complex characters and will approach this role with the greatest care and integrity.”

Speaking on Channel 4’s Sunday Brunch, Coogan says there had been a “great deal of antipathy toward me doing it when it was announced”.

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“I understand people’s antagonism about the whole idea,” he says, though he maintains that the script was “very intelligent” and “it was done in consultation with many of the victims of Jimmy Savile”.

“They came along to the shoot and their story was encompassed into the story of Jimmy Savile,” he says of the survivors. “I think with all these things, generally speaking, it’s better to talk about them than not talk about them.”

Making Coogan’s performance all the more striking was his alarming physical resemblance to Savile when in costume.

“When we had victims on set – at their request and with all safeguarding support in place – Steve would come round the corner and you could feel the intake of breath because it was such an extraordinary similarity,” Pope says, speaking to the Radio Times. “So he made a point of saying, ‘I’m Steve’, and he would have a conversation with them as Steve.”

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Each episode of The Reckoning will be bookended by interviews with four of Savile’s victims, whose assaults have been dramatised in the series.

These survivors are able to be shown because they’ve waived their right to lifelong anonymity as victims of sex crimes, though this automatic anonymity means that for many other stories, composite characters and scenes are used.

Nevertheless, for the creators who combed through hundreds of stories, a harrowing pattern emerged that painted a gut-wrenching picture of the scope of Savile’s crimes. “The Reckoning is a unique opportunity to give Savile’s survivors, the people who inspired this project, a voice,” says director Sandra Goldbacher.

“I feel sure that Steve Coogan’s powerful performance as Savile will create a debate around how the cult of celebrity cloaked him from scrutiny.”

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Naturally, this project is a particularly controversial one. There’s often debate over whether the details of true crimes should be fodder for prime-time television drama, but the opinion of The Reckoning’s creators, including screenwriter Neil McKay and producer Jeff Pope, who’ve worked together on dramas about serial killers Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, and Fred and Rose West, is that keeping these crimes in the collective consciousness helps to stop them being repeated, and that drama is a vehicle that allows a new light to be shone on the story.

“I think what drama can do – which documentaries can’t – is put you right in the middle of these scenes,” says McKay, speaking to the Radio Times. “Savile started out as a dance hall DJ in Manchester. And DJs enjoy controlling a room. I think he was a con man.

“What we try to show is how, in successive institutions – Leeds General Infirmary, the pop business, the BBC, eventually Margaret Thatcher’s private office and beyond – the mechanics of Savile’s con worked. That’s what I think only drama can give you.”

The Reckoning starts on BBC One at 9pm on Monday October 9.