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Sunday, October 30, 2011

He carried rolls of bank notes in his shell suit... he wore his oddness as a badge: It's all over now, then for Sir Jimmy

Sir Jimmy Savile, the DJ known to a generation as the man who made their dreams come true, died yesterday at the age of 84. Tributes poured in for the DJ, famed for his tracksuits, jangly gold jewellery and cigars, and catchphrases such as ‘Now then, now then’ and ‘How’s about that, then?’, who died just days before his 85th birthday.

Born in Yorkshire, Sir Jimmy was the youngest of seven children of bookmaker’s assistant Vincent Savile and his wife Agnes. He never married and remained devoted to his mother, whom he called The Duchess and who lived with him until she died.

In 1958 he became a DJ on pirate radio station Radio Luxembourg, later joining Radio 1. But he will perhaps be best remembered for Jim’ll Fix It, the long-running series he devised and presented which saw children write in to have their wishes granted.

As celebrities past and present remembered Jimmy, his friend and official biographer Dan Davies writes a poignant tribute on the entertainer who had a heart of gold.

By Dan Davies

Watching Jimmy Savile pay for lunch never failed to make me smile. During our many meetings over the past few years, we dined lavishly in the Athenaeum Club in London’s Pall Mall, a bastion of the British establishment.

We’d also dine in less salubrious surroundings, such as Ossie’s cafe in Marylebone – ‘next door to the Golden Hands massage parlour,’ as Jimmy helpfully pointed out.

At the Athenaeum Club, he’d reminisce about the many extraordinary chapters of his life, clearly right at home surrounded by the great and the good. Then the bill would arrive and he’d pull a thick roll of banknotes from the pocket of his blazer – it was the only time I’d see him wear anything other than his trademark shellsuit – peeling off a few and slipping them to the waiter.

I first interviewed Jimmy in 2003, and after several further conversations he called me out of the blue three years ago and invited me to take a cruise with him on the QE2. He knew I’d been going through a difficult time and generously said: ‘Come on, it’ll cheer you up.’

I flew to Cadiz and we sailed for four days until we reached Southampton. I watched him charging around the boat like an unofficial entertainment officer, putting me to shame with his energy despite being almost 80.

I’d been intrigued by him since childhood, when I watched the programme Jim’ll Fix It being filmed in West London, but the trip, and our many other meetings, showed me sides of his character which belied the larger-than-life image of the guy with the outlandish outfits, the cigars and the copious amounts of jewellery.

He was kind to me on that journey, and I saw his kindness to others. Our fellow passengers included a couple with a daughter who had Down’s syndrome. I saw him approach her and begin chatting. After a few of his jokes, she positively lit up.

A few years ago, I began to write a biography of Jimmy, which I have not yet finished. We saw one another regularly and became friends, although I often wondered if some of the well-rehearsed, colourful anecdotes he liked to tell served as a mask to prevent anybody getting too close.

Larger than life: Sir Jimmy Savile was a close friend of Prince of Wales, who has pair tribute to the star, known for his wacky outfits

Charity run: Jimmy Savile shares a joke with the late Princess Diana at the London Marathon in 1988

In fact, I had made a mental note to call him yesterday, when I found out he had passed away. Our birthdays were just one day apart; his on Halloween and mine today. He said he was ‘a full warlock’ while I was merely ‘half warlock’.

He knew people regarded him as odd, but he revelled in it. He wore his oddness as a badge of honour. He said the reason he became famous was because he was different. Even those who never met Jimmy feel they knew him to some degree. He was what can only be described as a Zelig-like figure who popped up at pivotal episodes in the story of post-war Britain.

He had a colossal impact on popular culture, from his earliest days as one of the first professional DJs to his time presenting Top of the Pops and beyond.

Tragedy: Jimmy Savile has died at his home aged 84, pictured here with his signature cigar and gold jewellery

He was equally well known for his tireless dedication to charity work, raising £40 million for various causes including Stoke Mandeville Hospital, for which he spearheaded the campaign to build the new National Spinal Injuries Centre.

James Savile was born in Leeds in 1926, seventh child of a bookmaker’s clerk and Agnes, the woman he called The Duchess. At the age of 18, he became a Bevin Boy, conscripted during the Second World War to work as a coal miner. He told me he was involved in an accident down the mine which injured his back. He didn’t explicitly say so, but I wondered if that was where his passion for helping those with spinal injuries came from.

The accident meant he could not join the RAF, which had been his original ambition, so instead he became a local impresario, running ‘record dances’ with an adapted gramophone. He was at various times a scrap metal dealer and a keen competitive cyclist.

TV legend: Savile with one of his famous Jim'll Fix It medals

He took part in the first Tour of Britain cycle race in 1951, part of the Festival of Britain celebrations. He told me it gave him his first taste of showbusiness, as at the end of each of the numerous stages, he would get up on stage and regale audiences with stories of coming last. When his bike finally broke down he intended to head back to Leeds but by this point had become such a personality that the race organisers insisted he join the commentary car instead. He was retained as a race commentator for years afterwards.

Jimmy had grown up in dance halls, being trailed along by his parents, and claimed to have been the first person to use two turntables and a microphone.

During the 1950s he became a star figure at Mecca, which had ballrooms around the country, managing the Mecca Locarno ballroom in Leeds and going on to train a generation of DJs. He pioneered the lunchtime bops, loved by schoolchildren, and his Monday evening records-only dance nights were a favourite with teens.

By 1960, he was Radio Luxembourg’s star DJ, and travelled to America to meet Elvis. On his return he donated the proceeds from signed photos of him with the King to the Duke of Edinburgh’s National Playing Fields Association, marking the start of an association with the Royal Family which eventually led to him working as an unofficial mentor to Prince Charles and, later, as a peacemaker during Charles’ split from Princess Diana.

Indeed, Charles appears to have counted him among his most trusted confidants, a claim backed up by the testimony of Diana’s biographer, Andrew Morton, who wrote: ‘Savile’s opinions carry weight in both camps. As the unofficial court jester, he articulates opinions that courtiers can only think.’

He never spoke of his Royal connections, however. ‘I’m the man who says nothing,’ he would say. ‘Anything to do with matters Royal is a no-go area.’

On New Year’s Day 1964 he presented the first edition of Top of the Pops from a disused church in Manchester.

By that stage, he was already far older than most people involved in the music industry, but as a Svengali-like figure, fledgling pop stars such as the Beatles, Tom Jones and Van Morrison flocked to him for advice. In July 2006, he presented the final edition of the programme.

He remained a fixture of television for 30 years and became known to a new generation of children with the show Jim’ll Fix It, in which he made children’s wishes come true and which ran from 1975 to 1994. With his catchphrases ‘How’s about that, then?’ and ‘Now then, now then, now then’, he seemed to become more of a caricature of himself as the years passed.

Yet he continued to be involved with projects which seemed totally at odds with the popular perception of him. In 1988, he was named as the head of a new task force charged with turning around Broadmoor, Britain’s most notorious high-security psychiatric hospital, home to Ronnie Kray and Peter Sutcliffe. He had been volunteering there alongside his work for Leeds General Infirmary and Stoke Mandeville and in his new role he achieved a great deal.

Famous friends: Savile, seen here with Prince Charles and Frank Bruno in 1998, was a close friend of many royal family members

Reality star: Savile went into the Celebrity Big Brother house in 2006 to fix dreams for some of the famous housemates

When I asked what he made of the more notorious patients, he said: ‘I’ve met all of them. I talk to all of them.’ He made no distinction between having the ear of senior Royals and the trust of some of Britain’s most disturbed killers. ‘There’s no such thing as important people or famous people, they’re just people,’ he said.

He remained a lifelong bachelor, and his relationship with his mother was the most important of his life. Following her death in 1973 he continued to revere her memory.

He once allowed me to stay in the room he kept as a shrine to her in his house in Scarborough, which, although a slightly odd experience, was also a compliment. I slept under a crimson bedspread with a JS crest at its centre.

When I was with him, my aim was to find out what it was that drove him and why he chose to dedicate himself to helping others.

He would often talk of his ‘interest in people’ and his willingness to ‘listen and help if I could’. He would tell me it stemmed from a simple wish to make people smile.

I always wondered if there was something hidden in his past which would explain it, but he remained an enigma until the end.



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