A dozen years ago, while working on the Outdoors section of the Scotsman, one of my tasks was to interview celebs and in-the-news people for a Q+A column called Outdoor Life.
The idea was to ask questions about their particular outdoors enthusiasm – hillwalking, horse-riding, fishing, whatever – and the resulting first-person quotes would fill a column at the edge of the page.
For almost 18 months I found and interviewed people for this – musicians, sportsmen and women, politicians and so on. Mostly it was done by telephone, occasionally by email. And sometimes the interviewees were delightful: friendly, polite, providing anecdote-filled quotes. Hazel Irvine (on skiing), Gavin Esler (hillwalking), Annabel Goldie (birds and bikes) and Anna Ford (walking) were my favourites. Although it’s as wrong to make up one’s mind about somebody on the basis of a 15-minute phone interview as it is to judge a book by its cover, I’ve found myself warming to those four, and to various others, ever since.
Some interviewees were less fun to deal with, particularly those who were either just a bit dull or who gave good copy while being too snippy, catty or snooty to really warm to. But it takes all sorts, and as long as the paper didn’t have a column-sized hole in it come Saturday morning, I was happy enough.
Every now and then, when the well of interviewees was looking a bit on the shallow side, I would spend a Friday afternoon racking my brains and sending a batch of letters and emails to various personalities or – more often – to their agents. This needed to be done in good time, as only a third ever replied and even then not usually for at least a fortnight.
On one such Friday afternoon in October 1999 I was drafting letters when someone in the office asked if I’d ever tried to get Jimmy Savile. No, I hadn’t, but it was a good idea: he was hugely well-known, wasn’t exactly a shrinking violet, plus there were at least three outdoor angles – the marathons, the house halfway down Glen Coe which he owned at the time, and his earlier career as a strong amateur cyclist.
So I wrote the letter, somehow got hold of an address – not of an agent, but of Savile’s own house in the Roundhay area of Leeds – and stuck it in the post late on Friday afternoon. And thought nothing more about it all weekend.
My Scotsman job was only half-time, and I wasn’t in the habit of going into the old North Bridge office on a Monday morning – but the following week, for some reason, that is what I did. Not long after I settled down at the desk, the phone rang. It was Savile. I didn’t ask him, but I’m as sure as I can be that he had just opened his mail and – true to his reputation of grabbing any publicity that was going – had rung immediately, pretty much on impulse.
In a slight panic, I scrabbled around to find the questions I’d drafted for him, and 15 minutes later finished one of the best – and easiest – interviews I’d ever done. It was just a matter of asking a question and then scribbling away as Savile poured out long and entertaining answers. Some were about the Glen Coe cottage – which he endearingly and repeatedly referred to as “my gaff” (and even though he sold the house some years later, I’ve been unable to drive past ever since without thinking of it as “Jimmy’s gaff”).
“You see,” he said, “the road outside my gaff is not just any road – I often go out there when there’s no traffic, smoke a cigar and think ‘This is the road, baby!’”
He told of having first seen – and coveted – the house over half a century earlier: “I was a racing cyclist on one of my training routes back in the war years. I would start from Leeds and go via Newcastle, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Inverness, down the Caledonian Canal and so to Glasgow and Penrith before doing a left down through Ingleton – 1,300 miles that I would knock off with some regularity. I remember stopping outside the house – well, by the waterfall anyway – in around 1942. I was working down the pit at the time and could never have dreamt that some fluke would bring me to live here.”
Savile also told of having walked past it during his 1971 John o’ Groats to Land’s End trip, then again in 1974 when doing the route in reverse. “So as well as being beautiful it’s doubly so for me for entirely separate reasons.”
He took an unorthodox line on housekeeping: “When I moved in, folk said to make sure to keep the gate shut to keep the sheep out, but I took the gate straight off its hinges. I don’t see this as a domestic house but as part of the area, and the sheep were here before me. When I get up in the morning I hear the clip-clop and there are seven or eight sheep and a couple of rams using the place as a kip house – that’s fine by me. Anyway, they keep the grass down.”
There were other stories – of injured walkers or stranded motorists coming to the door, and of simply milking the celebrity status in a tourist honeypot: “I take the chair into the garden with the cigar and the coaches all slow down, honk their horns, flashbulbs going off and all that kind of thing. My house is on the tourist itinerary for every coach!”
And there were glimpses of both the hard upbringing and the optimistic take on life: “There’s an old saying I’ve just invented,” he said, “‘Those who bring sunshine into the lives of others can’t keep it from their own’. I’m a people person and being here is total, total magic, total joy. Who would believe that after working deep in the bowels of the earth I would come to live here?”
It was great – if only all interviews went so smoothly and so enthusiastically. Except that after 15 minutes I had all I needed and didn’t want to use up any more of his time – plus I had other work to do. But it wasn’t easy to break into the increasingly monologue-like flow of anecdotes, and after fully 30 minutes more I was aware of starting to sound tetchy as I said things like “Thanks Jimmy, that’s great Jimmy, much appreciated Jimmy but I really must let you go now…”.
Eventually I did manage to ring off – it felt almost like I’d had to negotiate terms and sign a treaty – and was able to flop back into my chair and laugh. He was quite something – I’ve never met or interviewed anyone so eager to sit in the limelight, or so full of himself in an entertaining and amusing (if ultimately rather exhausting) way.
And as with various of the other more sedate – dare I say more normal? – interviewees over those 18 months, I’d warmed to him. Sure, there was known to be a dark, unsettling side, and six months after we spoke the BBC aired Louis Theroux’s documentary that was destined to be remembered for the moments when Savile was caught off guard and revealed a not-so-light-entertainment side to his character.
But even after seeing that, I found myself still smiling at Savile’s almost-bonkers enthusiasm and the overriding sense that he was a complete one-off and that the good outweighed the bad in what was clearly a complex and not entirely happy makeup.
It was impossible not to respect the charity work – tales abound of his turning up “in character” but otherwise unheralded at Stoke Mandeville to see, and to cheer up, spinal-injury patients. And he deserved respect for an extraordinary ability to combine genuine graft (the mines, the massive cycle-rides, the 212 marathons) with a sort of crazy glam-rock proto-bling.
Savile might have been a troubled, at-times-difficult loner – and might have been as mad as a bucket of lobsters – but he kept the viewing public entertained and made a lot of people happy. And he certainly brightened up what might otherwise have been a drab Monday morning for one junior Scotsman journalist a dozen years ago.
Update 31 October –
Having said that Jimmy Savile “sold the [Glen Coe] house some years later” – based on a comment a couple of years ago from someone with local knowledge – it now appears that Savile might well have owned the house right up to his death. There was a break-in at the start of 2008, but this blogger suggests he still owned it in September 2009 (“I drove up to a little spot near Jimmy Savilles [sic] house and wished him good morning”), while one of the Clachaig employees, Alex Roddie (aka “Only a hill”), says in this UKC thread says Savile still had the house in June 2010, as does another poster, “3leggeddog” – “No matter what anyone says, Jimmy still owns it.” And this article has him still owning it in March of this year. There is also discussion over at Scottish Hills.
There have been plenty of obituaries and tributes, as might be imagined. Adam Sweeting’s piece in the Guardian is a good read – “Behind the professional good samaritan there was a man of ruthless willpower, intelligent enough to become a member of Mensa. It was as if the scale of his charitable efforts was an expression of his enormous desire to be seen to have achieved something.” Also in the Guardian, some of the commenters on the initial news story of Savile’s death get into a predictable tizz over his friendship with Margaret Thatcher.
A candidate for the best tribute is that by the religious blogger Cranmer: “over the course of his professional life, Sir Jimmy ran more than 200 marathons and raised in excess of £40 million for charity. While many civil servants, bankers, industrialists and politicians expect to receive their knighthoods and their OBEs and CBEs for doing nothing but their jobs, Sir Jimmy Savile thoroughly merited his honour whilst having no expectation of it. He fixed it for thousands of people to experience something in life which would otherwise have been denied them. It is more blessed to give than to receive. Rest in Peace, Sir Jimmy.”