Our obsession with celebrity secrets

The Savile affair shouldn't be a shock to the BBC: it churns out dramas about the hidden lives of its comic stars.

David Bowden

Topics Culture

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So, first week back. Long stretch away. Did I go anywhere nice? Sort of. More of a journey of the mind. Bit of a break from the usual routine: caught up on some reading, disconnected myself from the modern information overload, and so on. But now I must pour a strong cup of coffee, blow the cobwebs away and get back to normality. Nothing big happened in TV-land while I was away, did it? Oh.

There has, of course, been an enormous amount written and said recently about a certain disgraced and deceased children’s entertainer. A considerable amount of it on the BBC itself. You’ve been able to join in BBC Five Live discussions about how BBC Radio 4’s Today covered the reaction to BBC1’s Panorama investigating BBC2’s Newsnight. Andrew O’Hagan’s recent essay on the BBC’s shadowy history of tackling staff beset by rumours and accusations of similar sexual misdeeds has been widely devoured and repeated around the blogosphere. There has even been speculation from some that the Savile case may have been providing the drama department with ideas for storylines.

There has been a lot of internal blood-letting from the national broadcaster over the past few weeks, with debates spiralling at a frenetic pace around everything from the legacy of sexual liberation and workplace relations to the dark side of celebrity and the diversity of presenters. It’s been difficult to keep up.

Yet, while these questions have exploded in a seeming perfect storm around the alleged institutional failings over the Savile coverage, it’s worth noting that the BBC has been exploring a lot of these themes quite openly over the past few years. Starting with the acclaimed Kenneth Williams biopic Fantabulosa! back in 2006 – with Michael Sheen previewing his talents for impressionism before his breakthrough performance as Tony Blair in The Queen – some of Britain’s rising stars have queued up to portray the untold story of the nation’s entertainers.

In 2008, BBC4 broadcast a whole mini-series, ‘The Curse Of’, which took a classic tears-of-the-clown approach to some of its icons, aiming to offer fresh psychological light on characters such as Tony Hancock, Hughie Green, Frankie Howerd and the stars of Steptoe & Son. It has continued to return to the format ever since, encompassing Williams’ ‘Carry On’ co-star Hattie Jacques, Gracie Fields and, most recently, Kenny Everett with In The Best Possible Taste. They even eulogised the birth of ITV’s Coronation Street. The Everett one, somewhat ironically, was screened the same night as the now notorious ITV1 Exposure doc on Savile.

Such biopics are always strangely compelling, self-referential affairs. They often earn plaudits for the main actor’s Stars In Their Eyes-style impersonation rather than for revealing anything new about their subjects. Many of the dark sides in question were already fairly common knowledge: a portrait of legendarily depressive comic Tony Hancock as a depressive drunk was hardly an eye-opener; Hughie Green’s dissolute off-screen life was kept fresh in the public’s mind by the equally tragic life of his illegitimate daughter Paula Yates. Occasionally they offer a fascinating insight – the discovery that Harry H Corbett (the son in Steptoe & Son) was on course to become Britain’s Brando before finding TV stardom – but really they’re simply a serious, middle-class version of rubbernecking and peering into the tawdry lives of the stars involved.

Perhaps aware of this tendency, in recent years they’ve tended to focus more on rehabilitating reputations rather than destroying them. While the sordid private lives of Williams and the ‘Carry On’ team were well known, for instance, Ruth Jones actually recast Hattie Jacques as an unconventional bohemian rather than unhappy victim. The Road to Coronation Street told a sprightly tale of how the long-running soap emerged from a period of rich televisual experimentation and high-minded Brechtian ambition that would be difficult to reconcile with today’s incarnation of the show. In The Best Possible Taste, meanwhile, sought to shift the focus on Everett and partner-in-crime Freddie Mercury from the pieties of AIDS victims and repressed sexuality into a celebration of youthful hedonism and sexual experimentation.

Yet even when the intent behind them is engaging, such exercises in faction rarely escape the sense of glossy pantomime: attempting to compress the complexities of famous lives into 90 minutes means that details are glossed over or made up for dramatic effect (the DVD version of the Steptoe film was withdrawn from sale due to a dispute over its accuracy). All of which is fine in straight-up drama. But as we are discovering, the reality of celebrity lives is that they are too unusual, and take place in such a removed and cosseted world, to have much appeal to the universal or shared experience.

It might be assumed that the Savile case will kill off such frothy biopics on the compliance-conscious Beeb, which is no great dramatic shame, but might represent a further institutional one. More pertinently, however, the failure of reality to translate into successful televisual plays might also act as a warning to those who are so keen to turn the extraordinary and depressing case of Savile into a morality play of our times. You suspect that, unless a degree of perspective is offered, the BBC will emerge from this latest scandal – as it did from the furore over Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand’s hounding of Andrew Sachs – chastened but not necessarily better.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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