How Television Depicts the Controversy of Operation Yewtree
National Treasure is a critically acclaimed four part TV drama concluding next week starring Robbie Coltrane and Julie Walters. The BBC drama was written by Jack Thorne, also known for Skins and This is England, as well as Harry Potter and the Cursed Child; it is the first British drama to directly address Operation Yewtree.
The show explores what happens when Paul Finchley, a comic no longer at the height of fame, is accused of rape – and how this affects his immediate family and friends. Showing on Channel 4 at around the same time, Savile is a follow up to the documentary Theroux did in 2000 which was part of his When Louis Met… series. Channel 4 voted When Louis Met Jimmy one of the ‘Top 50 Documentaries’ of all time in 2005. Although National Treasure is based on fiction, the premise of the show relates to the Savile documentary in the sense that both are sympathetic to how the relations of those who are accused of paedophilia are affected. Both shows present a character who either doesn’t believe the accusations or who chose to overlook the rumours in an attempt to savour the good memories. Both are a portrayal of human behaviour and the coping mechanisms which come with this sort of unbearable crime.
It is easy to deduce that National Treasure has been a success and, arguably, this could be down to its controversial nature. Rather than just hinting at Operation Yewtree and the repercussions the British public have seen over the past five years, it directly addresses it, with Finchley even lamenting, ‘‘They think I’m Jimmy Savile’’. Whilst National Treasure definitely does focus on the accusations surrounding the comic, it also looks at the bigger picture and as Julie Walters, Robbie Coltrane’s steadfast and stoic wife Marie and arguably the star of the show, has expressed, National Treasure is about the ‘‘human stuff’’. Director Marc Munden, thoroughly explores this idea and, in the same vein as Savile looks at how those around the accused are affected by the charges. I particularly liked the way each episode focuses on a different person with the first focusing on Paul and the original accusations with the following two episodes focusing on his daughter and wife respectively and how the claims affect them and their relationship with the disgraced comedian.
National Treasure can be seen as latest in a long line of true-crime inspired dramas, comparable to The People VS OJ Simpson as well as ITV’s hit Broadchurch. In my opinion, this is a strength of both Munden and Thorne, showing their ability to keep the audience enthralled. Whilst it is quickly revealed that the anxiety-ridden Paul is definitely an unsavoury character, having embarked on multiple affairs during his marriage, one of which takes place within days of being accused, they also still manage to make the audience unsure if he really is guilty or not. Whilst he advocates his innocence, his unsavoury nature makes it difficult for the audience, and the general public in the show, to believe him, but at the same time, he still appears as a sympathetic character at multiple points throughout the series.
Overall, National Treasure is a thought-provoking, albeit controversial piece, which is worthy of its acclaim. Whilst the acting is stellar, what must be commended is the bravery of its creators to broach such an important subject which traditional media seems to have shied away from. Its importance is highlighted due to it airing around the same time as Savile, and the very recent conviction of former BBC DJ Chris Denning, once again bringing to light a topic which should not be allowed to be forgotten.
When Louis met Jimmy was made in 2000, before the truth about Jimmy Savile was known to the public. The documentary paints Jimmy Savile as a weird, eccentric and extremely confident character and contributed to what the majority of people already thought of him.
What was also showcased was the friendship made between Jimmy and Louis; where they would joke, hang out in the garden and generally get to know each other. 16 years later, in a context where everyone is aware of what Savile really was, Theroux has made a follow-up documentary exploring his role as someone who knew Savile relatively well but was unable to see the truth.
You can’t help but feel angry and unsettled when watching Louis, who is loved by so many, acting amiably towards a man who should’ve been treated far less than that. But the point is he didn’t know; he even asked and wasn’t told the truth. That is one of the most significant scenes of the 2001 documentary, when Louis directly asks Jimmy about the rumours, to which Jimmy replies by questioning how anybody would know if he was or wasn’t, which in itself creates an ominous air.
Savile constantly refers back to shots of the prior documentary. This is so powerful because what was overlooked in 2000 now has an intensely sinister meaning. One uncomfortable example was a shot where Jimmy is holding two young girls inappropriately and the camera pans round to show Louis take no notice and smile at something else. That’s part of why you watch the documentary in disbelief, because all the signs seem so obvious. But it’s easy for it to seem obvious when we already know.
Something that I definitely wasn’t expecting was interviews from people who knew Savile, but who seemed to not want to believe the truth. Despite the piles and piles of evidence, some disregarded the truth simply because they didn’t see it themselves. Sylvia Nicol for example, who worked with Savile in Stoke Mandeville hospital, said she “only saw the good in Jimmy Savile” and tried to only know the “good”. This is described as a coping mechanism, as is explored in National Treasure.
The 2016 documentary also sympathises with what it was like for those who did know the truth. Theroux asks what the victims thought of the documentary, to which the general consensus was sympathy towards Theroux himself as they knew he was being lied to. The concept of the victims, after describing the harrowing acts Savile did to them, being sympathetic to Louis and asking him how he feels signifies the kind of camaraderie that has taken place between all of Savile’s victims, regardless of how minor or drastic his effect was on them.
The documentary has been critiqued for not succeeding in trying to find out why and how Savile got away with so much. These reasons are said to have been explored better through National Treasure. Personally, I don’t think trying to find out ‘why’ matters. I think what’s most important is that victims are able to use the documentary as a platform to voice their experience in a way they weren’t allowed to before, in an attempt to move forward with their lives that have been ripped apart by Jimmy Savile.
Despite National Treasure being a fictional drama, it is obviously based on true events, highlighted by the constant referencing throughout the show to Operation Yewtree and offenders like Savile and Rolf Harris. This, together with the arguably well-timed airing of Savile, goes to show how important it is to keep this conversation open, particularly in how the allegations affect those who are involved with the accused, something both Theroux and Munden do exceptionally well.
Jess Daley and Daisy Scott
Image: Radio Times