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Jimmy Savile and me: ‘I’m not a victim or a survivor. I’m a target. I feel so much better using that term’
As a new documentary examines the society-wide failings that allowed Jimmy Savile to continue his monstrous crimes for decades, Rosa Silverman talks to Dee Coles, whose life he changed for ever
At 14, Dee Coles was what she calls an ‘unworldly’ child. A well-regarded pupil at a small private school in Brighton, she enjoyed a close relationship with her mother, a nurse from Belfast. ‘My mum and I were a unit,’ she remembers.
The teenage Coles was excelling at school, so, in August 1972, her mother rewarded her with a holiday to wherever she wished. Coles chose a hotel in Jersey, because ‘it seemed really exotic. I’d never stayed at a hotel.’
She could not have known that a certain famed entertainer would be staying on the Channel Island too, his camper van parked outside their accommodation. Jimmy Savile, then aged 45, was to be the celebrity guest at the local Battle of Flowers carnival.
Coles was a pop-music fan. Like most children of the time, she was familiar with Savile’s larger-than-life, cigar-chomping persona. She had seen him presenting Top of the Pops. Yet her mother was the one who was starstruck when he appeared in the hotel dining room on the first night of their stay.
‘He was in his trademark gold lamé shorts and vest, which was outrageous in a posh restaurant,’ says Coles. ‘He flirted with my mum; it was all, “Who’s your sister?” and I was so embarrassed.’
There were only three children in the restaurant: Coles at one table and, at another, a girl the same age as her, and her brother, on holiday with their parents. Savile had made a beeline for Coles and her mother.
‘My therapist talks about me not being a victim or a survivor but a target, and I feel so much better using that term,’ says the 64-year-old, who lives in West Sussex.
It’s impossible to hear Coles’s story without a growing feeling of horror at what was about to unfold: a devastating attack on a child by a man who, decades later, was declared one of the most prolific sexual predators Britain has ever known. The experience would alter the course of Coles’s whole life, just as similar acts by Savile would blight the lives of hundreds of others down the years.
Today, almost a decade after his death, Discovery+ releases a documentary, Jimmy Savile: The People Who Knew, in which Coles relives what happened to her. Speaking to me over Zoom beforehand, she tells me her excruciating story.
Since their parents had decided the children should ‘buddy up’, Coles and the other girl at the hotel set off after breakfast for the beach. Their route led through the hotel car park, where Savile’s camper van stood.
‘He came out and stopped us, and was chatting,’ says Coles. ‘I had a camera, so he took it and gave it to the other girl and got her to take photos of him and me. That got more and more uncomfortable. It progressed to him putting his arms around me, standing behind me, putting his arms around my neck, thrusting his leg between my legs, taking his vest off, and I felt really uncomfortable now. Even though he wasn’t big, he was strong. I can still feel what it was like when his arms were around my neck.’
Savile invited them inside the camper. ‘I didn’t say yes because I was dead excited [by the prospect], it was, “Let’s do that and then we can go,”’ Coles recalls. ‘And that was that.’
Savile ushered the girls into the van – and then, in a flash, his demeanour changed entirely. ‘He pushed me [inside], slammed the door and very obviously locked it,’ says Coles. ‘Then he was as different as night from day: really aggressive, really manic [and laughing] that horrible laugh.’
Savile pushed her on to a bench seat, while the other girl sat opposite.
‘It was a strange mix of him being very complimentary but also really aggressive, so none of this made sense. He shoved his hand up my T-shirt, down my pants, put my hand down his shorts and was kissing me.’ Coles remembers the taste of cigars. ‘He put his hand at the back of my head, had a handful of my hair and was yanking me towards him, and I was crying. He then orally raped me and shoved his fingers inside me.’ She couldn’t say how long it continued, but she knows it was not over quickly. ‘I thought I was going to die. It was really violent, and I couldn’t breathe.’
Eventually, Savile opened the door, pushed both children outside and laughed as they left. The other girl fled without a word and Coles never spoke to her again. In a daze, she returned to her room. There was no language she knew to describe what had been done to her. ‘I would not have been able to say, “I’ve just been raped and sexually assaulted,”’ she says. ‘I wouldn’t have thought that was sex.’
Coles never told her mother, who died in 1999. ‘It would have destroyed her,’ she says. Until she broke her silence in October 2012, speaking to ITV News just after the channel had revealed the truth about Savile, she never told anyone at all, convinced – as so many others were – she wouldn’t be believed.
Hours after the attack, Savile was back in the hotel restaurant, flirting with Coles’s mother again and touching Coles’s face. Coles couldn’t eat or speak, much to her mother’s annoyance. Why wasn’t her daughter enjoying the holiday? She didn’t realise what the jocular star, who was working his charm on her, had done to her daughter that morning. Nor was he finished with Coles yet.
The following morning, as she walked through the car park, Savile called out to her: ‘You forgot something.’ He then flashed her as he laughed. Anyone could have seen him. But Savile did not care. He’d become untouchable long ago, and would remain so for the lifetime he spent hiding in plain sight. As Met commander Peter Spindler, who led the police investigation into Savile’s crimes after his death, said in 2013, Savile ‘groomed a nation’.
But why did the country allow it to happen? And how complicit were we all?
‘What I lost on that day and haven’t got back is trust… I couldn’t trust the world’
It’s not as if no one came forward to blow the whistle. The first complaint made against Savile came in 1955; the last in 2009. For more than half a century, he continued his spree of sexual violence, mostly, though not always, targeting girls under 16. A 2013 report into his offending found that his victims numbered an estimated 450, almost a fifth of whom were boys. The following year, an NSPCC study put the figure at at least 500, with some as young as two. He is understood to have targeted people in hospital as old as 75. One victim was a dying child. He committed his crimes at the BBC; at Leeds General Infirmary (LGI); and at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, where he volunteered and raised money. He attacked children at Duncroft school in Surrey, at Broadmoor Hospital in Berkshire, and elsewhere.
In 1990, Savile was honoured with a knighthood for services to charity. Somehow a man of no discernible talent had managed to inveigle himself into the heart of the British establishment, using the Royal family, Margaret Thatcher (to whom he cosied up), the NHS and the BBC as a cover for abominable crimes.
‘Everyone knew’, suspected, or had heard a story is the constant refrain today. As is shown, devastatingly, in the new documentary, his behaviour was an open secret. Yet when he died, aged 84, in October 2011, Savile was eulogised for his fundraising feats. In his home city of Leeds, where West Yorkshire Police officers had attended get-togethers at his flat, he was given a hero’s funeral.
I grew up a mile from his home in Leeds. Aged 21, I took a summer job at his favourite local restaurant and was introduced to him. I told him my grandparents lived in a flat beneath his (they knew him as an eccentric but friendly neighbour), and he invited me to come up to the penthouse next time I visited. I smiled politely, but inwardly I shuddered. I knew about his reputation. Ask almost anyone from North Leeds and they’ll have a story to tell. The rumours were so familiar that the unalloyed praise when he died left me baffled.
But if so many of us knew when Savile was alive, why wasn’t he stopped? And could hundreds of victims have been spared? The documentary, which investigates who knew the truth about Savile’s crimes and includes testimony from survivors and whistleblowers, makes clear the answer is yes.
Jimmy Savile’s story began in West Yorkshire. Born in Leeds in 1926, the youngest of seven children, he worked down a coal mine as a ‘Bevin Boy’ in his teens. After the war he became a dance-hall DJ and manager. Right from the beginning of his career his violent and intimidating side was apparent: he later boasted that he’d lock troublemakers at his venue in the basement.
When he was 28, managing a Manchester dance hall, someone made a complaint of sexual abuse against him. As would happen again and again, it was dismissed. Savile had a knack for self-promotion and drew in crowds. Meirion Jones, a journalist who worked on a BBC investigation into Savile that was spiked in 2011, tells the documentary, ‘Mecca, which owned a lot of these halls, warned senior executives not to let their young daughters anywhere near Savile – [but] they carried on employing him and paying him loads of money.’ Jones cites claims that Savile was ‘buying his way out of trouble’ with police.
In his 1974 autobiography, Savile himself shed light on how he evaded justice during this early period. Writing about a girl who had fled from a remand home and ended up at the Mecca Locarno ballroom in Leeds, where Savile worked, he describes how he handed her over to a female police officer the next day, after bringing her home with him. The officer ‘was dissuaded from bringing charges against me by her colleagues,’ he writes, ‘for it was well known that, were I to go, I would probably take half the station with me.’
Savile befriended local officers and is said to have raised money for police charities, creating the conditions for his impunity.
This was the 1950s. By the end of the decade Savile had made a name for himself Djing on Radio Luxembourg, and when Beatlemania arrived, he rode the considerable crest of the pop-culture wave. He hosted the inaugural Top of the Pops in 1964.
But, it is believed, Savile had already committed 30 rapes and other sexual offences by the mid-1960s. Young female staffers on Top of the Pops avoided going near him. One of them, Nicola, tells the documentary: ‘We were told not to.’ She says Savile would ask male colleagues to pick out ‘the youngest and prettiest girls’ to send to his dressing room.
In 1976, a young woman in the crowd on the show complained to a crew member that Savile had put his hand under her bottom as the cameras rolled. Footage shows her jumping from him in shock. The response? It was ‘just Jimmy Savile mucking about’.
By then Savile was well-established, not only as a media personality with his own television show (Jim’ll Fix It first aired in 1975), but as a charity fundraiser. In 1960 he started visiting the Leeds General Infirmary, cheering up the sick, and raising money for the hospital. He became a volunteer porter there in 1968, a role he continued into the 1990s.
In the late 1960s, he started volunteering at Stoke Mandeville, where he raised millions to build the National Spinal Injuries Centre, opened by the Prince and Princess of Wales in 1983. He also became ‘voluntary assistant entertainments officer’ at Broadmoor, the high-security psychiatric hospital. By 1988, he not only had his own room in the hospital and keys to the wards, but he even gained a management position. Here, as elsewhere, he had access to vulnerable people over decades.
Naomi Stanley, a psychiatric nurse, tried to blow the whistle in the 1980s on Savile’s abuse at Broadmoor, where he is believed to have attacked at least five individuals. Stanley, who worked elsewhere, had been told by a former Broadmoor patient that Savile was sexually abusing young women there, and raised her concerns. To no avail. ‘Savile,’ said a 2014
Department of Health report on his offending at Broadmoor, ‘could be charming and persuasive, at least to some, but at the same time he was grandiose, narcissistic, arrogant and lacking any empathy. He was also very manipulative, and many staff were convinced that he had close connections in high places and had the power to have them dismissed.’
In the mid-1990s, two former pupils at Duncroft, an approved school for ‘emotionally disturbed’ girls, spoke to a tabloid newspaper about Savile’s abuse of them during visits. They lost their nerve before publication and the story never ran. But Paul Connew, then editor of the Sunday Mirror, alerted a senior member of the Metropolitan Police. He says the police did not want to know.
Surrey Police did interview Savile under caution in 2009 about allegations from former Duncroft pupils. But Savile dismissed the claims, countering that his accusers were after money, and dropping dark hints about his powerful allies. He was never charged with any sexual offences.
No one wanted to turn off the taps of Savile’s fundraising. The man dubbed ‘Saint Jimmy’ raised £40 million for good causes. Not only that, but Savile had money and he was friends with the rich and powerful. No one wanted to put their neck on the line.
There is cause for collective shame when it comes to Savile. It is the cultural backdrop: of victims – the most vulnerable especially – not being believed, or being blamed; of paedophilia brushed under the carpet by a deferential society that couldn’t or wouldn’t face up to it; of powerful men not being held to account; and of a lucrative show-business scene that was arguably out of control, at least in parts. Operation Yewtree, the belated police response launched in October 2012 to investigate Savile’s abuse and that of other high-profile figures, revealed he was not the only bad apple: it led to 19 arrests and seven convictions, with Rolf Harris and Gary Glitter among those found guilty of assaults.
‘It was a well-known fact Savile was into young girls,’ says David Bret, who worked as a management services officer at the LGI. ‘We were never sure if he was abusing them.’ Such was his fame, onlookers thought, that young girls ‘might well have yielded willingly. Of course, we now know the truth.’
Before meeting Savile, Dee Coles had dreamed of attending university, becoming a teacher, marrying and having children. None of these dreams came true. She never returned to school.
At 15, Coles moved out and into a series of squats, using drugs to numb her pain. She tried to take her own life several times during her teens. ‘I just didn’t want to be here,’ she says. ‘What I lost on that day and still haven’t got back is trust. Obviously I couldn’t trust [Savile]; I couldn’t trust myself [because] how had that even happened? I couldn’t trust the world, couldn’t trust my mum.’
At 18 she moved back home after an arrest for shoplifting. She managed to come off drugs. But it wasn’t over. Her abuse has impacted sexual relationships throughout her life, as well as her mental health. She decided to speak out shortly after the scandal broke in September 2012. Until that point, she had assumed she was Savile’s only victim.
Today Coles lives with her dogs, working as a barber and volunteering for a helpline. She has a strong circle of friends. But, she feels, for survivors, ‘historical’ sexual abuse doesn’t remain in the past, it follows them.
As to whether the society that let Savile get away with his crimes has changed, she’s equivocal. ‘I don’t think there could be any one person [able to offend on that scale]. But there are still a lot of powerful people doing things; a lot of institutions choosing not to look. I don’t think it has gone.’
Jimmy Savile: The People Who Knew is available to stream exclusively on Discovery+ from today
No one wanted to turn off the taps of Savile’s fundraising or put their neck on the line