LONDON, UK — On Saturday evenings for nearly two decades, most families in Britain would welcome a predatory child abuser into their homes. Although he was only an image on a television screen, they would smile with him as if he were a cherished uncle. Children wrote him letters telling him about their dreams.
For anyone who didn't grow up in the UK in the 1970s and ‘80s, it may be hard to comprehend the extent to which the Jimmy Savile sex scandal has shocked, saddened and transfixed the country.
Outsiders may appreciate that something awful has taken place: a TV presenter accused of sexually assaulting at least 300 youngsters is an appalling story in any context. But the mere facts of the case significantly understate the scandal’s deep cultural impact.
To comprehend the power Savile — who died last year aged 84 — exerted over a huge proportion of the country's population, one must appreciate the unusual relationship he had with his public.
Comparisons with popular American personalities don't do him justice. He shared Dick Clark’s broad appeal and showbiz longevity. The radio career Savile enjoyed in tandem with his television work puts him on a par with the DJ Kasey Casem. The sex-attack revelations have prompted comparisons with Jerry Sandusky, the Pennsylvania State University coach convicted of 45 counts of child abuse.
Savile was all those and much more, a towering presence in British entertainment, a lurid figure whose outlandish appearance was as compelling as it was disturbing.
Savile’s fame bought him access to many vulnerable people who would become his victims: innocent young girls who flocked to his dressing rooms, students and patients at the schools and hospitals that benefited from his charity work. It also bought entrée to millions of childish hearts.
Like many British people, I grew up in Savile’s shadow. I was one of the of the millions who curled up in front of the television set on Saturday evenings to watch "Jim'll Fix It," a BBC show in which Savile, usually attired in a gold lamé track suit, turned children's dreams into reality.
Although only a few decades ago, it was a different time, when Britain was a country synchronized by its viewing habits. In the 1970s, we were limited to three television channels that catered to young people for a just few hours a day. Whenever Savile appeared, yodeling in a coarse Yorkshire accent and chomping on a large cigar, he had a captive audience.
But Savile continued to exert an influence over us even as we grew older, as part of our shared childhood. We continued to amuse each other by impersonating his voice and repeating his meaningless catchphrases: "Now then, now then. As it happens. Goodness gracious. How's about that then?" Sometimes we gave the voices a menacing edge.
Savile never really went away. He continued to appear regularly on television until the late 1990s. His relentless charity work, which saw him run dozens of marathons even in old age, took him across the country. It was often hard to avoid him.
I'm sure I am not unique in having crossed paths with Savile several times during the past 30 years. Perhaps less common is the mild obsession I developed about him in my late teens, partly because of the peculiar sense of humor I had around that time, and partly because I found him a darkly fascinating character.
I was probably one of the few who didn't write to his show for a "fix it" as a child, largely because my dream of becoming a highwayman had already been granted to another kid. I later discovered my first girlfriend had not only written to Savile, but featured on his show, singing in a cathedral.
That didn’t stop me seeking him out. Savile was born and lived in Leeds, a large city a few miles my home in York. To relieve the teenage suburban boredom of school vacations, a couple of like-minded friends and I would sometimes catch the train to Leeds to try to spot him.
Wearing cotton wool wigs made to resemble Savile's strange mane of blond hair, we would pretend to puff on cigars. We even made posters advertising our "Jimmy Savile Days." Once we rang his doorbell and ran away. Another time we left an address on his car windscreen and duly received an autographed photo.
It all seemed very funny at the time. As did our increasingly creepy Savile impersonations in which we voiced him inviting young girls to sit on his knee. Our puerile innuendos obviously picked up on something about his personality, even though we were oblivious to the fact that he was really guilty far worse.
I had more Savile encounters in my 20s. I once entered a half-marathon for which I was hopelessly unfit. As I neared the 10-mile marker, an elderly Savile trotted past, cheered on by the crowd. I was quite impressed at the time, as when I subsequently read in his autobiography that he had once cycled to France.
A few years later, I dated a trainee nurse who sometimes worked at a Leeds hospital where Savile volunteered as a porter. She confirmed that there were whispers about Savile using his access to commit unspeakable acts on corpses in the hospital morgue.
Such rumors were entertaining at the time because they were almost, but not quite, believable. Today, with allegations emerging daily about his activities — including one claim of necrophilia — they now seem disturbingly true.
I came across Savile on other occasions when I was working as a junior reporter in and around Yorkshire. He once burst into a restaurant where I was having lunch with a contact. Evidently used to his relentlessly wandering hands and obnoxious chatter, the waitstaff greeted him with a curious mix of affection and sufferance.
In 1997, while working for a regional press agency that supplied stories to national newspapers in London, I was dispatched to a hospital where Savile was undergoing quadruple heart-bypass surgery. A half-dozen reporters and a couple of TV crews were camped outside.
Starved of any actual news, some journalists could be heard phoning imaginary, but not unbelievable, details back to their news desks. "Doctors say Jimmy is on the road to recovery, he's asking for cigars and squeezing nurses' bottoms..."
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When Savile died late last year, many of those memories came flooding back. I got back in touch with my old Savile Day pals and we swapped photographs of ourselves goofing about with our wigs and cigars. We talked about how odd he was — but there was a sense of affection we shared with millions of others in the UK.
The sex scandal that has emerged over the past few weeks has transformed that affection into disgust. Crimes that were clearly horrific have been rendered even more so because Savile let us all down so badly.
But it’s worse than that. The rumors, innuendoes and jokes show that we suspected all along, but had invested too much emotion in our cherished uncle Jimmy to do anything more than laugh it off. That makes the truth so much harder to bear.