The BBC Jimmy Savile drama missed a chance to tell the real story of child sexual abuse | Sonia Sodha

Jimmy Savile, one of Britain’s most prolific child sexual abusers, never faced trial for his crimes. He died a national treasure, crowds flocking to pay respect to his funeral cortege, his life celebrated with a special BBC tribute. It is a plot familiar to so many survivors of child sex abuse: perpetrators go to the grave with reputations intact; children carry the burden for the rest of their lives.

The creators of a new BBC drama about Savile, The Reckoning, have a noble aim: they have spoken of it as a posthumous trial. But its blend of re-enactment and fiction left me feeling like a voyeur, not a participant in a collective act of accountability. It was so obviously a partial story of how Savile got away with it that centred on one person only – Savile – and spent too little time on the stories of those he abused, those who looked the other way, and how the horrifying extent of his crimes was eventually pieced together.

Done right, drama can be a powerful tool for truth telling, not least because it can reach a wide audience. But there are myriad risks involved in dramatising real-world abuse: that it muddies rather than clarifies, further traumatises survivors, and tips into privileging entertainment or even titillation over accuracy. Laser-clear objectives are required to help navigate the tension between objective depiction and the need for a gripping narrative that drives much of the true-crime genre. Is its purpose to tell an important story that has gone unheard? To give survivors a voice? To help viewers understand a phenomenon to prevent it happening again? And: is a fictionlised drama the right vehicle to navigate such difficult terrain?

That last question is why I felt queasy about this venture from the start. It was commissioned, aired and promoted by the BBC, notoriously complicit in Savile’s abuse during his decades-long tenure as its star presenter. Even the fact it would obviously stand accused of making entertainment out of one of the most terrible episodes in its own history should have given pause for thought about whether it would be fair to survivors to embark on this project. Why not hold itself to account in other ways? The project hints at a continuing institutional arrogance. And more than 10 years after the groundbreaking journalism by BBC reporters that started exposing Savile for what he was – journalism the broadcaster itself tried to shut down, as detailed in an enraging Guardian long read by Poppy Sebag-Montefiore – plenty is now known about how he got away with it, including revelations contained in a two-part Netflix documentary.

The project’s flawed ambition carries through into its execution. There are several indications that it is first and foremost a story of a notorious paedophile, not an honest, holistic account of how institutional child abuse happens. First is the jaw-dropping decision to stop at Savile’s death. You can’t understand the Savile story without understanding how the BBC acted to suppress the truth after he died. I don’t think this is the BBC deliberately sparing itself, but it speaks to a greater concern for dramatic consideration than telling the full story.

Second is the way in which the stories of the four survivors involved feel secondary to the Savile-centred plot. They speak bravely and movingly in interview clips that bookend the episodes in what are undoubtedly the most important parts of the programme. But they are too short, and in the drama you feel their stories and what happened to them after the abuse matter less than the unswerving focus on Savile and the fictional allusion to why he did it. I cannot understand the decision to follow Savile around rather than tell the story from the survivors’ vantage point: even in the interviews they are presented two-dimensionally as victims, which fails to challenge viewer prejudice by showing they are so much more.

I worry the emphasis on Savile, his fame and his oddities risks leaving viewers with the wrong message about child sexual abuse. We are never allowed to forget the extraordinary social power Savile amassed or the bachelor status that gets mentioned several times an episode. But child sexual abuse is a devastatingly ordinary phenomenon: the CSA centre estimates at least 15% of girls and 5% of boys experience it before the age of 16. Yes, the men who perpetrate it may rely on their charisma to silence bystanders but they won’t all be friends with prime ministers or social oddballs and the drama leaves the impression child sexual abuse is part of our past not our present.

One of the survivors who took part explicitly says she did so to prevent such abuse from happening again; it is the thing that drives many to speak out in adulthood. In missing an important opportunity to properly explore why survivors feel they can’t tell anyone, why children who disclose are more likely to do so through non-verbal cues that we are bad at detecting, and why other adults look the other way even when things are known – and why this is still happening today – the BBC has let them down.

This is a great shame, because it has sometimes done it exceptionally well; such as in Floodlights (2022), a drama about football coach Barry Bennell’s child abuse, and Three Girls (2017), which told the story of the Rochdale child sexual abuse gangs. But these told the story from the perspective of survivors: Three Girls writer Nicole Taylor has spoken about how their objective was to expose the awful power dynamics and classism that enabled the perpetrators to abuse, and to increase awareness of the signs of sexual exploitation among parents and young people.

There is huge imbalance between the attention paid to institutional child abuse and the even more neglected subject of child sexual abuse within families: the more taboo yet more common form of child sexual abuse. As a society, we tend to fool ourselves it is perpetrated by evil people who are nothing like us, to children of the past or other places, rather than by familiar men to children we know. I can’t help but feel that if the BBC had really wanted to make a brave and conversation-changing drama about child sexual abuse, it would have told a different story to force viewers to confront this lie that makes adults feel better, but enables abusers to get away with it. That would have been the true reckoning.

Sonia Sodha is an Observer columnist

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