EXCLUSIVE: Sam Brown vividly recalls her visceral reaction to Steve Coogan. The BAFTA-winning actor was fresh from shooting a scene when he walked across a Cheshire graveyard in her direction.
With lightning-white hair, makeup, and in full costume, Coogan was unmistakably the image of Jimmy Savile, the BBC presenter who repeatedly abused Brown when she was just a child. Brown arrived at the encounter determined to face the specter of her late tormenter, but nothing could prepare her for the “powerful” jolt that shot through her body as Coogan approached.
“As he was walking towards me, in my head I was thinking, ‘No, go away.’ I kept thinking, ‘Go away.’ Seemingly this wasn’t kept in my head. I was saying all of this [out loud] and didn’t realize I was bloody saying it. I was so embarrassed,” she remembers.
Brown was one of a number of Savile survivors welcomed onto the set of The Reckoning, the four-part BBC series that dramatizes the life of the pedophile who hoodwinked a nation. The visits were part of a careful strategy to win the trust of survivors so that their stories of unimaginable horror could be brought to the screen responsibly.
The duty of care burden weighs heavily on the BBC after Savile abused at least 72 people in connection with his work for the broadcaster, according to a 2016 inquiry. The prospect of wronging these survivors for a second time is unthinkable for an organization that nearly imploded when the scale of Savile’s atrocities spilled out into the public domain in 2012.
It is difficult to overstate the shadow Savile casts over British history. He amassed power and wealth over an illustrious 50-year presenting career, cultivating a benevolent, philanthropic image that gave him access to prime ministers and royalty. It was only after his death that Savile was exposed as a mendacious predator and there was a reckoning for the institutions that enabled him to prey on vulnerable children.
Sources say that the BBC’s extensive behind-the-scenes checks are one reason why The Reckoning is yet to make it to screen, two-and-a-half years after it was first commissioned. The Sun and The Daily Mail are among those who have reported on delays to the series, while some have even speculated about it being shelved altogether.
The BBC addressed these rumors this week, committing to broadcast The Reckoning in 2023. Sources say the corporation is working towards a summer premiere, though a final date is yet to be decided.
Releasing The Reckoning will be the ultimate test of whether the BBC has done right by Savile’s survivors. But until then, two victims have spoken for the first time about their experience of working with producer Jeff Pope and writer Neil McKay to dramatize their memories. The duo agreed to speak to Deadline without consulting the BBC.
A BBC spokesperson says: “The team are working closely with many people whose lives were impacted by Savile to ensure their stories are told and reflected with sensitivity and respect.”
A Chance To “Stick Another Nail” In Savile
Brown says the BBC is right to confront its history. “It was important for them to take ownership and acceptance,” she says. Kevin Cook, who was abused by Savile on BBC premises, was equally enthusiastic. “If it’s going to stick another nail in him, then bloody good job,” he says over the phone.
Not all of Savile’s victims share their views. Early criticism of The Reckoning came from survivors who predict that watching Coogan in character will be like reliving their trauma all over again. There are seasoned UK drama producers who will tell you that they are flabbergasted at the BBC raking over the darkest hour in its history. The broadcaster has said that retelling the story is in the public interest.
Cook says that a decade on from Savile being unmasked, he continues to be shocked by revelations about the predator after recently watching Discovery+ documentary Jimmy Savile: The People Who Knew. “I was thinking, how the hell was I a victim when this was all known about Savile before I was abused,” he says incredulously.
Piers Wenger, the former BBC drama controller, and the man who commissioned The Reckoning, has said the drama sets out to answer a simple question: How did this happen?
Brown thinks audiences will respond differently to seeing Savile target children in The Reckoning because so many of his atrocities have been told through the eyes of adults recounting historical experiences. “It will be quite interesting,” she says, pondering whether it might provoke memories for those who knew Savile during his reign of terror. “Watch it and you might be that one person whose opinion changes.”
Survivors Felt Supported By Producers
Brown says she was abused by Savile at a chapel at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, where the presenter is thought to have preyed on at least 60 victims over the course of two decades. Aged 11 at the time of the first attack, Brown gave an eloquent and powerful account of her experience last year in the Netflix documentary, Jimmy Savile: A British Horror Story. She has nothing but praise for the Horror Story filmmakers at 72 Films, and she is equally glowing about the ITV Studios team behind The Reckoning.
“Neil [McKay] has been so supportive,” she explains. “We’ve been part of writing this story. Communication has been constant, it’s a very open forum between the whole crew. That’s the only way I will do these things now. With Neil, I could not have asked for any better.”
McKay is a specialist at bringing true-crime stories to the screen, winning a BAFTA in 2006 for his ITV limited series See No Evil: The Moors Murders, which recounted the killing of five children in the 1960s by Myra Hindley and Ian Brady.
Brown says she was paid for telling her story, with ITV Studios covering her expenses and her family’s loss of earnings for the time they spent with producers. A counselor has also been on hand throughout the entire process, which Brown says was a “really good” experience.
Cook also spoke of feeling supported. “They were really nice people. I’ve done 30 or 40 interviews [over the years], but they were the only ones who fed and watered me,” he says.
Cook appeared unsure, however, as to whether his story will make the final cut. “You know more than me,” he says after Deadline explains that his memories are likely to feature. Pope has shared with some industry peers a scene from The Reckoning that has striking similarities to Cook’s experience, suggesting that it is set to be included in the series. BBC insiders insist that the drama remains in post-production and is yet to be locked.
Describing the scene to Deadline, a source says it takes place on the set of Jim’ll Fix It, the children’s wish fulfillment show Savile hosted on the BBC for 20 seasons. Coogan’s Savile hands out a giant Jim’ll Fix It medal to a group of Scouts, but as the show wraps, he isolates one boy on set and asks if he wants his own medal. The camera follows them as they wind their way through the corridors of the BBC to a dressing room and fades to black. “It’s very difficult to watch,” our source says.
Cook was among the first male victims to talk publically and has since recounted his story on numerous occasions. “Jimmy came up to me and asked if I would like my own badge,” he told ITV’s This Morning in 2012. “We walked off the stage and I remember walking through a maze of corridors … and then we came to a door and went into a room … he pulled out a chair, asked me to sit down, and then he started the abuse.”
Coogan Morphs Into “Creepy” Savile
A second person who has seen footage from the series was staggered by the man playing Savile. “Coogan’s performance is extraordinary. He seems to morph into him,” the source says.
It explains Brown’s involuntary physical response to seeing Coogan on set. She recalls watching him film a scene, during which she was transported back to her youth because his performance was so startlingly “on point.”
“Oh my god, [he was] creepy, weird, awful, disgusting,” she explains. “The voice was the thing that gave me a proper shock, I’ve got to be honest, and I don’t get shocked by much anymore because I try my hardest not to. But that was difficult.”
Once Coogan had finished his scene and walked over to meet Brown, he dropped the Savile voice and repeatedly reminded her that he was an actor in costume. Brown was supported by her husband and members of the crew, who told her that she was under no pressure to meet Coogan. McKay has previously said survivors were allowed on set at their request and that appropriate safeguarding was in place.
Brown says she wanted to eyeball Coogan because it would make the experience of watching The Reckoning easier. She took the opportunity to ask him why he agreed to play Savile, and says that his answer was the deciding factor in her allowing producers to use her story.
“He said it took him six months to make his decision, talking back and forth with friends. He said everyone had a strong point of view on whether he should,” Brown recalls. “He answered in a way that I was comfortable with because I wanted to know all of that otherwise I would have just said: ‘It’s not for me then, just take my part out.’”
Cook did not visit the set and has not met Coogan, but says he will be satisfied if Savile is portrayed as the demon he was. Cook does think, however, that the Alan Partridge actor is opening himself up to “negative publicity” if the drama does not land in the way the BBC hopes.
Coogan has been contacted for comment. He told BBC Radio 5 Live last year that it was important to keep Savile fresh in the minds of viewers so that history does not repeat itself. He said The Reckoning walks a “tightrope” but will ultimately “vindicate” itself because of McKay’s sensitive handling of his subject matter. Brown and Cook suggest that their experiences are a testament to this.
But no matter how respectfully the BBC tells the stories of survivors, The Reckoning is unlikely to be a comfortable moment for the broadcaster. As one person who has seen some of the drama surmises: “It tells the story well, responsibly, and fairly. Though, of course, the BBC is always going to come out culpable.”