An Afternoon With Jimmy
I haven’t blogged for a while but there’s nothing quite like the death of a celebrity that you have an anecdote about to bring a blogger back to his keyboard. I’ve written this tale before, so forgive me if I recount again the tale of when I was put into a headlock by an elderly man with muscles like power cables.
A few years back, I actually came pretty close to a career in journalism, or at least I thought I had. I was hired by a small company in Leeds to be first a writer for, then editor of, a publication called the Asian Express. Not being Asian myself I had a few misgivings about my ability to relate to the subject matter, but given this was largely an exercise in slightly rewriting the press releases that emanated from local organisations, and because a writing job is a writing job, I took it. It turned out to be a fairly unmitigated disaster, but that’s another, much duller story.
One of my first assignments with the paper did provide respite from the relentless churnalism however, when I was asked to interview Jimmy Saville. Again, a strange thing to do for an Asian newspaper, but apparently he was due to open a new community centre or some such. Jimmy had always been really active in community politics in Leeds, so along I trundled. As always I was to be both reporter and photographer (and editor and everything else), and when I got to the venue Jimmy was running late, so I got chatting to a few of the assembled crowd, all of them delighted to be meeting Jimmy, who had a genuine standing within the Asian community of West Yorkshire.
After an hour or so of waiting, Jimmy turned up suddenly with no announcement, other than to stand at the doors and say loudly through a cigar filled mouth; ‘Now then, now then.’ The crowd went as bonkers as a collection of middle aged Asian businessmen and their wives can reasonably be expected to go. I started snapping some pics, happy for Jimmy to make his way to me eventually.
This was my first time ever interviewing a celebrity outside of the music scene, and I have to admit I was a bit nervous. I mean, Jimmy Saville. A bona fide celebrity in the way that someone can only really be when you grow up seeing them every week on your telly. As he made his way over to me I panicked slightly and blurted out the first question that popped into my head: ‘So Jimmy, how come you never replied to the letter I sent you?’
It seemed quite erudite and witty in my head, but as soon as I said it I felt an utter buffoon and Jimmy fixed me with a look that showed exactly how many times he’d heard it. Quick as a flash the look was gone and he smiled that big silly grin of his and replied; ‘Because you forgot to put a stamp on it.’
Pleasantries exchanged and ice awkwardly broken, we continued with the rest of the interview, with both of us enjoying the fact that this was a puff piece of zero consequence. I found him to be a bit odd but hugely likable. I commented on how fit he looked (not like that) and he told me all about the marathons he runs each year, and about his time as a wrestler. He was very happy to talk around his charity work but I sensed his now waning TV career was off the agenda. Every time I brought it up he deftly brought the subject back round to what he wanted to talk about, and this being a puff piece I was happy to indulge him.
Once the interview was over, the organisers of the event were hovering close by, clearly wanting to be photographed by me so as to appear in the paper. I obliged, and as soon as I was finished, Jimmy motioned that I should get a photo with him. ‘I’m sure you want a photo with me!’ he said, and he had a point, although this instantly dissipated any sense of journalistic integrity I was clinging onto. I found someone who was willing to take the shot and went over to Jimmy.
I stood next to him, giving my best ‘look, I’m with Jimmy Saville’ expression, when suddenly his arm went around my neck and placed me into a rock-solid headlock, and not in a playful, ‘hey hey’ kind of way. This was a death grip of the kind that was probably used as a finishing move inside the wrestling ring. I grasped his arm and tried to remove it but it was like a steel cable around my neck. I tried to maintain a smile on my face despite being unable to breathe and being aware that I was being strangled by an old man in a shell suit and peroxide straggly hair while a small Indian man took a photo.
After the photo was taken Jimmy released me and patted me on the back, while I spluttered for air. ‘Nice to meet you,’ he said and then he was gone, with me bent double, trying hard to remember how to breathe normally.
And that was it, my afternoon with Jimmy Saville. Looking back now he was every bit as odd as you would expect, and there were little flashes of the unsettling creepiness that Louis Theroux would later hang a documentary around, but then at the same time there was the man very clearly plugged into a sense of community and charity.
Unfortunately, when I left the company many months later, I forgot to take the photo with me, and so I have no photographic proof of the incident, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. In the days since I heard about his death in the now traditional manner of seeing a joke about it on Twitter, I’ve searched through countless old discs to find it but to no avail, which is a shame.
I was certainly not close to the man, and can’t say I was ever really a fan of his, but I was saddened by the news of his death. I think the fabric of British Eccentricity lost a thread this week, the kind of man who liked to put nervous journalists into a headlock.
Rest in peace you magnificently strong old lunatic.