The Reckoning: Season 1 REVIEW – Horrible History

You may never look at Steve Coogan the same way again.

the reckoning

In many ways The Reckoning is intentionally frustrating, from the title on down, because – as the introductory stills make clear – there was no reckoning for Sir Jimmy Savile. He died a free man, and the sheer extent of his misdeeds was not officially acknowledged until over a year later, even though seemingly everyone knew, or at least suspected.

How could everyone be so sure? Possibly due to another infuriating aspect of the whole puzzle, Savile’s tendency of blithely dropping stomach-churning hints, only to then deny absolutely everything. The Reckoning makes much of this, drawing as it does on Dan Davies’s book ‘In Plain Sight: The Life And Lifes Of Jimmy Savile’ and Davies’s frustrated attempts to winkle out the truth make up the present-day strand of the narrative.

For probably related reasons, in large part it limits its focus to four specific victims, who appear as themselves providing retrospective commentary. When it has the actual people staring bleakly down the lens it feels exploitative, but when they actually speak it cannot help but carry a certain weight – most affecting is the moment when a person in late middle age tearfully pleads “don’t let it happen again”. This will make you either upset, angry, or both.

Likewise, The Reckoning makes very effective use of archive footage from the time. Godwin’s law be damned, seeing grainy old film of thousands of people cheering a man you know to be an irredeemable monster is an experience you can basically only liken to the planet’s most brutal dictators. Seeing the real Savile being welcomed into Buckingham Palace, it feels like a relief that Steve Coogan doesn’t actually resemble him that well.

Casting Coogan is a bit of a coup – not because he particularly resembles Savile, as he doesn’t, even with the wig. But Savile does resemble Coogan’s beloved comic character Alan Partridge in more than a few important ways: they’re both radio DJs, both relentless social climbers, and their outwardly avuncular nature is a gossamer-thin veneer of superficial charm over a nasty piece of work.

In short, Coogan works in this role for much the same reasons that he works as Alan Partridge. This is uncanny enough without him embodying Savile’s mannerisms – which at the time were put down to simple eccentricity, and now are a particularly dark punchline.

Partridge, at least, is just a bit of a prick. But Savile, as The Reckoning makes absolutely no bones about, was evil. And Savile’s own Catholic faith provides plenty of opportunity to invoke hellfire and damnation, which realistically is what the viewers will want for him from very early on.

But the real reckoning in play here is the show itself, which come the end is visibly stretching to depict Savile’s career decline as some kind of karmic comeuppance (as opposed to, for instance, being arrested and charged). And as a production of the BBC, the very organisation where many of Savile’s abuses took place, this can’t help but feel like a desperate mea culpa.

For a docu-drama that purports to explore how Savile managed to hide in plain sight, The Reckoning is alarmingly coy at times, providing all of two token nobodies who actually knew what was going on – while at the same time being very careful to assert that Savile’s close friend then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had absolutely no idea, and introducing Savile’s links with the man who is now King Charles III only to not explore these whatsoever.

(And apparently, nobody at the BBC had anything beyond suspicions – a narrative choice which may inspire a few suspicions of your own.)

To be sure, The Reckoning must be careful when dealing with those who could still crack them for libel (or indeed treason). And The Reckoning is in large parts a period piece, always a fun excuse to crack out the ‘70s cars, ‘70s wardrobes, and, not to forget, ‘70s sexism. It is this last that, as much as Savile, it places at the centre of events as being really to blame, a prevailing culture in which a bit of casual groping is simply laughed off.

And Savile is presented as simply a fact of life in the same way as the ‘70s sexism, with nurses advising their young patients simply not to be caught alone with him or otherwise to stay out of his way. Yet in the face of this, The Reckoning presents Savile as for all intents and purposes the only aberration in a world which apparently provides no shortage of opportunities for paedophiles and rapists. Supposedly, nobody else is covering for him, and Savile manages to hide in plain sight by simply issuing stone-faced denials.

If The Reckoning does manage to square this circle, it’s through that focus on those four actual victims. With this lens in play, it doesn’t get lost in the weeds trying to cover all the horrors Savile inflicted, and hence avoids becoming simply too dark to stomach. As we see Coogan grumble about, Jim’ll Fix It aired for nearly twenty years, and The Reckoning could presumably have filled its four hours with one unbroken, horrific string of abuses.

The BBC, at least, haven’t made that mistake again. But it does make clear that these four cases are merely the tip of the iceberg. And when it only brushes against Savile’s history down Stoke-Mandeville Hospital, while at the same time relating how the rumours were so widespread that a popular football chant of the day was “Jimmy Savile’ll fuck you in the morgue”, while it may not be the creators’ fault, it does clearly show that a lot’s being left unsaid.

Often, The Reckoning does honestly feel like the life and times of a has-been celeb, and of course this is what it is – but if you ever think “why are we watching an account of a creepy Northern guy who had a few TV shows” the “oh, right” is never far away. As a reckoning of that kind, the B-roll of a B-lister, for a man who was clearly so obsessed with his image, perhaps it lands a blow.

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the reckoning
A classic-model BBC period piece which suffers from faults of circumstance – you can see the holes where the missing pieces would go, but in context all those absent parts would either be legally actionable or far too horrifying to even go out after the watershed. The holes are papered over, though, by Coogan’s skin-crawling performance as the biggest monster to crawl out of the BBC’s light entertainment department.