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Steve Coogan: I’ve played a few real people in my time. Jimmy Savile is the worst

Steve Coogan as Jimmy Savile, courtesy BBC

Steve Coogan has admitted that his role as Jimmy Savile in the BBC’s The Reckoning, which debuts at 9pm tonight on BBC One and iPlayer, was “the worst” real-life persona he has ever taken on.

The actor is no stranger to playing real people, though the chances of previous roles, such as Factory Records boss Tony Wilson, campaigning journalist Martin Sixsmith, comic Stan Laurel, or even an exaggerated version of Coogan himself in The Trip series, being more unpleasant to play than the notorious Leeds celebrity paedophile were always likely to be slim.

Coogan said of his latest role: “I’ve played a few real people in my time, some good and some not, although Savile is certainly the worst. I feel an overwhelming sense of revulsion about Jimmy Savile and the way he operated, but I put my personal revulsion to one side to play him convincingly because the risk with not doing that is him coming across as a sort of pantomime villain, which would lack credibility and therefore not do this justice.

Coogan added that he was able to easily step out of character on set thanks to not being a method actor in the style of Marlon Brando, which is probably merciful when playing someone as creepy as the former Jim’ll Fix It host and self-proclaimed inventor of DJing: “In terms of performance, I like to take physical things – the way someone dresses, the way they talk, and the way they move – and assimilate all that to try and find who they are and use that as a way to get inside their skin. But I’m not a method actor – I can switch it on and off like a switch so I certainly didn’t each my lunch as him on set. When we stopped filming I immediately snapped out of it.”

Coogan also admitted that he had asked himself whether the role was even one he should take on at all, given the subject matter and the many surviving victims of Savile: “The big question is why are you doing it? That’s the question you have to answer, and that’s the question the script has to answer. If it does then you’re on the right track, and here it was clear from the script and my conversations with Neil and Jeff that this was being done in an ethical, responsible way,” he said. “On balance, I think it is better to make this drama than not to make it. Drama can capture things in a more nuanced, detailed way that is more illuminating than a straight forward documentary, of which there have been many. We’ve seen the power that a well-made, factual drama can have. I knew this wasn’t without risk. Nothing that’s interesting to watch is ever without some kind of risk and this had more risks than anything else I’ve done, but knowing that I had the best people with me I thought it was worth it. I feel this series is a really strong piece of work and that all the people involved in it – survivors, cast and crew – should be proud with the job that’s been done.”

Coogan added that the participation of so many survivors in the drama was a key factor in his ultimate decision to take the part: “That’s the grown-up and responsible way to do this. Having the participation and endorsement of so many was absolutely crucial to the process, and everyone has made sure this was handled sensitively,” he explained. “That’s why it’s taken a long time for the series to get to screen – you can’t just chuck it out there, you’ve got to do it properly, and be fastidious and diligent. To not do that would be a dereliction of our duty.”

The Reckoning is on BBC One and BBC iPlayer from Monday 9 October. The four-part series will air on BBC One at 9pm on Monday and Tuesday night for two weeks, with all episodes on BBC iPlayer from Monday 9 October.

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