Alistair McGowan in rehearsals for An Audience with Jimmy Savile
Alistair McGowan in rehearsals for An Audience with Jimmy Savile
© Helen Maybanks

The announcement of a new play about Jimmy Savile back in April provoked a storm of outrage on social media and was subject to a petition trying to ban it.

I confess that I was among those early dissenters who felt that the writer, former BBC journalist Jonathan Maitland, was over-stepping the mark in a clear search for publicity. After all, Savile's jaw-droppingly heinous crimes have only come to light very recently and it's questionable whether a play is a suitable medium to explore them.

But, having reflected further and spoken to Maitland himself, I've done an about turn. Why shouldn't there be a play about Savile, whose abiding image so quickly turned from that of a quirky king of light entertainment to a byword for depravity?

The theme of much of the outcry has been that it is unfair on the victims to rake up Savile's crimes in the name of theatre. And Alistair McGowan, who will play Savile, has been the focus of much of the wrath.

Here's a typical comment on Facebook underneath our recent gallery of rehearsal pictures for the play, which premieres at the Park Theatre next week:

"Alistair McGowan hasn't done himself any favours here. Regardless of how good his portrayal is, it's a terrible and disgusting subject to cover."

The use of the phrase "terrible and disgusting subject" brings with it an insinuation that the scale and nature of Savile's crimes renders him a figure unsuitable for artistic interpretation. But by that logic we would never portray notorious criminals or tyrants on stage, and that would surely be a dereliction of artistic duty.

Another theme of the criticism is that not enough time has passed since the revelations for them to become a suitable subject for drama. But, as Maitland pointed out in our recent interview (to be published on the site next week), it was only a few years between the serial murders in Ipswich and a musical on the subject premiering at the National Theatre. (A musical which, in the words of Anita Dobson, who appears in its soon-to-be-released film adaptation, "pays great tribute" to the girls who died.)

The title - An Audience With Jimmy Savile - is undoubtedly provocative, as indeed was the casting of McGowan, best known in the public imagination as an impressionist. It looks, at first glance, like a pastiche; like it's viewing a deeply disturbing subject through the prism of comedy.

But Maitland - whose debut play Dead Sheep broke the Park's box office record - insists it's nothing of the sort. He says his intention is to give full voice to the victims (represented on stage by actress Leah Whitaker), and has drawn on their testimony in the script. He admits he will show Savile in all his light entertainment pomp, but points out that it's this cigar-chomping persona that holds the key to why he got away with it for so long.

The question of whether or not a play about Savile is appropriate is a pertinent one, bound to evoke strong emotions. But surely the play itself deserves a hearing before being denounced as insensitive. And don't forget that it was the refusal to address Savile's crimes during his lifetime that led to their continuation over so many years. Let's not make the same mistake again.

An Audience with Jimmy Savile runs at the Park Theatre from 10 June to 11 July 2015