Late tonight, ITV1 are broadcasting their much-publicised Exposure programme on The Other Side of Jimmy Savile. They are mad. They should schedule it in peak time.
A couple of days ago in this blog, I posted an alleged transcript of the un-broadcast sections of a BBC TV Have I Got News For You episode in which Jimmy Savile appeared. At the bottom of the transcript, I revealed that it was a 1999 hoax.
The reason the hoax has been believed by many over the twelve years since it first appeared is partly because it was built on (as it has turned out) well-founded rumours.
But also because it was so well-written.
So who wrote it and why?
Comedian Richard Herring, who knows most things, told me it was some people calling themselves SOTCAA and, indeed, it was. Two of them.
Around 2005, when they were writing on the Cookd and Bombd forum, they were calling themselves ‘Alan Strang’ and ‘Emergency Lalla Ward Ten’.
Now I’m told I should call them Joseph Champniss and Mike Scott.
“At the time this all took place,” Joseph Champniss told me yesterday, “SOTCAA was hosted by NotBBC.
“Sometime in 1999, we started pondering on how affected stories get attached to ‘classic’ shows and films over the years which go down well in pub conversations but also blur any kind of factual coverage – stuff like the rushes of The Wicker Man being buried under the M4 motorway and so on.
“On the other hand, some of the bits we’d gathered for Edit News etc, seemed a tad on the unbelievable side – such as Paul McCartney getting his nob out in Magical Mystery Tour. So we decided it would be fun to stick some obviously fake stuff on the site, just to see whether or not people would actually question it. Part of the site’s remit was to get comedy fans questioning the media, refusing to accept everything at face value.
“Faking some Have I Got News For You out-takes was originally going to be part of that initial plan. We probably decided on it after watching the Unbroadcastable Have I Got News video, which itself features rushes material… but mainly because we enjoy the idea of rushes per se.
“The original idea was to stick the page on the site in Hidden Archive and see if anyone noticed/cared. Emergency Lalla Ward went off and wrote the actual page – based on a tape of the broadcast itself. If you watch the show in tandem with the fakery you’ll note that he’s specifically ‘filled in’ stuff where there was an obvious edit-point. However, this was really only ever a first draft. Something to build on and re-write later in a less obvious/explosive fashion.
“What with everything else we were hurriedly completing for the site at the time, the story gets a bit blurred from this point on. We definitely sent it down to Rob the webmaster along with all the other finished pages so that he could turn it into a website. At this point, SOTCAA was just a bunch of Word documents with pictures attached. Rob then sent the results back to us on a disc so we could see how the thing looked, design-wise. The Have I Got News For You page stood out like a sore thumb. Far too obvious a fake, we thought.
“I remember us getting together with Rob at the Hen & Chickens, Islington, to ponder on what – if anything – to do with it. Maybe the rewrite as planned, or something similar. Until we decided on what to do, Rob commented out the link on the Hidden Archive index page so that it was only visible to people viewing the source code. This brings us up to March 2000, when the site first went live.
“At some point during all of this, one of us came up with the alternate idea of leaking the unedited piece to Matthew Wright (then writing a column for the Daily Mirror) to see if he’d fall for it. April 1st was coming up, so it seemed like as good a time as any for a hoax.
“The idea was to contact Wright anonymously, point him towards the page, mention that it had been ‘hidden’ and then run away laughing, hoping that he’d fall for it and include some sort of reference to it on his gossip page. If successful, we would have then replaced the page with a great big ‘April Fool’ sign, and published the transcript in full with suitable amendments referencing this.
“But that idea came and went, as did April Fools Day, and we just forgot all about it – until June when an anonymous forum dweller discovered the link.”
Co-hoaxer Mike Scott says: “I was annoyed when the script leaked because it was a rough draft in dire need of roughening up. I thought it’d never fool anyone unless it was toned down a bit. I heard that Paul Merton was infuriated by it, which disappointed me at the time.”
“Amusingly,” says Joseph Champniss, “the publication resulted in something similar to what we’d planned, albeit via a more scenic route. It certainly wasn’t a planned forum-leak. Had we realised beforehand what was going to happen, we would have removed the credit from the base of the page! We probably should have put a stop to it sooner, but all three of us were fascinated – and not a little excited – about how far it could conceivably go.
“We found out for sure a bit later when solicitors, apparently acting on behalf of Sir James Savile OBE, managed to close down the site pending an enquiry re libel, defamation of character etc etc. As webmaster, Rob was required to write a legally-binding letter in hardcopy pointing out that the script in question had never actually been ‘officially’ published on the site (and that we had no plans to publish it in the future) before the ban could be lifted.”
One reason why I thought the fake transcript was so convincing was because, I assumed, the people who wrote it were TV insiders. But I was wrong. Appearances can be deceptive.
“We were just very keen comedy fans,” Joseph Champniss told me yesterday, “with a particular fondness for out-takes and the underside of what gets broadcast and what doesn’t. I’m an illustrator/designer – I did a few bits for Lee and Herring‘s TV shows, such as designing the puppet crows on This Morning With Richard Not Judy. That’s the extent of my TV production background! We also did the sleeve notes on the recent Fist of Fun DVD releases.”
“The fake transcript is very impressive,” I told him.
“Well,” he replied, “a quick quote (from memory) is that Victor Lewis-Smith told us: If it was you (and I never believe anything hoaxers say) then you should be doing more of it! It was all over Fleet Street. They were onto Merton. They were onto me. A friend cornered Chris Morris at a Fall music gig later that year and asked him what he thought of it. Funniest thing I’ve read all year, is the quote we still use occasionally!”
In July 2000 Lucy Rouse, editor of the TV trade magazine Broadcast, wrote a piece in the Guardian, saying:
You may have recently come across an email, which has been doing the rounds for the last week or so. It purports to be a transcript of out-takes from one of last year’s episodes of BBC2’s Have I Got News for You, featuring Sir Jimmy Saville.
With it goes just about every lesson you ever needed to learn about the perils of the electronic revolution: anything goes if it’s in electronic form but you really shouldn’t treat every email you read as gospel.
TV producers could never be accused of telling the truth, relying, as they do, on a whole series of out-takes before they hit on a version of events they’re happy to broadcast. And this seems to have been the case with this particular episode of Have I Got News.
The supposed out-takes are said to have come from sources close to the producers and were being widely circulated over the internet at the end of last week.
Paul Merton is always a man to push the televisual boundaries of libel laws as far as they will stretch but the transcript went a lot further than anything you would have seen on the show. The trouble is – according to sources – a huge chunk of the middle section of the email is fabricated.
In one particularly terse exchange appearing in the “transcript”, for example, Merton supposedly attacks Saville about his personal hygiene. In another, the comedian seemingly loses the plot completely and launches into an incoherent rant before being asked by a rattled Angus Deayton if he wants to stop the recording.
It may have been a piece of fiction, but it made an afternoon wading through 112 messages in Outlook a lot more amusing than it might otherwise have been.
“What’s it like?” I asked Joseph Champniss yesterday: “Your comic insinuations being proved to have been right thirteen years later?”
“Well, they weren’t ‘our’ insinuations in the first place,” he replied. “Those stories did the rounds for years – the Louis Theroux show covered it far more publically! So there’s no sense of ‘we told you so’ here. We heard other stories off the back of the transcript a bit later. One quote – from someone whose name I can’t even begin to recall – went Good effort, my dears, but Jimmy liked boys not girls! Some of the recent press stories suggest that this may be true also. Maybe I’m just bitter because Jimmy Savile never replied to my letter to Jim’ll Fix It for me to meet Kenny Everett back in 1981…!
“As for the ability to con readers after all these years… It’s odd… It’s doubtful this particular spoof could have been created – and spread so far – at any subsequent point in the internet’s history. It was in 1999 – pre-YouTube. These days, the first question would be So where’s the footage then? To be fair, even back then, a few people were saying So where’s the Real Audio of the soundtrack? But it was perfectly plausible back in the days of dial-up that a text transcript would be the most convenient medium for disclosing such information. I suspect the main reason it’s lingered so long on the net is that the links usually take people back to that little archived text-file page on Zetnet… A more innocent age.”
“Years ago,” says Mike Scott. “in one of our sillier moods, we had the idea of sending out a press release saying that Linehan and Mathews were working on a fourth series of Father Ted, sans Dermot Morgan (who died in 1998), to be called Father Dead. We wrote a fake script page and everything. Nowadays this would have been identified as a hoax almost immediately but, back in 1999, we felt there was a small air-pocket of reality in which this was ‘just about’ plausible. It would depend on where you heard the news.”
“By the way,” Joseph Champniss told me yesterday, “I’ve been reading a few more recent discussion threads which insist that we erroneously claimed that Jimmy Savile was a guest on Paul Merton’s team rather than Ian Hislop’s and that this proved that it was a hoax. The intro to the Zetnet page certainly claims that. But that intro was added by whoever uploaded it there. I think our original page just said Some out-takes from a recent episode. The fact that we spelt Savile’s surname incorrectly (as Saville) was never commented on, mind you!”
Fakery is an interesting topic and widespread, though faking something does not necessarily mean it is untrue. For example, you may have assumed from the above that yesterday I talked to Joseph Champniss and Mike Scott.
I did not.
I did exchange e-mails with Joseph Champniss two days ago – I claimed it was ‘yesterday’ to make it seem more vivid. The quotes are true.
But most of what you read above is not from my e-mails with Joseph Champniss. It was cobbled-together (with his knowledge), including the quotes from Mike Scott, from four separate pre-existing posts on other sites on the internet.
What you see and read is not necessarily reality, as the life of Jimmy Savile perhaps proves.