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Sex claims over "saintly" TV star put BBC in spotlight

* Jimmy Savile, household name in UK, knighted by queen

* His gold coffin was on public display after death last year

* But child abuse claims have shattered his public image By Michael Holden

LONDON, Oct 3 (Reuters) - To millions of Britons, Jimmy Savile was a flamboyant cigar-chomping disc jockey, children's TV presenter and dedicated charity fundraiser, instantly recognisable from his long blonde hair, eccentric clothing and flashy jewellery.

But claims Savile, who died last year and was knighted by the queen for his charitable work, had sexually abused schoolgirls while working at the BBC have shattered his reputation and raised suggestions the state-funded broadcaster covered up allegations against one of its top entertainers.

"I felt Jim had persuaded us all, audiences, fans, television professionals, even the pope, to create a myth around Saintly Jim so that he became untouchable," said Esther Rantzen, a former BBC colleague and campaigner for child abuse victims.

"One of the assaults had even been witnessed by the member of a television production team. So why was nothing done?" she wrote in an article for the Mail on Sunday newspaper.

Savile was a household name in Britain, firstly as a pioneering BBC radio DJ in the 1960s before later hosting prime-time pop and children's TV shows, with his catchphrases becoming part of the national lexicon.

When he died in October last year aged 84, his gold coffin went on public display and he was lauded as a "national treasure" who had raised millions of pounds for good causes.

But that image was shattered by allegations made in a documentary to be broadcast on commercial TV on Wednesday.

"Exposure: The Other Side of Jimmy Savile" claims he sexually abused underage girls and some 10 women have come forward to the media to say they were his victims.

Some said the attacks occurred when they were as young as 12 and even took place on BBC premises.

Revelations that an investigation by Newsnight, the BBC's flagship TV news show, were shelved last December led to claims bosses at the broadcaster knew about the allegations but kept quiet.

The BBC has denied that and said its investigations unit would help police who have launched an inquiry into the claims.

HORRIFIED

"A number of serious and disturbing allegations have been made over the past few days about the sexual abuse of teenage girls by Sir Jimmy Savile," the BBC said in a statement.

"Some of these allegations relate to activity on BBC premises in the 1960s and 70s. We are horrified by allegations that anything of this sort could have happened at the BBC - or have been carried out by anyone working for the BBC."

Savile's work for the BBC regularly brought him into contact with children, most notably the long-running "Top of the Pops" weekly chart show and his "Jim'll Fix It" show where he arranged for the dreams of mostly younger viewers to come true.

Meanwhile, he ran some 200 marathons for charity, raising tens of millions of pounds, particularly for Stoke Mandeville hospital, the birthplace of the Paralympic Games which has an internationally renowned unit for spinal injuries.

With his odd appearance, penchant for wearing garish tracksuits, and overtly tactile nature, Rantzen said she, like many people, found the former professional wrestler unnerving. But, she added, gossip and rumours were not evidence.

"The fact is that Sir Jim deceived all of us who enabled him to build his image as a national treasure, and do what he wanted to vulnerable children who were prevented from speaking out by the legend he had created," she said.

Paul Gambaccini, a former radio colleague, said he had long expected such stories to emerge and believed Savile used his charity work to stop his private life being exposed.

IMPERIAL

"It comes out when he's dead because Jimmy Savile had an imperial personality in show-business," he told ITV's Daybreak programme. "You just didn't mess with Jim."

The victims' allegations include claims from one woman that she saw rock star Gary Glitter, who was convicted of abusing two girls in Vietnam in 2006, having sex with an underage girl in Savile's BBC dressing room while Savile abused another girl.

Savile is not the first well-known BBC celebrity to face allegations of paedophilia. Pop music promoter Jonathan King, who produced the first album of rock band Genesis and later made entertainment programmes, was given a seven-year jail term in 2001 for abusing teenage boys.

Former BBC executives admitted there had been rumours about Savile, but dismissed suggestions they had turned a blind eye to the indiscretions of celebrities. Michael Grade, the former head of the BBC1 TV channel, said such rumours were ludicrous.

"There were question marks, certainly," he told Channel 4. "I never heard anything that gave me cause to think we should investigate or do anything about it. But the entertainment industry is awash on a sea of rumours."

Newsnight's editor Peter Rippon said his decision not to run its story into the allegations was because the claims could not be substantiated.

"It has been suggested I was ordered to do it by my bosses as part of a BBC cover-up," he wrote in his blog.

"It has also been suggested that we deliberately withheld information from the police. Both these allegations are totally untrue and despite consistent strong denials keep getting repeated."

Savile's nephew, Vivian Savile said the claims were only coming out now because his uncle was unable to respond and libel laws no longer applied.

But Dee Coles, who said she had been abused by Savile at the age of 14, said she was speaking out so that others who found themselves in the same position would come forward.

"Who would I have told? Who would have believed me?" she told ITV News. "I'd sooner not be on TV saying this but here I am because it happened to me."

(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

((michael.holden@thomsonreuters.com)(+44 207 542 3213)(Reuters Messaging: michael.holden.thomsonreuters.com@reuters.net))

Keywords: BRITAIN BBC/SAVILE