tue 05/12/2023

The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies, ITV | reviews, news & interviews

The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies, ITV

The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies, ITV

Scandal of press bullying yields touching human drama

Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies

Four years ago Christopher Jefferies was the victim of a concerted attack by the British press. His tenant Joanna Yeates had been murdered and, lacking any other leads, police arrested her landlord. While he was still being questioned, the newspapers sniffed around Jefferies’s patch of Bristol and, armed with a juicy quotation or two, chose collectively to forget all about the principle of innocent until proven otherwise.

"Weird", "posh", "lewd", "creepy" were among the epithets in The Sun. He was branded a peeping Tom. Even the Guardian, which did not join in the mauling, could not quite refrain from clauses loaded with insinuation – “who is unmarried”, “who in his younger days sported blue hair”.

Jefferies protested his innocence, was released without charge, and eventually went on successfully to sue several of his assailants. Last year he even got an apology from the police. He has been lucky at least in one sense: among his former pupils at the fee-paying Clifton College is the director Roger Michell, who is in charge of this redemptive dramatisation of his arrest and exoneration.

Michell has often visited the world of male old age – see his FDR in Hyde Park on the Hudson, Peter O’Toole’s goatish rake in Venus, Jim Broadbent’s unsexed husband on a romantic break in Le Week-End. As superbly played by Jason Watkins, Jefferies is very much sui generis: a solitary though not at all lonely retiree of fine tastes and gently eccentric manners. As his lawyer later points out to the detectives who interview him, here is a man who manifestly wouldn’t hurt a fly, let alone strangle a fit young landscape gardener.

As Jefferies told Radio 4’s Media Show last week, there are calculated inaccuracies in Peter Morgan’s script. He was never actually shown the pile of newspapers in which he is eviscerated (pictured), as happened at the end of the first episode, and was not cold-shouldered by the community to which he returned after his release, as is suggested in the forthcoming second episode. But Morgan has made a fine addition to his ever increasing gallery of public figures (Blair, Brown, Clinton, Clough, Frost, Her Majesty etc). This is the portrait of a man pilloried not only for his seeming difference – the cloud of white hair, the scrupulous pedantry – but for his refusal to emote for the media. It’s soon after that he is ambushed by newsmen and seems to contradict a previous statement that the police pounce. Once Jefferies has been arrested, Morgan’s fidelity to the slow drip-drip intensity of the interrogation feels authentic. Even the polite formalities with which newly arrived suspects are greeted are faithful to what we saw on 24 Hours in Police Custody.

Jefferies has been luckiest of all in Watkins, a perpetually unsung actor mainly admired for delicious comic turns, most recently in W1A, but here given much more meat to chew on. Channelling Quentin Crisp, he inhabits the role not so much to as from his fingertips, which twist and writhe as Jefferies punctiliously scouts about for le mot juste. He even turns off the alarm clock - that old screen trope - with an expressive wrist. Meanwhile Michell’s camera constantly lurks, as if offering a penny for his every thought.

And yet all participants have made the joint choice to pull back from portraying the full horror of his humiliation and prefer to enjoy Jefferies’ resilient wit. “Are you all right?” says his exasperated lawyer (Shaun Parkes) after giving the police a piece of his mind. “Yes I think so,” he purrs. “How about you?”

The injustice of his arrest on the flimsiest evidence is only half of a compelling story. This is not a drama about solving a murder, which is why a cutaway at one point to the actual murderer Vincent Tabak (Joe Sims) felt beside the point. It’s a parable about the power wielded by an untethered press pre-Leveson. Jefferies gave evidence at the enquiry. This second bite at the cherry may have more impact.

Jefferies has been luckiest of all in Watkins, a perpetually unsung actor mainly admired for delicious comic turns


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

Share this article


Thank you for flagging this. Brilliantly done as you say. And with a subtle nod in the title in the direction of Boell's Katharina Blum, hinting nothing has really changed in newspapers' ways since 1974.

Add comment


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters