Comic release: Is it time to forgive Chris Langham?

Like everyone else, James Hanning was shocked when the star of television's 'The Thick of It' was convicted of downloading images of child abuse. Despite the actor's protestations of innocence, Hanning, like many, thought that where there was smoke there must be fire. But the more he researched the story, the less certain he became: was Langham a 'paedophile'? Or had he been found guilty by the tabloid media and consigned to oblivion for a moment of madness?
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Just after Chris Langham was convicted of downloading child pornography in August 2007, I happened to speak to one of his former showbiz associates. "So that was what it was all about," he said. "We knew he had a weakness for the bottle, but we couldn't quite understand why. It must have been the shame of his weakness for young children." I knew next to nothing about Langham, but I remembered having heard a Radio 4 Reunion programme in which former alumni of Not the Nine O'Clock News had recalled the show that carried the flag for TV satire in the late 1970s. Former producer John Lloyd had apologised to original cast member Langham for edging him out after the first series. Langham, he explained, had been an unprofessional drunk, but Lloyd felt guilty about having let the matter fester without confronting it head on.

I wondered how Lloyd would be feeling, now that he knew Langham was quite so screwed up. As this paper's comment editor, I wondered, in a prurient way, if Lloyd might be willing to write about it. But then I thought that a) he'd be bound to say no, and b) we should make some effort to understand what Langham had been up to. Dismissing him as a "sex ' pest" and "pervert comic", as the red-tops had done, didn't further the cause of science a great deal. Maybe The Independent on Sunday, in a genuine spirit of inquiry – or maybe just contrariness – should ask an expert the "why?" question.

Having rung a couple of tame shrinks, I wasn't encouraged that they would bring much to the party. Hadn't we heard it all before, about how those who are abused in their youth – as Langham claimed he had been – have a tendency to inflict the same offence on their juniors? Then again, maybe Langham hadn't been abused at all, as some newspapers had been anxious to prove. In court, he was told: "You're just making it up to play on our sympathy. It's a lie."

Maybe it was. How could I know? Either way, there was a lot of uncertainty. Then I came across a psychotherapist called Valerie Sinason, who recognised the feelings of shame Langham described in court. He had told of how, when he was five years old, his family had moved to Canada, where he never felt at home. "I was quite frightened at that time," he explained. "I got beaten up because I spoke with an English accent." Of the sexual abuse, he said: "I asked my parents about it a few years ago and they said he was a man who liked to take boys sailing," he explained. "An incident occurred when I got taken sailing by a bloke in Ontario. I stayed in a tent with this guy. He had red hair... I don't want to go into detail. I can't get out of my head lying in bed with his arm around me and him saying I'd done well. I had two thoughts – "that went well because he liked me" and deep shame that I'd do that to be liked. A slut, for a kind word, is who I am. I've always despised myself for approval-seeking. I hated myself."

Sinason explained over the phone how the psyche shuts off such episodes, so that, as the victim grows up, the young boy becomes a shameful "someone else". This "dissociative" behaviour was a new one on me, but evidently she had extensive experience, so I asked her to write. That, I thought, would be my puny contribution to, dare I say it, condemning a little less and understanding a little more.

The piece was published at the beginning of August 2007, Langham was sentenced to 10 months in prison and the world moved on. A few weeks later, Sinason called again. She said that Michael Langham, Chris's father, had been in touch, complimenting her on the article, and had mentioned that he wanted to write something about his son. Would we be interested? Of course we would, I thought. The Langham family had pretty much put the shutters up since the trial, and I wasn't surprised. A signed piece by the father would be highly sought-after. But on further thought, I was worried. Actually, wouldn't it be another of those pitiful "my boy wouldn't harm a fly" apologias. The cause of truth would not be well served, and the reader would be treated to no more than a pitiable glimpse of an elderly – and possibly lied-to – father incapable of recognising what a shocking thing his son had done. We'd be inviting the reader to feast on a father's delusion. Full marks for prurience, nil for judgment. Pious or not, the IoS is better than that. But I thought I should speak to him. Other papers would kill for that sort of access. So I called him.

Michael Langham is one of Britain's most distinguished Shakespearean theatre directors. He was 88 when I first spoke to him, and had all the courtesy and sweetness of manner that that age can bring. He was grateful I was prepared to listen to him, and told me that a great injustice had been done. Oh dear, I thought. This is where we are going to part company. Your son has been convicted of downloading pornographic images of children of the most depraved sort. There was no way of making that look good. He didn't pretend there was. But he did feel – unarguably – that his son was entitled to a fair hearing. We agreed that he would write something, with me prompting for details and him happily obliging. He was, as they say, an impressive witness.

He wrote of how his son had been demonised. That Chris had at no time denied downloading the images, but that he was not a paedophile, something which, as far as he could, the judge had accepted. He criticised much of the conduct of the police investigation, the awfulness of prison and the distress inflicted on his son's young family. He also made many fair points about how his case was made to look worse than it was by the way it was presented, the staggered release of evidence and so on. But to the detached observer, two questions remained. To the first – why did Langham want to look at those images – he said he was working on a script with Paul Whitehouse for a second series of Help, about a psychotherapist. Having experienced (and suppressed in his mind) abuse in his youth, he wanted to understand the motivation of those who commit it, specifically by looking into their eyes. His father wrote: "Chris was [...] distressed like a normal person by looking at these horrors. He was appalled and appalled again; he is an artist, both gifted and burdened with an unbridled curiosity to understand fully and often painfully everything we experience as members of the human race. So he took a risk. He knew the law but, choosing not to think about it, he proceeded to perform an act of monumental stupidity.

But the second question, surely, was more problematic. He had also been charged with 10 counts of indecent assault and two of serious sexual assault against a young girl. Didn't that show he had an unhealthy interest in underage women? No smoke without fire and all that, and clearly the police had decided that the two cases together proved he was a wrong 'un. On closer inspection, though, the case was absolutely not as it seemed.

In April 1996, for a birthday treat, the girl, in her young teens, watched Langham appear as Thénardier in the West End musical Les Misérables, and later he agreed to give her acting lessons. She emerges from the story as having had a troubled past, in ways best not elucidated, not least for legal reasons. Langham, according to him at least (and I have no way of checking this, nor any reason to disbelieve him), was trying to help her. A conversation with Langham's lawyer about the facts involved endorses his version. Inconsistencies became apparent in the girl's story, and the jury acquitted Langham unanimously of the charges that related to her.

After Michael Langham's article appeared in the paper, there was some low-key follow-up. I spoke to him once or twice, when he was exceedingly, embarrassingly grateful for having not been stitched up. In the following months, Chris Langham himself did the odd interview, in which he made similar observations to those his father had made. He spoke of his relief at having been cleared of being a paedophile, at how he regretted what he had done and how he just wanted to move on and get back to work.

As far as I was concerned, I was on to the next thing. It hadn't been "just another story", in part because it had, journalistically speaking, had a successful outcome, unlike those which promise a lot but end up in a blind alley. I imagined Langham would immerse himself in family life and gradually re-emerge with the help of showbiz friends (his father had spoken of how supportive John Cleese, Armando Iannucci and Mel Smith had been).

But Langham had crossed a line, and a great many people didn't want to forgive him. When he gave his interviews, he had spoken as a liberal believing in paying the price, learning and moving on. But a lot of people had no desire to move on. They wanted to remind him that he had breached one of liberal Britain's last taboos. Of course he had done a terrible thing, and I certainly wouldn't want to diminish that, but did no one want to know why? Apparently not. They were keener to ask by what right was he speaking to the press? "We don't want to hear the details, why won't he just take his punishment and crawl under the floorboards?" seemed to be the attitude. Punishment is one thing, perdition another.

Some months later, there was a discussion in the office about upcoming films. The cinema version of Armando Iannucci's The Thick of It – in which Langham had starred as a vacillating minister – was due out. Langham, of course, was not to appear. He was still in disgrace (always a relative term in medialand, where the term "disgrace" can land you a weekly TV show), so would miss the brand going global. Maybe we should do a "Whatever happened to Chris Langham?" piece.

I contacted Chris and suggested this, reminding him that his own testimony would need supplementing with words from some of those with whom he had come into contact. He said he didn't want to do another interview, but would ' agree to our meeting (for the first time) to have a chat. If nothing came of it, no harm done.

At 60, Langham continues to live where he has lived – apart from his spell in prison – for nine years, near Cranbrook, Kent, with his wife of 18 years and their two children. In an adjacent house live his father and mother, Helen (Burns), formerly a celebrated actress but now suffering with advanced Parkinson's disease, both in their nineties. Chris has to spend another five years on the Sex Offenders' Register and remains under certain restrictions, but otherwise his life appears to be one of gardening and low-key domesticity undisturbed by gainful employment.

Langham's day-to-day life is a long way from that of a man held in contempt and regarded as a menace by local parents. He drives neighbouring children to school with his own. One acquaintance says he has "a heart as big as a house", others talk of him as a "lovely guy", and one long-term friend calls him "the nicest person I know". His wife, the stage director Christine Cartwright, told the court: "He is the only person I know who would put themselves at risk in order to protect a child from physical abuse. I have experienced it many times with him, in supermarkets, airports and on trains. He is passionate about the mental, physical and emotional well-being of all children, subscribing to many different charities to help where he can." In court, the judge accepted expert advice, which declared that Langham was not a sexual predator, and classified him as being at the lowest level of public risk he was allowed to recommend.

So, far from having a sexual interest in children, he is presented as their great protector. Which makes the behaviour of the police in this case all the more significant. After Langham was convicted, and in direct defiance of the judge, Paul Fotheringham, the then deputy superintendent of Kent Police, told journalists on the steps of the court: "Langham doesn't like the label, but I am satisfied that he is a paedophile. He was in possession of a 15-minute video, with full sound, of an eight-year-old girl being sadistically abused."

Something doesn't add up. If he has no sexual interest in children, why did he download the images? The curiosity of most of us, surely, would evaporate pretty quickly as soon as we knew we were heading for a child-porn site. For most people, some cut-out would intervene.

Beyond that, for a few others thinking of looking at such images, the risk of being caught would be an enormous barrier. If we really wanted – for defensible reasons, if such can be imagined – to see such images, surely we would go to the police and ask to do so? But there is a curious artlessness about Langham's behaviour. He seems to have unwittingly taken several steps that increased suspicion against him, not diminish it (until advised by lawyers and others to desist). His words of relief when he came out of prison – "My life has been ruined but my conscience is clear" – suggest someone with a fairly well-defined sense of right and wrong.

Langham has admitted, with no great pride, to having visited – and paid for – adult-porn sites, and the police said that it was from a trawl several years ago of one of these sites (from which child porn can be accessed) that they initially came across his details. In court, though, his counsel successfully challenged the police's apparent assumption that having the opportunity to look at child porn was the same as actually doing so. The judge said you could "drive a coach and horses through that" logical flaw.

Langham has called himself "arrogant" for downloading images of child abuse. His wife told the court: "Chris was completely honest... I was angry at his stupidity and thoughtlessness, he had clearly given no thought to the legal implications of his action. No one is more able to punish themselves than Chris, so I knew there was no more for me to do in that area." Encouraged by an authentically liberal, artsy upbringing, it seems the child of the 1960s has done his share of rattling a stick between the bars of authority and defying life's "shoulds". What the bosses think we shouldn't know, Langham by instinct wants uncovered. And after years of treatment and therapy for alcoholism, he seems inclined – sooner or later – to confront rather than bury his demons.

By his own account at least, there is a degree of masochism here. He told Dr Pamela Connoly in an emotional television interview just after his release: "If these children could endure what they had to endure when these images were created, at least I could have the courage to sit there and watch it." He said he wanted to see the faces of those committing the abuse, to understand them better. It was, as he told the court, like "putting my face in a chainsaw". An acquaintance of Langham with personal knowledge of addiction explains it like this: "It was a traffic-accident moment. Would you, say, at the time of the French Revolution, have looked at a public beheading? You have to remember, Chris is an addict, and addicts act on impulse. It was a ghoulish impulse, not part of a pattern. I've known Chris go out to buy, say, just a roll of film, and then he comes back with a massive great underwater camera. That's what addicts do."

Langham has enough of a self-destructive streak to make friendship with him prone to testing. "He is not a saint," says someone who has known him for several years but is full of praise for his humanity and warmth. "He lives in a cerebral world and can have intentions that he doesn't act on. But it simply isn't fair what has happened to him, even if what he did was inexcusable. He didn't look at it with any bad intent, and was appalled by what he saw. He is absolutely not a paedophile, as the judge confirmed. It's quite dreadful what has happened to him." Another friend says simply: "I don't think even Chris knows why he looked at those images."

By this time, any thought of him being a furtive child- botherer was crumbling. I made further inquiries and spoke to a sympathetic listener with whom – in the early 1980s – he had indeed discussed the abuse episode in Canada. Not only could he not have made it up for the trial, but when I asked Chris to talk about it, he spoke with an acuteness of pain I defy any actor to reproduce. As his father has said, the feelings of guilt and shame have permeated the family in a variety of ways since. "I felt absolutely terrible I hadn't protected him. I was working too hard in the theatre – which is no excuse at all, of course – and some members of the company were friendly with this chap who took people sailing. It didn't occur to us that anything might happen." Michael Langham's remorse about the incident must be compounded by the fact that his son didn't tell him until 22 years later, when a family friend, in whom Chris had confided, suggested all was not well. "It was just stunning," remembers the father.

With such a trauma in his upbringing, Chris Langham worried about his own motivations. He had been told by one "expert" that those who look at images of child pornography "invariably" go on to become contact offenders. After his arrest, anxious to clarify what he had done, and why, but also wanting to confront what might be called "inner demons", Langham had asked around for the name of an expert a secret paedophile would most fear being questioned by. He was given the name of Ray Wyre, a psychotherapist and expert in sex crime who wrote the police guidelines on how to spot a paedophile. Langham booked an appointment with Wyre, who cleared him of having an unhealthy sexual interest in children, a view endorsed in court by a second psychiatrist.

My impression was that here was a man who had had a genuine "moment of madness", born of a serious purpose, and looked at some truly awful images (but not paid for them, as – evidently – had been assumed in court) and had now been cast into outer darkness. But something was nagging at me. Where were his friends in all this? A great many, it turns out, are still there. I understand he has had support from all sorts of people who want no thanks or public acknowledgement, and who certainly wouldn't want to be named here, even if I knew their names.

He knows he is bad news in an industry where reputation is everything. As Armando Iannucci, one of the few people willing to be quoted on the record and publicly stand by him, puts it, "There is a terrible absurdity about his position, in that what shapes your life is not what you do but how the ' media chooses to portray you." As another friend says: "The juicy bits have been illuminated by the red-tops and the rest has been ignored. He is the victim of an awful, mob blood lust."

Langham would like to get back to work. He was brought in – quietly – late last year to help the transfer of a show about Ian Dury to the West End. When he had artistic disagreements with Jud Charlton, the original lead who had praised Langham's rewrite of the show and had helped choose Langham as director, the story became public. The pair had disagreements about which episodes of Dury's life to include in the show, a tension compounded by what was turning into a tight deadline. Jeff Merrifield, the show's writer, says the difficulties were absolutely not of Langham's making and were "nothing to do with his back story". Langham agreed to stand down if his presence was causing problems.

One report claimed Charlton "wasn't comfortable with Chris Langham's past". In fact, Charlton left the show despite Langham having already done so. In the occasionally fraught world of the theatre, the millstone around Langham's neck can get blamed for problems elsewhere.

But what of Paul Whitehouse, of Fast Show fame, whose evidence in court had helped convict Langham? Surely, in the court of public opinion, the fact that Whitehouse was publicly angry with his co-writer looked bad? Langham is reluctant, certainly publicly but also privately, to point fingers at Whitehouse. He feels he has a broader audience to address with his case. But as long as the pair, who haven't spoken since the court case, are estranged, surely suspicions will remain? Police sources say that Whitehouse's evidence proved that Langham was lying in court. I would say that is wrong.

Langham said he was conducting research for the second series of Help, about psychotherapy, which he was co-writing with Whitehouse. One of the characters was to be the engaging Pedro, who would win the audience's affection but who had sexual interests that would later turn out to be rather more unsettling. In court, Whitehouse said: "It was unclear what he [Pedro] had done. But it was implied that he was a Peeping Tom or a flasher, or something even worse." It seems that the catchphrase "I'm only a minor offender" was a creation of Whitehouse. In Langham's mind, evidently, in the course of the series Pedro could go from being a likeable, slightly larky figure to someone who had been abused as a child, to someone who had committed abuse. Langham's approach to comedy can be quite angsty and self-examining.

Whitehouse's view was different, or at least less ambitious, as maybe befits someone whose genius is in observation, catchphrases and voices. It is not clear how far Whitehouse envisaged Pedro as having gone. In any event, Whitehouse's evidence in court made it clear that he felt such research was unnecessary for the writing of Help.

Someone who knows both men suspects that Langham had indeed discussed in outline developing the Pedro character in a darker direction. If Langham didn't share all his plans with Whitehouse – and it is a matter of debate – there may be an explanation. "Paul Whitehouse is prodigiously talented. In a way, working with Paul would make anyone feel inadequate, and Chris is tremendously low on self-esteem. He feels he is undeserving of regard and affection, so he's desperate to make people laugh and earn his place. I can just imagine that Chris would pursue any rich seam in order for it to work out and be funny. He would pick the scab off any psychic wound on the off-chance of it being funny. He would have worked and worked on it until it was really brilliant, and then maybe just thrown it out as if he had only just thought of it."

After Langham's arrest, Whitehouse continued to visit and write with Langham for some months. He was to all appearances sympathetic to – or at least understanding of – what Langham had blundered into. Then, in November 2007, the police called on Whitehouse. From then on, his attitude seems to have changed entirely.

After a visit from the police, Whitehouse made it clear that he wanted to sever relations. In court, Whitehouse was asked by Langham's barrister: "I suppose it was the police who told you Chris Langham had dragged your name into this sordid affair?" "Yes," said Whitehouse. "You were pretty furious weren't you," he was asked. He replied: "I wasn't happy."

Did Whitehouse believe Langham had tried to share or even offload his guilt on to his co-writer? If so, he didn't say so in court, and in Langham's evidence, he made it clear that Whitehouse had known nothing about the downloaded images.

Langham will not discuss Whitehouse's behaviour or motivation. A friend of his (no euphemism) speaks furiously and unflatteringly about Whitehouse. "Just the word 'Whitehouse' upsets Chris enormously. His evidence in court made out that Chris wasn't telling the truth," he says. Others speculate that "he is simply frightened of standing downwind of what Chris did".

Someone who knows both Whitehouse and Langham speculates that he would need to show disapproval. "Paul is very much a bloke's bloke," he says. "He'd want to be seen to be hard on nonces, otherwise you might be thought to be one yourself. Quite apart from that, he would feel very betrayed."

Asked about the case some months later, Whitehouse said: "I can't say anything about that. I've got to let it go." His agent agreed only with great reluctance to pass on my request to speak to him, but said it was pointless. A friend of his suggested I should not even raise the subject, so angry does Whitehouse get about it: "It's an episode he'd rather forget." Repeated, detailed attempts to ask him to speak have gone unanswered.

In talking to Langham's family, I have the impression they regard Whitehouse's behaviour as the least important aspect of the case. Enough people have made themselves scarce for them not to be surprised when professional self-preservation is at stake. But in PR terms, in an age where "what things look like" matters, Whitehouse's distance from his old co-writer surely looks bad.

Otherwise, Langham is left bemused at how his horrific error continues to dog him. He has enough supporters at the BBC to ensure that the door has not finally been closed. Contrary to a rumour that said they had been withdrawn because of the conviction, videos of The Thick of It (with Langham as the minister) are on general sale, and the BBC repeated the last series. But a spokesperson says there are "no plans" to work with Langham in the future.

Requests to speak to Jane Berthoud, his producer on Help and now head of radio comedy, are rejected. Bosses have steered away from blanket denunciations, but a lot of time will have to pass before he is welcomed back to Broadcasting House. Until he is, the police/tabloid assumption that Chris Langham is a paedophile, which flies in the face of what the judge and the experts say, will prevail.

Angus McBride, Langham's solicitor, who has extensive experience of comparable cases, says: "This case stands out. Of course he did something wrong, in that to look at these images constituted an offence. But he always accepted that and was his own worst critic for having done so. The reaction afterwards, though, fired me up more than any other in terms of the injustice both within the legal system and resultantly in the reporting of the case. I was personally very disturbed by his treatment. There was a lack of media interest in addressing the issue seriously and analysing his motives properly. The legal system was also at fault in that it did not allow a proper differentiation between those that look at this material out of sexual interest and those that do so, albeit wrongly, but for far more complex reasons."

The police have a vast and apparently growing amount of child abuse to deal with, and it is no surprise if their world view becomes black and white. On the universal scale of injustices, it isn't the worst. But if you know anything about the sort of bloke Chris Langham is, it's still unjust.