Grace Dent on TV: The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies was a beautifully shot, immensely considered drama

This was the sort of drama so weighty that Anna Maxwell Martin could poke her head up in a bit part – brilliantly – and still hardly warrant a mention

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

It’s worth wondering how strange your neighbours find you.

Not that strangeness is a crime, but it most certainly won’t help if you’re accused of one. As The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies showed compellingly, your solitary bookishness, or your lack of a “short back and sides”, or a spouse or kids to bolster your levels of “normality”, might be a very dangerous thing indeed, particularly if it’s a slow news week and the media finds you odd.

Back in December 2010 the retired English teacher and landlord Christopher Jefferies – played rather mesmerisingly here by Jason Watkins – found himself a national talking point when his tenant Joanna Yeates was murdered. Watkins, as Jefferies, had a glorious way of making viewers warm to this quietly bumptious but dignified man who took a withering attitude to the police’s bullish approach. The police interview scenes, in which Jefferies’s future freedom hung precariously in the balance, were beautifully pithy as Jefferies corrected his interrogators’ tenses and spelling.

Over three hours, Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon, The Last King of Scotland), is taking a long, cold look at the freedom of the press, musing on both its right to titillate, pillory and conduct its own trials and our right to enjoy it. I gobbled the first one-and-a-half hour without pausing.

 

Here was beautifully shot, immensely considered writing. It was the sort of drama so weighty that Anna Maxwell Martin could poke her head up in a bit part – brilliantly – and still hardly warrant a mention.

Jefferies, who was arrested and held by the police for three days, was innocent of any involvement in Yeates’s disappearance. He was, however, entirely guilty of growing his thinning hair rather long and then backcombing it slightly. He and thousands of other ageing men, of course, but Jefferies’s bouffant was front-page fodder. Jefferies was also guilty, aged 65, of never marrying. He was guilty of enjoying the poetry of Christina Rossetti, which, as newspapers pointed out, occasionally touches on themes of death. Just the sort of thing a murderer might read! Worst of all, he was guilty of once making a common error with henna shampoo which left his silver locks a light azure shade temporarily.

All this, mixed with a cocktail of flagrant untruths, broadcast for days over front pages and on rolling news, led the public to believe the police had found their killer. I believed it too.

And why wouldn’t I? It was the Christmas break, a young woman was missing and her distraught parents were weeping on TV. Her body was discovered on a snowy Christmas Day morning, leaving us amateur sleuths in need of an arrest. We craved further detail, we wanted to know something was being done, and when Jefferies’s arrest came, we pored over the intricate details of his weirdness in a Quality Street-induced languor.

5765752.jpg
Watkins as Christopher Jefferies in Peter Morgan's ITV drama

Saying that we – the press, the public, the police – got somewhat “carried away” by the arrest of Christopher Jefferies doesn’t quite cover it.

This drama left me wondering whether, four years on, post-Leveson and, in fact, post-Jefferies, we could ever see such press mistreatment again. Furthermore, it looked at how readily we accepted the media’s access to leaked police information. Jefferies – a clever man with a strong memory for details – was perfectly aware what he had told the police confidentially. Days later, his private words were being recounted to him on his doorstep by news reporters.

Why do we find these betrayals by the police acceptable? How can there ever be justice while trial by media exists?

The drama should, I feel, be praised for avoiding any major focus on Yeates’s murder. This wasn’t a chance to be entertained by reconstructions of her final hours. It was instead a rumination on our collective guilt in the ruination of Christopher Jefferies’s life.

On his release from custody, and following Vincent Tabak’s arrest, we watched Jefferies all but imprisoned in his flat, unable to fetch groceries, attend his gym, face friends or continue his role as an exam invigilator.

Yes, the media had now turned their attentions to Tabak – who is now in prison for Joanna Yeates’s murder – but remnants of suspicion over Jefferies lingered. After all, he was a peeping Tom, wasn’t he? (No, he wasn’t). And didn’t he have a reputation among his pupils for being sexually inappropriate? (No. A substantial libel handout from eight newspapers readdressed these claims).

As Watkins bumbled through scenes, flamboyant of hand gesture, sarky of tone, beautifully uptight in his wispy wig, I began to wonder if the police and the press had actually met many people in academia before the Joanna Yeates’s case. Because universities are full of men like Jefferies. There’s nothing strange in academia about enjoying poetry, having fly-away hair, living a celibate lifestyle and wearing a corduroy blazer with moleskin elbow-patches. It’s entirely de rigueur. Boring even. How odd to think that, for three days in 2010, Christopher Jefferies was one of Britain’s strangest men.

Comments