The accused: Jeffrey Archer. The accusation: Perjury (and a highly suspicious coincidence)
Wednesday 27 September 2000
Jeffrey Archer couldn't have scripted it better. The bestselling author began yesterday by being charged with perjury. And he ended it awaiting an audience's verdict on his guilt or innocence on the opening night of his new play,
Jeffrey Archer couldn't have scripted it better. The bestselling author began yesterday by being charged with perjury. And he ended it awaiting an audience's verdict on his guilt or innocence on the opening night of his new play, The Accused.
Whether by accident or design, Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare had life imitating art. By the curtain fall at the Theatre Royal in Windsor, the public could hardly tell what was fact and what was fiction.
Was he cocking a snook at the authorities, with advertising posters declaring: "See You In Court"? Was it bravado, outrageous PR? Or, as one of his aides said, "an amazing coincidence" his play should open on the day he was to find out if he was to be charged?
It was a remarkable real-life production. It began early, in weak sunshine, with a rendezvous with a solicitor from the firm Mishcon de Reya, at Lord Archer's expensive flat in Peninsula Heights overlooking the Thames in London.
The reason for the meeting was simple; after a 10-month investigation by a team of detectives from Scotland Yard led by Detective Superintendent Geoff Hunt, the former deputy chairman of the Conservative Party was to learn whether he would face charges for allegedly persuading a friend to lie for him during his 1987 libel action against the Daily Star.
It was reported that he had asked Ted Francis, a television producer, to provide an alibi for him against the paper's claim that he had paid off a prostitute, Monica Coghlan, to buy her silence. Mr Francis came forward with the allegations when his former friend was contesting the position of Conservative candidate for London mayor, 13 years after Lord Archer won the libel case - and £500,000 in damages.
In an apparent attempt to outwit reporters who had gathered at central London police stations, Det Supt Hunt had arranged to meet Lord Archer at Wimbledon police station on the outskirts of the capital. The 60-year-old peer and his legal adviser travelled to the station in a chauffeur-driven green BMW, arriving at 9.45am.
During the next hour and a quarter, Lord Archer was charged with two counts of perjury, two of perverting the course of justice and one of using a false instrument, thought to be an affidavit or a letter produced during the trial.
By the time he emerged, blinking, smiling, and dressed in a dark suit and white shirt, Lord Archer had regained his composure - if he ever lost it. Having been tracked down by reporters and photographers, he appeared unruffled and slipped back into the BMW, bound for his second big appointment of the day - his senior stage debut as Dr Patrick Sherwood, a GP accused of poisoning his wife.
The twist in the tale - and Lord Archer has always been fond of twists - is that the evidence is so finely balanced that the audience is asked to act as jury by voting on keypads.
By 2pm, Lord Archer was at the theatre and, in spite of having an understudy at the ready, was preparing for a full-scale dress rehearsal. Directed by Val May, the play will run at Windsor, Berkshire, until 24 October, when it will be taken on a national tour, eventually settling in the West End.
The receipts from the play could be enormous. "We have got a full house tonight," a Theatre Royal spokeswoman said yesterday. "We have only got a certain amount of telephones [in the box office] and they are going mental."
Craig Titley, the theatre's marketing manager, insisted the timing was a coincidence, saying that the planning had taken more than six months, but he admitted it was having a positive effect on ticket sales, adding that the peer was confident. "Lord Archer does not seem at all nervous," he said. "He is just totally focused on what he is doing. Of course he had his lines to remember and his positions to learn, much like the rest of the cast.
"It is not as though he is not used to performing in front of large crowds. It is almost as though he is helping to direct the play. I have just been into the auditorium and seen him advising on the exact lighting. That is quite unusual for an actor, but then he did write the play. He was very impressive. He just seemed to fit the part."
And he added: "I cannot believe how quickly these tickets are going. This looks set to be a big hit."
Lord Archer has had a rollercoaster ride of a life, but this appears to be the first time he has hit a low and a high on the same day.
He was born an only child on 15 April 1940, in Weston-super-Mare. His father, William Archer, was a career soldier and his mother, Lola, was a journalist. After attending Wellington School and doing a one-year diploma in education at the Oxford Department of Education, he launched a public relations and fund-raising firm, called Arrow Enterprises.
He entered politics in 1967 when by securing a seat on Greater London Council. Two years later he won a convincing by-election victory for the Conservatives at Louth and became, aged 29, one of Britain's youngest MPs. His good fortune was to end in disarray, however, when a fraudulent Canadian cleaning company, in which he had invested his life savings, crashed, pushing him to the edge of bankruptcy and out of the House of Commons.
Determined to bounce back, he drew on his experiences to write Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less, which brought him publishing riches. His books, such as Kane and Abel and The Prodigal Daughter, were ridiculed by the critics but loved by the public, and he was soon a multi-millionaire.
By 1985, he returned to politics and was appointed the deputy chairman of the Tory party, despite the deep reservations of Norman Tebbit,the chairman at the time, and a warning from Lord Whitelaw to Baroness Thatcher that he was "an accident waiting to happen". A year later, Lord Archer described as a "lack of judgment" his decision to send £2,000 to the prostitute, Monica Coghlan "to help her escape press attention".
He sued the Star for suggesting he had slept with her and won £500,000 in damages, once again turning a potential defeat into a victory. By 1992, he had a peerage and was back carrying John Major's bags during the general election. But in 1994 his judgement let him down again when, on behalf of a friend, he turned a £78,000 profit by trading in Anglia TV shares.
The problem was that his wife, Mary, was a member of the Anglia board and the deals were undertaken during takeover negotiations. Lord Archer was investigated by the Department of Trade and Industry, which found no evidence of insider dealing. However, he was never again to reclaim a senior party position.
Instead, he set his sights on becoming London's mayor, a quest abandoned after Ted Francis's alibi claims. The result was disgrace and a five-year expulsion from the party he loves. Now, instead of preparing one of his famous pie and champagne parties for next week's Tory party conference, he must prepare to appear before Bow Street magistrates' court to face the charges on 3 October. Mr Francis will appear there, too, charged with perverting the course of justice.
What seemed particularly odd about yesterday's events was that, after decades of crisis and recovery - happening in that order - Lord Archer appeared anxious to anticipate events. In a mighty demonstration of practice making perfect, this time he was getting back on his feet even before being knocked down.
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