It was Thursday morning and in Court number 10 at the High Court of Justice, Mr Justice Popplewell was reacting in a somewhat negative manner to Mr George Carman QC's request for a day's adjournment in the libel case brought by the former MP Jonathan Aitken against the Guardian and Granada Television. This was the seventh day of a case which could last for up to eight weeks and centres around claims that Mr Aitken provided prostitutes for Arabs, was financially dependent upon them, and was involved in secret arms deals.
In the best traditions of courtroom drama, new evidence had apparently come to light on the previous evening and Carman, QC for the defence, wanted to postpone his cross-examination of the plaintiff in order to spend the day interviewing potential new witnesses. But the beak was having none of it. Mr Justice Popplewell knitted together his bushy eyebrows and made it plain to Mr Carman that he would not countenance such a thing. Mr Carman assumed a long-suffering expression. On the other hand, however, His Lordship said he was willing to grant a brief adjournment in order that Mr Carman could confer with his clients on the subject of the adjournment which had not been granted.
Up sprang Mr Carman's learned friend Mr Charles Gray, who is Mr Aitken's barrister and who had responded to Mr Carman's request for an adjournment with the kind of tut-tutting contempt that suggested Mr Carman might just as well have been proposing that the earth is flat, pigs have wings and the Pope is a Protestant. Mr Gray wondered if he could bring to the court's attention the fact that the defendants had now withdrawn their pleas of justification with regard to the allegations which referred to illegal arms-trading. (In other words, on this particular point the Guardian and Granada had put their hands up and said, "It's a fair cop, guv, you got me bang to rights.") "Yes," replied Mr Justice Popplewell, who says "yes" a lot, generally in the rather exasperated tone of a man who has just been asked whether it could be true that the sky is blue, grass is green and Leo McKern played the lead role in Rumpole of the Bailey.
During the brief break which followed, I was in the corridor enjoying a swift cigarette (these adjournments have their uses) when a voice addressed me from behind. "Do you understand the significance of that?" it said. I turned. It was Jonathan Aitken, who was keen to make clear to a member of the press the full implications of what Mr Gray had just said in court. "I'm no longer an arms dealer," he said, grinning. It was tempting to enquire as to how he intended to make a living in future, but of course such a silly, throwaway remark intended purely in a spirit of fun might have had serious legal consequences, so I congratulated him on the fact that his reputation had been cleared of this terrible slur.
It was time to go back into court. As the trial is being held without a jury, the benches at the front of the courtroom normally reserved for 12 good men and true are occupied by the press, which means we get closer to the action, as Sky Sports might put it. I found myself directly facing the witness box as Mr Carman continued his cross-examination. A small, benign-looking man with a paunch, the famous barrister bears an uncanny and slightly unsettling facial resemblance to Dennis Norden, the presenter of It'll Be Alright On The Night. He speaks in a quiet voice and tends not to look at Mr Aitken as he questions him. For his part, Mr Aitken answers almost all questions with a smile, as politicians tend to do when they are interviewed on TV.
During lunch, I got my sketch pad out. Because we aren't allowed to take photographs or make sketches in court, newspapers generally fall back on an "artist's impression" to illustrate pieces about legal cases. I'd decided to dispense with the services of a professional artist and do it myself. I'm sure you'll agree the result is quite impressive for someone who wasn't even good enough to take O-level art. I think I brought off Mr Carman rather well, although I admit that I struggled with Mr Aitken and had to make several attempts before I came up with something which even resembled a human being, let alone the former MP for Thanet South.
In the afternoon, Mr Carman's cross-examination turned to the subject of whether Mr Aitken had acted as (as he put it himself) "a subservient pimp", and then, as the day came to a close, Mr Carman announced that he was going to introduce some video evidence. This was with reference to Mr Aitken's claim that a Granada television crew had subjected him to a "Keystone Cops" car chase. Mr Carman wanted to show the full, unedited film of the alleged chase. There was a large TV set for the benefit of the court, while the judge had his own small monitor. These were duly switched on."That's not part of the chase, is it?" said Mr Justice Popplewell. From my vantage point I could see that his screen, due to some technical quirk, was in fact showing a Popeye cartoon. "It's quite entertaining," said the Judge.
Dennis Norden would have loved it. The case, as they say, continues.
Anne Marie's way is Bard
L!VE TV celebrated its second anniversary last week and the cheap and cheerful cable station announced it will be sponsoring Millwall Football Club next season. Lions fans will no doubt be delighted to hear that their new mascot is the channel's Anne Marie Foss, the six-foot-tall, 24-year- old blonde who presents the weather in Norwegian, usually dressed in a bikini.
Anne Marie admits she doesn't know much about football, which possibly explains why she's so cheerful about the thought of making public appearances at Millwall. She arrived in London two and a half years ago and spent a year at drama school, but her attempts at becoming an actress had an obvious drawback. "When you go to a Shakespeare audition or something, the director usually has a picture in his mind of the person he wants for a part," says Anne Marie. "And that doesn't usually include Norwegians."
Around the world on 40 winks
READERS with particularly good memories or very empty lives may remember that in April I spoke to Nick Sanders on the eve of his attempt to break the round-the-world motorcycling record. He arrived back in London on Wednesday, after bringing the record down from 33 days to 31 days, although he says it was touch and go. "By the time I got to Anchorage I was behind schedule and I knew I had to do something drastic," he says. "Once I got to the Canadian border I went day and night and I didn't sleep, I just took catnaps every few hours. I worked out I'd had about 10 hours sleep in six days." In those six days he covered about 5,500 miles. "It was a tremendous exercise in sleep deprivation," says Nick.
His next big adventure will be fatherhood - his girlfriend is six months pregnant - then next July he'll cycle round the world in an attempt to get his old record back. Nick is proud to say he's never been up in court, although he did commit a few minor motoring offences in his youth.Reuse content