Profile: Excuse me while I take you apart: George Carman QC, ultimate inquisitor

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If there was one man in public life who had reason to be comforted by the lurching crisis that hit Britain's economy this week, it must surely be the minister of fun. For it was only that close shave with national ruin that knocked off the tabloid front pages another drama that was unfolding in the Strand: in the Gothic surroundings of Court No 11, Britain's most celebrated Queen's Counsel, George Carman, was demonstrating his skills in a libel case: 'Of course, politicians aren't angels, nor do we expect them to be,' he was saying of David Mellor. 'Marbella has sand, sea and sunshine and, if a politician goes there and - in the honest view of some - behaves like an ostrich and puts his head in the sand and thereby exposes his thinking parts, it may be a newspaper is entitled to say so.'

It's a work of art, they say in the Temples, George Carman with a witness. The gentle leading-on, inviting 'yes' or 'no' answers to half questions, reluctant choices forced and squirrelled away to be assembled into something altogether more damaging in a summing up.

Impressions are created, then worried at until a reputation is chewed into a bloody mess and laid, almost regretfully, before the jury. There are the master touches: the repetition of a memorable phrase - 'a white bottom?' he repeated, in the Jani Allan case, until the image of that part of Eugene Terre-Blanche's anatomy was wobbling before every eye in the courtroom; the choice of a few, simple ideas - George Carman never overestimates a jury's reach or underestimates the lassitude that can creep over it if a case grows tedious; and the reiteration of those ideas until the whole court sees it his way.

George Carman is a star, the only practising barrister to have been accorded an interview on Desert Island Discs. His performance drove his interlocutor to remark, with mild exasperation, that she felt she had had him on the witness stand: one- or two-sentence answers and nothing volunteered; a choice of music that betrayed less a connoisseur's ear than a man who still harboured an adolescent sense of romance. But, above all, a defensive carapace that reduced his personality to one grey dimension. Asking questions, he is a virtuoso. Answering them, a cipher. If he loves the limelight on his wig and gown, he shuns it on his person.

Physically this small, grey-haired, bespectacled man is unlikely star material. But when he rises to his lectern he commands: the deep calm voice, the actor's timing, the practised use of the pause. And, when he needs it, an implacable aggression, deployed to the point just before a witness breaks down. A witness in tears is an object of pity for the jury; the art is to discompose, to confuse, but not to destroy. Just on the edge, he becomes avuncular: it's nothing personal, his demeanour says; this is painful for me, too; I do regret having to expose your duplicity like this, before the public gaze. It's just that your story can't be believed.

It's a long way from Blackpool to the High Court in the Strand and thin pickings on the Northern circuit to some of the highest fees at the Bar. The qualities that helped him on his way, even the most jealous of colleagues agree, are a relentless ambition, a forensic intelligence and a rare combination of a good legal mind and the kind of common touch that helps him unerringly to finger a jury's sensibilities.

George Alfred Carman was born in 1929, the only son of Alfred George and Evelyn Carman. His father ran a furniture shop and his mother sold dresses. It was a modest beginning, socially, but not a background of dramatic poverty. His ambitions first centred on the priesthood and he studied at Upholland College, the Roman Catholic seminary in Lancashire. The romance of the calling, however, wore off and he left at 16. 'I had no vocation and I discovered I liked women,' he says. He went up to Balliol to read law.

He claims to have suffered none of the insecurities traditional to a not-very-well-connected provincial boy arriving at Oxford. 'Many people go to Balliol with an inferiority complex,' remarked a colleague. 'But few people leave with one.'

There were, George Carman has said in measured phrases, a number of people who had enjoyed advantages denied to him. But he recalls Balliol as the happiest time of his life, the moment at which he found the door to the great world and pushed it open. His accent, which he can still adjust to suit the circumstance, was rounded up from Blackpool to neutral. His faith was rounded down and his ambitions crystallised. He took a first in law in 1952 and was called to the Bar in 1953.

Without money or connections it is easier to start a barrister's life on the Northern circuit. He was, besides, involved with a woman from his home town whom he married in 1955. Her father was a brewer and a figure in the Conservative Party and the wedding was in grand northern style at Manchester's Cafe Royal, attended by 200 guests. George had political ambitions and his father-in-law was glad to help, but, like the priesthood, politics lost out to the Bar.

It was not easy in the early years. Fees were small and late in coming and the couple was hard up. The marriage ended in divorce after five years. There were to be two other marriages, of longer duration but with the same end. From the second came a son, Dominic, described by his father as 'my closest male friend'. Now, as he approaches his 63rd birthday, George Carman is a bachelor again. He does not find it, he admits, 'an ideal state'.

The early years on the Northern circuit were a hand to mouth existence. He was not, a colleague recalls, especially well-liked. 'A little man, and peppery, because of his stature.' But professionally those years laid the foundations of a talent that was to blossom in an altogether sunnier climate. You can be a good lawyer without being good with juries. You can be good with juries but not brilliant at law. On the Northern circuit, George Carman learnt to be both.

It was his skills with the jury, though, that brought him his big break. He was, as the solicitor Sir David Napley recalled, still based in Manchester doing 'running down work' - traffic accidents and a bit of criminal work - when he was brought to London for the Big Dipper case. 'A big dipper had collapsed at Battersea funfair and some children were killed,' said Sir David. 'I was representing the surveyor and George was defending the manager who had been operating the big dipper. It didn't seem to me that the chap had much of a defence, but George got him off. I said to my partner that if he could get that chap off, he was worth watching.'

The name was retrieved when, in 1979, the next big but delicate case came up. Sir David briefed George Carman in the defence of Jeremy Thorpe, accused of conspiracy to murder the gay model Norman Scott. The case riveted public attention and Carman's conduct of it, and the acquittal of his client, launched him towards stardom. By now a silk, he moved to London and a series of high-profile criminal cases followed: Dr Leonard Arthur, the paediatrician accused of murdering a Down's syndrome baby; Geoffrey Prime, the Cheltenham spy; the family of God's banker, Roberto Calvi, who wanted - and, thanks to George Carman, got - the suicide verdict reversed; Peter Adamson, who played Len Fairclough in Coronation Street, acquitted of the charge of indecent assault on two girls; the actress Maria Aitken, cleared of charges of smuggling cocaine; Ken Dodd, the entertainer, extricated from his embarrassment with the tax man.

The move into libel was, in some ways, unexpected. Libel is a specialised field and he was not a member of the two big libel chambers. But in other ways it was a logical combination of his talents: libel is one of the few instances in which a civil case comes before a jury. And George Carman's skills with the jury had become a legend in the wine bars of the Strand. When he pulled off the final miracle - successfully defending a newspaper in a libel case - albeit against Sonia Sutcliffe - there seemed to be nothing he could not do.

There are few weak points in the professional reputation. George Carman's success rests on meticulous hard work, a thorough preparation of his case aided by a prodigious memory that enables him to conduct a cross examination over many hours with only the sketchiest of notes. Nor is there much to criticise, say those who have worked closely with him, in his habits of work. He is rigorous and demanding, but juniors and solicitors chorus their appreciation of his fairness, generosity, lack of pomposity.

If the darts are being sharpened in this profession of prima donnas, they are aimed at his well-defended personality, sheltered behind the controlled and competent exterior. The consolation is that success, or money, cannot buy happiness; a sniping born of the old barristers' maxim: 'It is not enough that I succeed. Others must fail.'

'There is,' said an equally stellar QC, 'a loneliness about him, a deep insecurity and sadness. He never makes himself vulnerable in the way you have to to have really close friends. He wants to project himself as he thinks other see him. There isn't any great secret to him. Just an essentially frightened person inside.'

'People say,' said a woman barrister, 'that he is a womaniser because he is often seen in the company of women. But I always felt totally comfortable with him. It's terribly unfair, that reputation. It's just because he genuinely likes women.'

A close friend said: 'I think, if he envies me anything, it is that I have been happily married for so long. I could never understand why a man who was so good at everything else was not good at that.' Perhaps because he lived for his work in a profession that is notoriously damaging to a private life. Friends say he still immerses himself in the drama of the courtroom long past the point when others have opted for the calm of the Bench. And the personal armour is drawn close about him against the jealousy that fame inspires. 'He has the degree of celebrity that makes people want to snipe at him,' a colleague said. 'He's not fair game for that, just because he's successful.'

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