Accused: Jason Watkins (right) as Jefferies.
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Marked man: the careful kindness of The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies

Christopher Jefferies stands for us all in the matter of what the newspapers can do to a person, should they happen to take against him.

The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies
ITV

The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies (10 and 11 December, 9pm) began by carefully establishing the eccentricity of the retired Bristol schoolteacher whose life was so shamefully trashed by the press in the days following his wrongful arrest for the murder of his tenant Joanna Yeates in December 2010. What counts as eccentric in 21st-century Britain? I think we’re all agreed that Jefferies’s hairstyle, a swirling grey nimbus secured by vast quantities of Elnett (“Extra Hold”), made for a pretty funny sight.

But is it really so weird to live in a flat full of books, to listen to classical music, to sit on various do-gooding committees, to open letters with a paper knife? How unbelievably depressing. I suppose it is quite unusual, these days, to kneel by your bed to say your prayers. But which of us doesn’t occasionally whisper desperately to some higher power? I know that I do and I was brought up by scientists whose feelings for the Church of England were roughly akin to those of Emily Thornberry for the St George’s cross.

Such details – or, the close attention of the film’s director, Roger Michell, to such details – had me worried at first. The most important point about Jefferies, it seems to me, is not his oddness (when I interviewed him, he seemed no more or less odd than dozens of other men I’ve met) but his ordinariness: he stands for us all in the matter of what the newspapers can do to a person, should they happen to take against him.

Still, I soon calmed down. This was such creditable television, so careful and kind, that it was difficult to believe it was on ITV. Peter Morgan’s script was unsensational to the point of minimalism, Michell’s direction delicate without ever prettifying. Most fantastic of all was Jason Watkins’s turn as Jefferies, a triumph of close observation, emotional consistency and fathomless empathy. Best known at the moment for playing the BBC’s egregious director of strategic governance, Simon Harwood, in the comedy W1A, Watkins deserves every prize going.

We all know what happened to Jefferies, the vile lies that were told about him and the way his sense of injustice over this eventually bubbled up into activism (having appeared at the Leveson Inquiry only reluctantly, he continues to campaign against press intrusion). But this was no broad outline. Here was the man in full, his life replete with friendships (long-lasting, teasing) and abiding interests (wide-ranging, intellectual). Here, too, were his stoicism and good manners. Lost for words at the moment of his arrest, his anxiety revealed itself to us only in his fingers, which made starfish shapes, in and out, and in the rapid escalation of his schoolmasterly pedantry: when a copper asked him what he meant by “bluff”, he reeled off a long list of synonyms that ended, rather brilliantly, with the word “unvarnished”.

The unlikely humiliation of the police cells for a man who had never previously received so much as a parking ticket was neatly encapsulated when he chose pasta bake over chilli con carne for lunch – either way, mush that arrived at 10am in a plastic dish, as if for a baby – and, later on, his other-worldliness in a scene set backstage at the Leveson Inquiry, when he failed to recognise Steve Coogan (played by himself).

Back at his flat, he cleaned resignedly in his Marigolds, the police having turned the place over. As he laid out his shaving equipment, lining each item up as a boy would arrange his toy battleships, we understood that for him the comforts of home have to do, for whatever reason, with order and precision. It was a moment that made the chaos of unchecked “facts” and feverish innuendo into which he had unaccountably been sucked seem all the more painful and appalling. I suddenly found myself thinking of an earlier scene: hiding out with a loyal former pupil in order to avoid the press, Jefferies sat Zen-like in a straight-backed chair, a book called The Cultivation of Lilies in his hands. At the time, I had wondered, in a film whose props seemed always to be meaningful, about the title. Now it made perfect sense. No wonder Jefferies sought solace in fragrant plants: anything to overpower the stench.

 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 09 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, How Isis hijacked the revolution

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Recess confidential: Labour's liquid party

Sniffing out the best stories from Westminster, including Showsec, soames, and Smith-side splits.

If you are celebrating in a brewery, don’t ask Labour to provide the drinks. Because of the party’s continuing failure to secure a security contractor for its Liverpool conference, it is still uncertain whether the gathering will take place at all. Since boycotting G4S, the usual supplier, over its links with Israeli prisons, Labour has struggled to find an alternative. Of the five firms approached, only one – Showsec – offered its services. But the company’s non-union-recognition policy is inhibiting an agreement. The GMB, the firm’s antagonist, has threatened to picket the conference if Showsec is awarded the contract. In lieu of a breakthrough, sources suggest two alternatives: the police (at a cost of £59.65 per constable per hour), or the suspension of the G4S boycott. “We’ll soon find out which the Corbynites dislike the least,” an MP jested. Another feared that the Tories’ attack lines will write themselves: “How can Labour be trusted with national security if it can’t organise its own?”

Farewell, then, to Respect. The left-wing party founded in 2004 and joined by George Galloway after his expulsion from Labour has officially deregistered itself.

“We support Corbyn’s Labour Party,” the former MP explained, urging his 522,000 Facebook followers to sign up. “The Labour Party does not belong to one man,” replied Jess Phillips MP, who also pointed out in the same tweet that Respect had “massively failed”. Galloway, who won 1.4 per cent of the vote in this year’s London mayoral election, insists that he is not seeking to return to Labour. But he would surely be welcomed by Jeremy Corbyn’s director of communications, Seumas Milne, whom he once described as his “closest friend”. “We have spoken almost daily for 30 years,” Galloway boasted.

After Young Labour’s national committee voted to endorse Corbyn, its members were aggrieved to learn that they would not be permitted to promote his candidacy unless Owen Smith was given equal treatment. The leader’s supporters curse more “dirty tricks” from the Smith-sympathetic party machine.

Word reaches your mole of a Smith-side split between the ex-shadow cabinet ministers Lisa Nandy and Lucy Powell. The former is said to be encouraging the challenger’s left-wing platform, while the latter believes that he should make a more centrist pitch. If, as expected, Smith is beaten by Corbyn, it’s not only the divisions between the leader and his opponents that will be worth watching.

Nicholas Soames, the Tory grandee, has been slimming down – so much so, that he was congratulated by Tom Watson, Labour’s deputy leader, on his weight loss. “Soon I’ll be able to give you my old suits!” Soames told the similarly rotund Watson. 

Kevin Maguire is away

I'm a mole, innit.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser