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8 September 2003

The Hutton Files, starring Michael Barrymore, Rachel Weisz and Victor Meldrew

Philip Kerr takes a dramatist's eye to the Royal Courts of Justice

By Philip Kerr

London. Michaelmas term not yet begun, and Lord Hutton sitting in Court 73 at the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand. Sticky summer weather. As much litter in the streets as if London’s road sweepers had retired from the face of the earth, and it seems a little wonderful to find a beautiful white marquee, 40 feet long or so, erected in the main courtyard, as if some old megalosaurus of a high court judge had decided to get married and host his wedding breakfast in the Gothic Revival environs of G E Street’s Victorian building. Entering the tent, however, with its twin chandeliers and ruched curtain ceiling, you would find not a wedding reception in progress but a sort of inquest; and those gathered here come not to celebrate anything but to watch TV, or, more precisely, eight wide-screen TVs. For this is the press tent at the Hutton inquiry. A few grander journalists are afforded a reserved place in Court 73 itself, but for the majority, it is here where they observe the CCTV broadcast of the judicial inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the death of an emotionally naked civil servant.

They are a grubby, irreverent lot: there are gales of laughter as Andrew Mackinlay MP (think David Jason as Del Boy), exuding high dudgeon and “affront”, gives his self-important evidence. Mackinlay is the Commons foreign affairs select committee member who called Dr David Kelly (think Ian Holm) “chaff” to his face.

If Denholm Elliott were still alive, you would cast him as one of the older hacks chortling away at the back of the tent, from where he can easily nip out for a ciggy when things get a bit boring; and there, right at the front, typing furiously on a battered laptop, obsessed with battery life and badly in need of a shave, sits Ewan McGregor, wearing a shirt that badly needs a wash, and accompanied by a female cub reporter (Rachel Weisz) with Dame Edna glasses and nice legs, who badly needs a . . . you get the picture.

That’s what makes this inquiry such fun, for it already looks more like TV drama than the kind of history that E H Carr might recognise and, in moments of ennui, I find myself casting all the various parts. For example, can you think of anyone better suited to playing the part of Tony Blair than Michael Barrymore?

Even so, these proceedings badly need a bit of sexing up. For example, Court 73, without windows or atmosphere, has the air of a small claims court in Croydon, and while this might appeal to the budget-minded BBC, a movie company (especially an American movie company) would demand something that looked more judicial. At the very least, the Americans would want a royal coat of arms behind Lord Hutton and a few wigs and gowns. As things stand, however, the only gown on show is worn by the judge’s clerk, a fortysomething blonde who bustles in every morning carrying His Lordship’s box files. Apart from Rachel, the lady clerk is the only potential love interest in this particular courtroom drama. (Note to scriptwriter: there are 1,000 rooms and 3.5 miles of corridor in the Royal Courts of Justice, so it should be easy to include an alfresco sex scene, most probably between Rachel and Ewan.)

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Hutton himself is an Ulsterman who sounds like a headmaster at an Edinburgh public school. He needs quite a bit of sexing up, but then so do most high court judges and, in our courtroom drama, for the sake of some light relief, I think we shall have to have the actor playing Hutton living up to the Rumpole stereotype of the crusty old judge who has never heard of David Beckham. Casting is important here, but Richard Wilson is the actor who springs to mind. Courteous but forensic, Hutton interrupts James Dingemans QC, senior counsel to the inquiry, with a question of his own from time to time; and, having heard the answer, adds a vaguely sceptical “ye-e-es” or “thenk you”, as if a small part of him wants to exclaim, like Victor Meldrew (the TV character he most resembles, aurally at least), “I don’t believe it”. This was especially so when Hutton questioned the Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, best played by the world-weary Bill Nighy.

The star of the piece is the silky-smooth Dingemans, who is easily sexed up. With his immaculate, double-cuffed shirts, chiselled face and cut-glass accent, Dingemans should be played by Hugh Grant, albeit with a little less hair on the front of his impossibly brainy forehead. Dingemans has been writing his own script, however, and whoever does the final screenplay will have to sex this up, too. Quite a lot. I think the writer needs to give Dingemans some questions about mass destruction that leave them gasping in the public gallery. Like the occasion when, during the Spycatcher trial, Malcolm Turnbull’s question prompted the then cabinet secretary, Sir Robert Armstrong, to remark that he had been “economical with the truth”. If I were writing the screenplay, I’d have Dingemans ask John Scarlett, the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, a few questions not about the September dossier – the one that the BBC’s Andrew Gilligan had accused Alastair Campbell (Richard Madeley) of “sexing up” – but about the February dossier, the so-called “dodgy dossier”.

After all, Scarlett (think Tim McInnerny, who played Captain Darling in Blackadder Goes Forth) told the inquiry that while he welcomed Campbell’s “contributions”, he wouldn’t have dreamt of ceding control of the September dossier to him; at which point I really wanted Dingemans to ask Britain’s top spook if he was claiming exclusive control of the February dossier, too. In which case, why are we paying intelligence their wages if all they’re doing is lifting the stuff off the internet? And when Scarlett says that the dossier wasn’t designed to make a case for anything, I think perhaps Hugh Grant ought to remind him that this is not what Colin Powell, the US secretary of state, thought when he praised the dodgy dossier and cited it as the basis for a possible war with Iraq.

But this is a real-life courtroom, and in a real-life court, fog – not the fog described by Dickens in the extended metaphor that begins Bleak House, but the kind of fake fog generated by government-issue dry ice – envelops almost everything. And not just fog but noise, too. Suspiciously, during much of Scarlett’s evidence regarding how the classified secrets procedure works (the mother-lode for anyone thinking of writing a modern spy novel), a helicopter hovered immediately above the press marquee, drowning out much of what he had to say.

In the real world, however, several things are clear. One is that English grammar needs to be taught in our schools again. How else are members of the electorate ever going to appreciate the differences between “should”, “would”, “could”, “ought”, “might” and “may”, as used by those clever weasels from Whitehall – what Scarlett himself described as “wordsmithing” – so that they may hold government to account? The Blair government has spoken of the need for a laptop in every classroom, but the country might be better served if every teacher had to hand a copy of Fowler’s Modern English Usage.

Another thing that’s clear from eavesdropping on other hacks during the short breaks in the Hutton proceedings is how diverted everyone is by all these e-mails and memos that appear from time to time on two of the wide-screen TVs. And it strikes me as rather strange that the government should meekly have handed these over. Speaking for myself, I’ve always found it only too easy to lose hours of work by pressing the wrong key on my computer. That the government had all these e-mails to hand leads me to suppose that ministers are quite happy for everyone to be paying attention to these and not to the February dossier. Maybe, as one of the lazier correspondents sitting at the back of the marquee, I wasn’t paying as much attention as I should have been, but it continues to strike me as very peculiar that we should be focusing so much on the September dossier when most people are still a little puzzled about the “dodgy dossier”. Lying about the provenance of that February dossier looks a lot more heinous to me than sexing up the September one.

What is also clear about the Hutton inquiry is how reprehensible it is that none of these proceedings is being broadcast to the public. The long queues of people who have lined up outside the Royal Courts of Justice in the hope of gleaning a truth or two from the lips of Messrs Blair and Hoon make plain that, once again, this scheming, manipulative, running-scared government has misjudged completely the mood of the electorate.

Despite all the “evidence” that I have seen in support of the government’s case, it is easy to sit through the inquiry and believe that there has been some kind of conspiracy to hide how, perhaps, there never were any WMDs. To quote The X-Files, “the truth is out there”, on the ground in Iraq; but given the increasingly fragile security situation in that benighted country, the truth may never be found.

Even if the government is cleared of sexing up the September dossier, however, the public will be left with the abiding impression that Blair’s government cannot be trusted. I am reminded of what someone says about the Italian police in Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist:

Do you know what people are going to think of you? That you’re a bunch of bent bastards and liars . . . Who do you think is ever going to believe you again? And do you know why people won’t believe you . . . ? Because your version of the facts, as well as being total bollocks, lacks humanity.

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