Do you know, I mean really know, what people think of you? It might be worth finding out, just in case you are ever in the hideous situation foisted on Christopher Jefferies in 2010 when his tenant Joanna Yeates was murdered.
Jefferies, played superbly by Jason Watkins, is a retired schoolmaster who likes to play the harpsichord, correct other people’s grammatical mistakes and, back then, sport the world’s worst comb-over. He was arrested and held by the police for three days on no more evidence than this. As we now know, he was innocent of any involvement in Yeates’s disappearance but that didn’t stop the police trying very hard to get him to “confess” whilst the newspapers only just managed to stop themselves declaring him guilty outright. They put forward “facts” such as his enjoyment of the poetry of Christina Rossetti, whose work occasionally touches on themes of death, as being indicative of a murderous character. Piling Pelion on Ossa, Jefferies once had a mishap with some henna shampoo, leaving his silver frizz a temporary light blue. What more do you need? Case closed.
Spread over two nights, part one focused on this very particular and erudite man suddenly finding himself arrested and being questioned over and over again in police custody. Part two featured his fight to restore his name and reputation and necessarily involved the Leveson Inquiry. The newspapers were keen to portray Jefferies as an eccentric loner, but the excellent writing of Peter Morgan carefully showed him mixing regularly with a large band of perfectly normal friends.
Morgan’s previous works include Longford, The Deal and Frost/Nixon, so there was no question but that there would be “imagined” scenes, but it was all the better for them. In particular, Jefferies’ meeting with Steve Coogan (playing himself) during the Leveson Inquiry brought a small amount of much needed humour to proceedings, as Coogan’s celebrity status was gently mocked. Preferring books above films and television, light entertainment not being his “thing”, Jefferies was ignorant of Coogan’s identity, and so he asked him who he was. “Well, up until this moment I’d have said a well-known comedian,” replied Coogan ruefully.
Following his release from custody, Jefferies found himself in another kind of incarceration. He was all but imprisoned in his flat, unable to fetch groceries, scared to go to his gym and, in a particularly unpleasant scene, told he wouldn’t be continuing his role as an exam invigilator. Worried about all of this, Jefferies’ friends advised him to get rid of the comb over and dye his hair to avoid recognition in his home town of Bristol. The irony of an innocent man having to change his appearance in a manner generally only ever required of notorious released convicts was a particularly painful moment in a whole programme full of pain.
Later, Jefferies began libel proceedings against eight newspapers, but the Attorney General himself decided to act specifically against the Mirror and the Sun, describing their coverage as “so exceptional, memorable and adverse”. After he won substantial damages from these newspapers, Jefferies was shown to be reluctant to take up the Hacked Off banner. “It’s not appropriate…to appear triumphant when there’s tragedy at the heart of this.”
This was television drama at its best, with everything and everyone involved – Jason Watkins’ acting, Morgan’s writing, Roger Michell’s directing – being first class.
Incidentally, you may wonder why the media was so sure of itself. Avon and Somerset Police later admitted “inadvertently” leaking Jefferies’ name to the media and then failed to make it clear that he was no longer a suspect. Well done, lads.
(If you haven’t seen The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies, you can watch it here)