The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies: spoiler-free first preview

ITV has made a drama about the retired teacher hounded by the media after being falsely suspected of killing landscape architect Joanna Yeates in 2010. Ben Dowell investigates...

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The story of Christopher Jefferies, the retired Bristol teacher who rented a flat to the murdered landscape architect Joanna Yeates, is a familiar one to anybody with a passing interest in current affairs. When his tenant Joanna Yeates was murdered, he was subjected to a dawn arrest, three days of intensive police questioning and a public vilification by the press.

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The retired teacher’s ordeal began in December 2010 when Jo (as she was known) went missing and was subsequently found murdered. Jefferies was called in for intensive police questioning, prompting lurid and entirely false stories to be splashed across British newspapers. It eventually transpired that the killer was another of his tenants – Dutch engineer Vincent Tabak – who had given the police false information in a bid to help frame Jefferies.

In the three weeks that separated Jefferies’ and Tabak’s arrests, the fact that the former looked and spoke a bit strangely was enough for the papers to run stories that made unpleasant and untrue insinuations about him. The scandalous way the entirely innocent and upstanding Jefferies was treated resulted in him receiving more than half a million pounds of damages and being a key witness in the Leveson inquiry into press behaviour.

Now ITV is dramatising his experiences. So what’s it like?

The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies is a deliberately old-fashioned-sounding title – probably because he is quite an old-fashioned guy, played here by W1A and Trollied star Jason Watkins.

Single, mannered, pedantic, well-read: the drama provides a rounded portrayal of a decidedly singular individual. Watkins tells me he was very careful to try and get the look, feel and speech of the man absolutely right; to capture his every gesture, movement and twinkle. And he succeeds.

It’s a performance that helps you see past those memorable snatches of grainy news footage to what he was really like: his intellect, his generosity and kindness.

“He is an intelligent person with a passion for literature who imparted that to his students,” says Watkins, who met him before shooting began. “I wanted to tell the story as accurately as possible to do justice to Christopher and by extension to Joanna – to tell it accurately.”

Watkins’ performance is not entirely sympathetic or flattering. We watch him dousing his shock of thinning grey hair with litres of hair spray every morning, and the way he corrects the police on their spelling is shown to get their goat. But it is a tribute to Watkins’ acting and Peter Morgan’s script that after a while you forget about Jefferies’ foibles and see the warm and genuine man underneath it all.

If I have a gripe, it’s that the drama is a little partisan. Yes, the press were seriously at fault in their handling of Jefferies – and they were right to pay the appropriate price and apologise in full. Yet there is something about the presentation – the predatory Sky News journalist, the shouting press pack – that verges on caricature. (And yes, I suppose I’m a little partisan too.)  

The two-parter also promises to be notable for an appearance by a well-known actor heavily involved in the crusade for press reform and playing himself. I won’t say who as that could spoil the surprise. Let’s just say it’s an “A-ha!” moment…

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The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies is coming soon to ITV