Meet Christopher Jefferies: the man behind the tabloid spin

Ginny Dougary meets the retired teacher presumed guilty of murder

imagenotavailable1

I had encountered a number of different versions of Christopher Jefferies but none of them, not even the most painstakingly observed, is quite like the man I meet in Bristol. First, there was the tabloid transmogrification of the retired schoolteacher when he was arrested on suspicion of murdering his tenant Joanna Yeates just after Christmas in 2010, with photographs of a wild-haired man and screaming headlines, WEIRD POSH LEWD. Then, along with the six-figure newspaper pay-outs, apologies and appearance at the Leveson Inquiry, came his new incarnation – with tamed, dyed and shorn hair – as the patron and campaigner of the press reform group Hacked Off, which is famously supported by Steve Coogan.

Advertisement

Now there’s a two-part television drama, The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies, with a formidable team behind it. The writer is Peter Morgan, whose trademark is inventing compelling narratives and characters out of real people, be it the Queen or David Frost and Richard Nixon. The director, Roger Michell, is a former pupil of Jefferies, and Jason Watkins plays the man himself. It’s a moving and ultimately uplifting film; the first part reflecting the events leading up to Jefferies’s demonisation, and the second part – given equal weight – showing his transformation into an almost heroic figure, vindicated but never vindictive.

It may now be a somewhat distant memory, but it was an extraordinary story at the time and convulsed the nation. The disappearance of a vibrant young woman, a talented landscape architect, as the snow fell on the gracious Regency streets of Clifton in the lead-up to Christmas. Shadowy images of her buying pizza from Tesco after a few hours in the pub with friends. Then her body found, horribly, on Christmas Day. Suspicion initially fell on her boyfriend, who was away visiting his parents. But then into the frame came the landlord – whose mad hair marked him out instantly, it seemed, as suspicious – certainly by the tabloid newspapers who united in conveying the impression that he was guilty.

The extent to which Jefferies was made to suffer by this campaign is clear in his words at the Leveson Inquiry: “I can see now that, following my arrest, the national media shamelessly vilified me. The UK press set about what can only be described as a witch-hunt. It was clear that the tabloid press had decided that I was guilty of Ms Yeates’s murder and seemed determined to persuade the public of my guilt. They embarked on a frenzied campaign to blacken my character by publishing a series of very serious allegations about me, which were completely untrue, allegations which were a mixture of smear, innuendo and complete fiction.

“In addition to any allegations made in connection with Ms Yeates’s murder, over the three days after my arrest the tabloid press essentially portrayed me as a sexually perverted voyeur who used teaching as a means of feeding my perversions and that I had a malign influence over any pupils I came into contact with. Among other highly defamatory allegations, the articles suggested I’d been involved in a previous murder and that l was linked to a convicted paedophile. All of this was completely false.”

Jason Watkins (below) plays Jefferies – and it is a great performance – as slightly camp, mannered, gentle, witty, charming, funny and most definitely unusual. His speech is staccato and words are sometimes so drawn out in their enunciation it’s comical – in prison, for instance, when he is happy to be served his “meee-ooooo-seli”.

I spoke to the actor before meeting Jefferies, and was given yet another impression of the man. “Oh, he’s terrifying,” said Watkins. “I think in some ways, without being pompous about it – and he’ll never admit this – he’s the keeper of the keys of the English language. He’s a literary person; an educationalist whose whole life has been inspired and engorged by books. If you spend time with him, your language will improve.”

There are so many demands on Jefferies’s time now (interviews, speeches, appearances) that he has an agent, Clive Panto, who coaches CEOs around the world in how best to present themselves. He was a pupil of Jefferies at Clifton College; the latter having taught English at the school for 34 years before taking early retirement at 56. The two remained friends, and Panto – a non-practising barrister – organised legal support for Jefferies. Panto and his family were one of four groups of friends who took Jefferies in when he was unable to return to his flat.

We meet for lunch, at Jefferies’s suggestion, at Bristol’s once venerable Avon Gorge Hotel – now slightly faded and melancholic. I see a slight man, standing in the entrance to the dining room, in a round-necked dark sweater, black jeans and a stylish knee-length black and white tweed coat. His hair is trimly cut and a subtly enhanced chestnut brown; as are his eyebrows. He looks as though he’s in his late 50s (it’s astonishing that he’s almost 70), and could be taken for a Parisian academic.

His manner is immediately approachable, and the expression in his steady brown gaze is warm, curious and frequently amused. We sit down and he orders soup followed by chicken; the food is, as he says, delicious. No wine, no pudding but several bottles of fizzy water. I say, why, you are practically ascetic (the film makes much of his half bottle of red, with dinner – both solitary and gregariously with a table full of friends), and he literally roars with laughter.

It’s clear that his traits have been exaggerated for the screen. In person, he is nowhere near as camp or as unworldly. But his speech patterns are perfectly reproduced: sometimes ponderous, a heavy northern fall on certain words (once pronounced, like wan, rather than one), punctuated with a slightly theatrical old-fashioned sibilance (becawwwssse; DH Lawrensssssssse). On occasion, he pauses between each word and the effect can be somewhat robotic.

Jefferies today

Just once or twice, there’s something a bit “off” on his take of things. For instance, when he’s talking about the terrible confluence of events that led to the murder of Jo Yeates by her neighbour Vincent Tabak – the fact that Tabak’s girlfriend was out for the evening; Yeates’s boyfriend was away, so she was alone and so on… He says, with a quite inappropriate, momentarily unnerving, twinkle in his eyes: “So that was part of the mooooood mix, if you like.”

At other times, he’s straightforwardly funny, ha ha. We discuss Peter Morgan’s desire to present him “as an English eccentric who has every right to be an English eccentric”. Do you think of yourself as eccentric? “Yes, I suppose…” he laughs loudly. “Well, heavens above, if you’d been on the staff at Clifton, particularly at the time I joined, I think you’d have thought I was the most ordinary person imaginable!”

It’s clear that, from the outset, all the key players behind the drama have been protective of Jefferies. At their first meeting, post the Leveson Inquiry, Morgan explained that what interested him was not the arrest and the journalistic coverage so much as the transformation between the man who had been arrested and the one who appeared at the inquiry: “I think his supposition, which is there in the film, is that those events proved to be some sort of catalyst for the character who emerged, as a result of that, a little bit like, possibly, a butterfly from a chrysalis.”

Watkins as Jefferies in episode 2 of the drama

Director Roger Michell was keen to make the film, partly because of his affection for his old English teacher. The crew were all from Bristol and – where possible – the extras were Clifton old boys, many of them former pupils of Jefferies.

Clifton College does not come out at all well in the film. The headmaster had never met Jefferies (he arrived about three years after the English teacher retired in 2001), but to wash his hands of a blameless and brilliant teacher – both at the time of his arrest and after his release, a man who had devoted 34 years of his life to that school – is unforgivable.

This was also the feeling of former colleagues and pupils. At a meeting of old boys and masters in 2011, Tom Gover (a former master) said, “I worked with Christopher for over 30 years and was disgusted by the failure of the school to support a man who had given his life to Clifton.” Jefferies received an apology on behalf of the governors but nothing more.

“It’s quite interesting that a lot of people felt outraged on my behalf,” Jefferies says. “The chairman of the governors did write me a letter. I don’t know him, but the kindest way of describing it was that it was a letter of apology that tried very hard not to be a letter of apology, so I didn’t respond to it in any way whatsoever.”

Clifton college in Bristol

Most of the time, Jefferies says, he felt quite dispassionate watching himself in the film. When I ask him if he recognised himself in the character of Christopher Jefferies, he says, “I suppose it would be quite strange if I didn’t, given the amount of time I spent talking to Peter Morgan and to Jason Watkins.”

I say he comes across a little bit Asperger’s-y in the film, don’t you think? “That’s an interesting comment. I think you’re onto something… There is an element of that.”

Jason Watkins remembered when Jefferies came on set, on the day they replayed his arrest (below): “He watched his arrest on the monitor and said he felt a bit disconnected. Didn’t have any kind of emotional response. He was quite reserved about it. You could say that he had a weird disconnect because he found it so traumatic, but I don’t think that was necessarily the case.” 

Jason Watkins as Jefferies

But when Jefferies tells me about the filming – “It didn’t seem to me to be necessarily the most sensitive thing to invite me to go and see” – it’s clear that he did find it traumatic. “I went to the set, which had my flat – and they went to some trouble to make it recognisable as my flat – and the street outside re-created, and there were 13 takes and because my arrest is done in the film exactly as it happened, I found it quite impossible to watch Jason in that scene.”

Other than that, he says he felt fairly dispassionate watching the creative team’s version of himself, “because this is obviously the experience that has gone through the imagination of Peter Morgan, then through the imagination of Roger Michell and finally Jason Watkins – so there are all these different layers.

“Although I appear played by a character who looks remarkably like me, or who was made up to look remarkably like me, probably what comes across – but obviously I am not the best person to judge – is that this is somebody who represents or caricatures certain aspects of me, exaggerated and separated, as it were, from the whole, in order to make the point Peter Morgan wanted to make. So, in a sense, I suppose the writer was using me and what happened to me to say something that he particularly wanted to say about British society.”

I had asked Watkins what questions I should put to Jefferies; ones that, possibly, he felt that he couldn’t have asked him. Why, for example, has such a civilised, charming man never been in a long-term relationship? He has a circle of loyal, interesting friends, some of whom go back to his university days, and is far removed from the tabloid paint-by-numbers construction of him as a loner, just because he lived alone. Is it that Jefferies was afraid of intimacy?

The question made Watkins wince: “I tell you, you wouldn’t feel like you could ask that question – because of what he’s gone through, you feel a great delicacy with him. Even though it would be interesting to know. And by extension you wonder why didn’t I hammer that question home with him? But I felt that he’s a very private person, and he looks after his interior world. He’s less likely to tell you how he feels in a kind of chat-show way… He’s a private person who’s gone through a very public humiliation.”

Jefferies is such delightful company over lunch, he makes me feel I can ask him anything – and, yet, that reserve Watkins mentioned stops me from being as direct as I normally am. When I say that the actor plays him more camp than he actually is, Jefferies says “Yes” rather tightly. Would you care if people thought you were gay? Or would you think it’s nobody’s business? “No, I don’t think it worries me one way or the other,” he says steadily. “I suppose it is comparatively recently… I remember the time when the bill was passed which decriminalised homosexuality.”

Because it was significant to you? “Just one of the things that I remember on the news.”

One of the most striking modes of Jefferies’s behaviour is his equanimity in responding to questions about himself. Watkins said that he doesn’t do small talk, but he also doesn’t go in for introspection or speculation, which closes down some conversation. So when I ask him a question like, does he wish he’d changed his image before, this is of no interest to him. “I’m perfectly happy with this image,” he says, quite reasonably, “and I was obviously perfectly happy with the previous one.” 

He likes his life now – as a public person – but he was also enjoying his life before his tenant’s murder changed everything.  He’s not sure how he will adjust to being out of the limelight when that happens, but he has his French degree to pursue, his properties to manage (three flats in Bristol; four in Cannes) and he will, one day, perhaps retreat back into being someone whom no one recognises in the street.

Jefferies leaves the High Court in London after giving evidence in the Leveson Inquiry

He becomes seriously animated when he talks about Hacked Off. As he gets into his stride about irresponsible newspaper editors, his voice begins to boom, causing other diners to turn around. I whisper that he’s talking very loudly, “Oh right… because this is SOMETHING I FEEL VERY STRONGLY ABOUT, I’LL KEEP THEM ALL LISTENING AND SPEAK MORE LOUDLY!”

Another subject that makes him angry is the bureaucratisation and changes in the education system: “One of the great things about teaching literature, certainly when I started teaching, was that I had total freedom to teach whatever I wanted. I would never have wanted to teach a subject where there was simply a predetermined syllabus and you did that again and again with minor variations. I’m quite certain that if I were looking for a career now, I would not be teaching simply because of the way that the profession has been ruined by successive governments. And, by the way, David Cameron makes me so angry that I find it difficult to think or speak rationally about him.” 

As he sips his double espresso, I ask him the intimacy question… “Am I afraid of it?” he asks thoughtfully. “It’s not a question anyone has asked me before.” Do you think you will end up sharing your life with a companion, or do you see yourself being alone? “I’ve absolutely no idea.” Would you prefer to be on your own or are you open to choices as to how you live your life? “Entirely open,” he says. “But people who find themselves on their own, having been living with somebody for a long time, tell me that they discover there’s actually quite a lot of freedom and pluses in being on your own.”

Am I right in saying that you have been single for most of your life? “Oh, yes.” So you would probably be quite set in your ways, and appalled by someone else’s dishwasher stacking! He laughs and says, “Having my own space is quite important to me.”

Jefferies is, as Watkins said, a sweetheart. He’s so gentle and reasonable and I feel, like the Lost Honour team, quite protective of him and angry at the injustice of his treatment by the press, the police, the public and his old school. But he is neither angry nor bitter. In fact, and this speaks volumes about the man, he feels lucky.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been bitter. And as I look back on the experience, I think I’ve been incredibly fortunate. Partly in the legal representation I had, which couldn’t have been better. And in the support I had – because I’m quite certain that I wouldn’t have been able to cope if – on being released from custody – I’d had to stay in a bail hostel, or something like that. And then, and this was the most important thing as far as my relatives were concerned, that my rehabilitation was as public as the libel. So I do feel, as I say, incredibly fortunate.”

Advertisement

The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies is repeated on ITV on Saturday 22nd August at 9.00pm