The good thing about fact-based movies or TV shows is that sometimes they touch upon stories that the audience has very little knowledge. Whilst I do remember the news stories about the disappearance and later murder of young landscape gardener Joanna Yates, I had no idea that her landlord had been hounded by the press and was arrested as a key suspect despite there being very little evidence. This is the basis of ITV’s two part drama The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies, which deals with the arrest of the former headmaster, his interrogation by the police and his attempts to fight back against the negative depiction of him in the press.
It’s clear from the start that the drama wants to paint Jefferies in the best light possible, so the opening fifteen minutes or so are wholly devoted to establishing his character. As this is a drama about perception director Roger Michell; a former pupil of Jefferies, deliberately shoots Jefferies from behind so we don’t get a full shot of his face until he enters his favourite deli. The brilliantly shot montage of Christopher’s day sees him attend a council meeting, partake in a lecture as part of his French degree and indulging in a strenuous workout at the gym. From these opening scenes it’s clear that writer Peter Morgan wants to paint Jefferies as a quintessential British eccentric. Jefferies pronunciation of certain words coupled with an odd speech pattern and a wild hairstyle does mark him out as a bit of an oddball however, after spending time in his company for a quarter of an hour, it’s hard not to warm to him.
The story kicks in properly when we learn of Joanna’s disappearance from her boyfriend Greg, an incident that becomes more serious when the police call round. A previous scene had focused on Christopher hearing what he thought were voices but it was made quite evident that it was an incident that, at the time, he wouldn’t have given a second thought to. Indeed, as this was such a minor event, he didn’t bring it up in his first interview with the police and it was only on further consideration that he decided to disclose the information. However, this decision cost him dearly and the police statement was forwarded to Sky News who took Jefferies’ words and distorted them to a significant degree. Furthermore the police believed that, because Jefferies took a day or so to disclose this information, he was deflecting suspicion away from himself and was later arrested for this very reason.
The scenes in which Christopher is carted off by the police are brilliantly handled and are seen through his distorted eyes. He is quite clearly befuddled by the whole situation and, as we’ve spent so much time with him, we can totally understand his confusion. Anybody who watched the excellent Channel 4 documentary 24 Hours in Police Custody will certainly appreciate how realistic the scenes of Christopher’s questioning were. Peter Morgan’s brilliantly realised interrogation scenes built up the tension perfectly as the two officers piled on the pressure to see if Christopher would snap. But it was quite evident to both the audience and Christopher’s solicitor that the police were clutching at straws and that the elderly landlord couldn’t have feasibly attacked his younger, fitter tenant. Although the police eventually released Jefferies without charge, the damage had already been done as Christopher’s good name was completely besmirched by the nation’s press.
Although the drama does partly cover the murder of Jo Yates; the bigger story is definitely the theme of press intrusion and how it can ruin the life of an intelligent, kind man such as Christopher. A scene at a press conference perfectly illustrated how the press can jump on a story and attack a man without any evidence of his wrongdoing. I particularly enjoyed the scene in which we saw the papers; that presumably covered some of the stories about Jefferies being printed and distributed to both shops and households. But we then had to wait till the end of the episode to see the man himself pour over the papers as he read some of the truly horrific stories that had been concocted about him. Possibly the worst moment for Jefferies came when the current headteacher of the school where he’d been head for many years denied that any member of staff was still in contact with Chritopher. The end of this first episode was quite upsetting as Jefferies lay in bed alone contemplating where his life would go from here.
As I was only partly aware of the story; I found this first episode of The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies to be utterly gripping from the very first scene. Morgan’s script took time to let us get to know the lead character before he was unjustly accused of a crime that he had absolutely no involvement in. The overriding theme of press intrusion was beautifully done as it built from the initial Sky News doorstepping to a full on attack on a man who’d done nothing but apply a little bit too much hairspray to his blonde locks. Meanwhile, Michell clearly wanted to honour his former headteacher and made the drama as visually engaging as possible. It’s not often I watch a factually-based drama and marvel at its visual style so it’s a testament to Michell and his team that I did just that. I particularly liked the many set pieces included in the drama and in particular the powerful final scene as the camera focuses on Jefferies’ shocked expression as he reads more and more stories attacking every element of his character.
However, The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies wouldn’t be as memorable if it were not for the fine central performance from Jason Watkins. I was initially sceptical of Watkins participation in the drama as I see him as more of a comic performer than a dramatic actor. So I was shocked at how quickly I took to Watkins in the role of the camp but ultimately good-natured Jefferies. It’s clear that Watkins took the time to study Jefferies in some depth as every line of dialogue and every body movement is performed in a way that makes Watkins performance utterly believable. As I had no knowledge of who Jefferies was; I went back to watch some news footage of him and was shocked to see how perfect Watkins portrayal of him was. Although the actor has embellished Christopher’s mannerisms slightly, overall I would say that Watkins delivers one of the best depictions of a real-life character that I’ve ever seen on screen.
I’m sometimes sceptical of factual dramas as they’re often quite dry but the same can’t be said for The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies which was enthralling throughout. Visually stylish, with a well-paced story and a brilliant central performance; The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies is definitely one of the best dramas I’ve seen in a very long time. I’m just hoping that the second instalment is as involving as this first chapter which expertly dealt with the way the press can easily muddy the name of a well-respected man such as the likeable Christopher Jefferies.
What did you think to The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies? Did you enjoy it as much as I did?
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