I remember the Christmas of 2010. I was gripped by news reports of a 25-year-old woman living in Bristol had gone missing. It was a cold, white snowy festive period, and like many around the country, I feared for Joanne Yeates, all alone in the cold. Her body was discovered on 25th December. Christmas Day. Christmas Day. While families up and down the country were opening presents and enjoying the warmth of family and friends, the Yeates family were living a nightmare. It was a sickening conclusion to an awful story. At the centre of the case was newly retired schoolteacher and landlord Christopher Jeffries, who quickly became the main suspect. ITV’s two-part drama – The Lost Honour Of Christopher Jefferies – sought to show the personal battle he had to endure to clear his name. It was exceptional stuff.
When I heard that ITV was to tell the story of main suspect Christopher Jefferies, I shrugged a little. What kind of story could be told? We already knew the outcome – both in terms of Joanne and that of Jefferies – so what could possibly keep us gripped?
I was wrong. A week after its broadcast The Lost Honour Of Christopher Jefferies has stayed with me. It was an exquisitely acted, shot and paced study of an idiosyncratic and private man whose life was thrown in chaos.
I heard the best description of noir a week or so ago. Noir describes order thrown into chaos, and The Lost Honour Of Christopher Jefferies (can I call it TLHOCJ please?) was pure noir in that respect. An adademic, slightly aloof man, he had a tufty mess of white hair and had a very deliberate, almost theatrical campness to him. He had near-OCD levels of tidyness and order to his life. His home was a private, calm snactuary of neatly ordered books on shelves, lilting classical music and daily trips to his local bakery to buy his sourdough (hello Anna Maxwell Martin as a friendly shop assistant). He was a creature of habit. A harmless creature of habit.
To watch his life fall apart was heartbreaking. Suddenly he was a main suspect in the murder of a young woman who lived in the flat he owned. He was wrenched out of his neat existence and thrown into chaos. Jason Watkins – already a fine character actor – was superb in showing Jeffries’ subtle descent into near breakdown as he began to get used to his new, scary surroundings of a police cell. The delicate picking of his fingernails increased, his breathing got shallower and his insistence on meticulous grammar and diction also increased.
I was particularly interested in the first of the two episodes, which showed Jeffries’ incarceration and interrogation. It was like watching a man trying to survive a fall into an almost Kafka-esque rabbit hole. Pure noir, in fact. With beautifully shot scenes and throughtfully paced interview scenes – like Line Of Duty, TLHOCJ had some long and engrossing interview scenes – you almost forgot about the actual crime. Which, in a story where we all knew the ending, is the greatest compliment I can pay it.
The second episode focused on Jeffries starting to control the chaos and adapt to his new nightmare scenario, until, eventually, his name was fully cleared. It’s amazing how we can process, adapt and master extreme situations, and TLHOCJ was a perfect example of how one man survived and fought back.
I’ve read some reviews that expressed disappointment that Joanna’s plight wasn’t featured more (there were portentious nods to and appearance by neighbour and perpetrator Vincent Tabak), but to me that wasn’t the point of TLHOCJ – it was a character study, a story about the fall-out of crime, its horrible consequences and our sometimes rabid need for quick, easy answers fanned by 24-hour rolling news and newspapers.
It was an exceptional two-parter.