Christopher Jefferies: does TV drama do justice to landlord?
Critics point to the moral dilemmas of 'docudrama' relating to Joanna Yeates’ murder four years ago
ITV's new "docudrama" about Christopher Jefferies, the landlord falsely accused of murdering Joanna Yeates four years ago, has prompted debate about the moral dilemmas of mixing fact and fiction. Nearly four years have passed since Yeates was found strangled to death in Bristol on Christmas Day. Her neighbour Vincent Tabak was sentenced to life imprisonment for her murder in 2011, but in the days after her death the media focus was on her landlord Jefferies.
His reputation was left in tatters following libellous allegations in several newspapers, which were subsequently forced to pay him substantial damages.
Having helped to almost destroy an innocent man, television is now attempting to solidify his exoneration with The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies, a two-part drama, written by Peter Morgan, says Mark Lawson at The Guardian.
Like most critics, Lawson praises actor Jason Watkins for "perfectly" portraying Jefferies’ look and mannerisms, but Lawson concludes that ultimately the TV drama "fails to redress the balance of justice".
He questions whether it is fair to dramatise Yeates or to mix fiction with real news footage of her distressed parents. "Above all," he says, "there is the nagging worry of all reconstructive fiction: how much of this is what was really done and said?"
Morgan, whose previous work includes Frost/Nixon, intersperses real dialogue with fictional scenes, leaving viewers in the dark about what has been created or recreated, says Lawson. "Television may come out of the story better than the press, but it still hasn't quite done Joanna Yeates and Christopher Jefferies justice."
In The Times, Andrew Billen gives the drama four stars, but raises a similar point. Morgan has no compunction about fiddling with facts in the pursuit of drama, says Billen. "One should remember, though, that when drama deploys a defence not open to newspapers, that it distorts in order to tell 'a greater truth', there is no such thing."
However, the Bristol Post says the drama is a "huge success because it manages to cut through all the false rumours and downright lies surrounding the former Clifton College teacher".
The newspaper notes that emotions are "still very raw" in Bristol. "But Lost Honour is no cheap, mean-minded attempt to draw in viewers with ghoulish details of a high-profile murder," it says. "This is a story with a moral point to make."
Jefferies himself has described the film as "extremely powerful and extremely important". He told the BBC that it will have done a "great deal of good" if it reminds people "just how dangerous the press in this country can be in entirely, irresponsibly destroying people's lives".
It could be argued that it is unfair to reduce Yeates and her family to "bit parts" in a TV drama, says Ben Lawrence at the Daily Telegraph. But he points out that Morgan is not making a crime thriller.
"He is doing something far more important," says Lawrence. "The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies is a sensitive, open-hearted plea to tolerate those who choose to live outside the narrow confines of societal norms. It's an antidote to all that media venom."
- Part two of The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies is on ITV tonight at 9.00pm