Thomas Grant on the incredible career of barrister Jeremy Hutchinson
PUBLISHED: 10:46 11 August 2016 | UPDATED: 10:46 11 August 2016
Despite his astonishing career barrister Jeremy Hutchinson had never shared his stories. Fellow QC Thomas Grant tells Duncan Hall how he opened him up
Barrister Thomas Grant may have penned a best-selling book about legendary criminal lawyer Jeremy Hutchinson, but he is still in awe of the 101-year-old former advocate.
“It’s difficult to believe he exists as a human being,” says Thomas from the spotless white kitchen of his Jevington home. “He feels more likely to be a construct of the 20th century than someone who existed in real life.”
As a young boy Jeremy spent time with the Bloomsbury set – his mother Mary was cousin to biographer Lytton Strachey. He married his first wife, actress Peggy Ashcroft, in 1940. He received his first legal brief in 1944 while serving in the Royal Navy, having suspended his legal ambitions because of the war. It was his first time in a courtroom – and the prosecution was for murder. The defendant was the last British sailor sentenced to death. After the war he stood in the 1945 election – although as a Labour candidate in the staunchly Tory seat of the Westminster Abbey Division his campaign was doomed from the start.
All this was before Lord Hutchinson’s legal career even began. The stories detailed in Thomas’s book Jeremy Hutchinson’s Case Histories are some of the most celebrated of the mid- to late-20th century. They include the Lady Chatterley trial; defending Christine Keeler for perjury and Howard Marks on drug smuggling charges; and representing expert art forger Tom Keating. The book also takes in Cold War spies George Blake and John Vassall, anti-nuclear protestors the Committee of 100, the controversy surrounding Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango In Paris and a tussle with Mary Whitehouse over the National Theatre play The Romans in Britain.
Some equally interesting tales had to be eliminated. “I didn’t even touch on Charlie Wilson, the Great Train Robber, or his involvement in the case around the theft of the World Cup in 1966,” says Thomas.
“Jeremy is the least boastful man I have ever met. I would ask why he hadn’t written his memoirs before and he would say: ‘No-one is interested. I’m more interested in life and getting on with living now.’ He was a witness to certain events that no-one else alive has witnessed. I wrote to him saying it was almost a public duty to capture this. But he wrote back with a flat refusal in a polite and friendly way. He’s quite a private guy, who has lived a life of relative obscurity since he retired.”
Not to be deterred, Thomas came up with the idea of writing up a couple of interesting cases to publish privately for Lullington-based Jeremy’s upcoming 100th birthday. He began with a tale of a British eccentric, Kempton Bunton, who confessed to removing Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery in 1961 only 19 days after it first went on display. The “dreamer in a crumpled suit” claimed he took and ransomed the £140,000 painting as a protest against a mandatory television licence fee on pensioners. His prosecution even led to a change in the Theft Act to close a loophole which Jeremy exploited in his defence. He successfully proved that Kempton didn’t intend to permanently keep the painting, so instead the accused was imprisoned for the loss of the £100 frame. “It had everything,” says Thomas of the story which was turned into a play in South Shields last year to mark the 50th anniversary of the trial. “Kempton was a fascinating character. Jeremy had a lot of cuttings, and I think he rather liked talking about it. The case was a little window into the country 50 years ago.”
He next decided to tackle Lord Hutchinson’s involvement in the trial of Penguin Books over the publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. “Jeremy was the backbone of the defence case – with his solicitor they decided who to call as witnesses which was a massive process. There is a skill in choosing witnesses – if they are going to collapse under cross examination it is better not to have them at all.”
When he had finished writing up three cases he showed them to Alfriston-based historian and writer Juliet Nicolson. She had first introduced the two barristers to each other back in 2008. Today Thomas describes her as the godmother of the book. Juliet put Thomas in touch with her agent Caroline Dawnay, who quickly sold the book to Roland Philipps of publishers John Murray.
This was where Thomas’ work really began.
“When we heard the book had sold it was a great day,” he recalls. “But Roland said we had to get it out for Jeremy’s 100th birthday. I signed a contract in April 2014 to deliver the book in November, so they could bring it out the following May.”
As a professional barrister, who was made a QC in 2013, Thomas had to balance his commercial chancery workload from Maitland Chambers with putting the book together. “I wasn’t going to turn any cases away – I had to earn a living with three children and a wife to support,” says the 46-year-old. Previously he had only written law books aimed at students and practising lawyers: “It was a superhuman, potentially marriage-ending effort!”
In the end Thomas’ wife Hester helped him with the research. Thomas met some of Jeremy’s clients including Michael Randle, who not only was involved in the Committee of 100 case but also helped spy George Blake defect to the USSR, Brighton investigative journalist Duncan Campbell who faced 30 years in prison for collecting publicly available material about UK defence establishments, and erotic publisher turned piano mender Christopher Kypreos. He spent most Thursday evenings at Lord Hutchinson’s London home in St John’s Wood discussing the cases he had researched during the week. “We would crack open a bottle of wine and talk,” recalls Thomas. “Every case we covered had at least one book written about it. Jeremy would say ‘How’s the process going? I’m worried about you falling behind’.”
Thomas finally wrote his biography of Jeremy – albeit only a thumbnail one at the start of the book at the request of the publisher. He discovered he wasn’t the first to try to encourage Jeremy to write. “I found letters from publishers Jamie Hamilton and George Weidenfeld from the 1960s and 1970s saying ‘When are you going to write your book?’”
Jeremy has added his own postcript to the book where he reveals how he learned his skills and reflects on the legal system and state of criminal law today, almost 35 years after he left the bar. The last five pages make for sobering reading as he expertly dissects the cuts made to the criminal law system over the last 12 years and the impact they could have on society.
On its release the book made Waterstones’ book of the month, and topped The Times’ bestseller list for four weeks. There are now talks about a film or television series based on some of the cases, with Wolf Hall producers Playground Entertainment having bought the rights, and novelist Patrick Gale down to write the script.
And there is more to come, with Thomas and the now 101-year-old former barrister set to collaborate on another book once Thomas has finished a more academic work on civil law.
“It’s a credit to the publishers that they could see the appeal of this slightly leftfield idea of looking at history,” says Thomas. “In the past people would write about the great cases of lawyers like Marshall Hall or Norman Birkett, but as a concept it has disappeared.”
Thomas got the chance to play Lord Hutchinson himself last year in vignettes at The Old Bailey, telling the stories of the Lady Chatterley and The Romans In Britain trials. But he admits to being more interested in “black letter law” – exploring the more academic rather than the criminal side.
He feels Jeremy’s criminal cases are important when it comes to understanding the history of the period. A case such as the Lady Chatterley trial came at a time when it was not unusual for a judge to bring his wife to join him at the bench and when, famously, some prosecuting barristers still had servants at home. “They act as a really interesting parallel or prism through which we can understand the period,” he says. “It is understanding history through the micro as oppose to the macro. People like the narratives and stories – all the cases have a beginning, middle and end.”
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