GF Newman in conversation

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Exclusive: the double BAFTA-winning author reveals who inspired the justice crusader Judge John Deed, where Deed would stand on the separation of powers, and why Law and Order couldn’t be made today

Interview by David Etherington QC


David Etherington QC Judge John Deed was shown on the BBC in 29 episodes between 2001 and 2007 which you wrote, produced and sometimes directed. It is frequently repeated and now you have written a novel – Guilty Until Proven Otherwise – about this unconventional fictional judge which was published last month. Was Deed’s character based on any actual barristers or judges or was he unique? What do you say to people who have said ‘a judge wouldn’t behave like that?’

GF Newman Unashamedly, Deed was inspired by a very smart, young, good-looking, culturally aware High Court judge, Sir David Neuberger, before whom I appeared as a defendant in a plagiarism case. As I sat on the front bench throughout the trial, the outcome of which could be the end of any meaningful career I had, I was thinking such a judge would make a great central figure in a television series. I was immensely impressed by his grasp of things both legal and cultural. There wasn’t a piece of law my QC, Desmond Browne, referred him to that he didn’t immediately understand, nor any reference to a film, book or play with which he wasn’t familiar. Deed was based on my observations of him in court, but the character’s flaws and inner conflicts I invented to give him audience identification. Had I lost the case would I have felt the same about this judge? The judge said the case should never have been brought – after five years of trying to knock it out! It’s said there is never an ill wind that doesn’t bring someone some good.

People suggesting that Deed wouldn’t or couldn’t behave as he does in court? The Director General of the BBC when the pilot went out was one. ‘It’s all bollocks,’ he told me. ‘Entertaining bollocks.’ Everything I claim Deed does and says was tested by a very smart professor of law. Just because High Court judges don’t behave like Deed doesn’t mean that they can’t legally. Hopefully, more will.

DEQC What made you decide to write a novel about Deed and what are the differences between doing that and writing a script? How much of Deed is in you and did you ever want to be a lawyer yourself?

GFN I originally pitched this story as a new format six-part Judge John Deed television series, with an offer to bring over 42% of the budget to the BBC’s table. People there weren’t brave enough to take it on, despite its large and loyal audience wanting it back. The Controller said he wanted to do something contemporary! Eh? Deed stories are ripped from the headlines; some have clearly proven too contemporary and drew high-level complaints from vested interests. I had a good story and a large potential readership, with nothing happening in television during lockdown, I decided to write the story as prose. In a novel the writer has to evoke atmosphere, paint environments, drill deeper to explore character emotions, where otherwise you’d be relying on actors, directors and designers to do the same. With a script you provide the floor plan and help them to build the house.

I never considered being a lawyer – I was never smart enough. From an early age I was always aware of injustice, which was of great concern to me and became my driver. Injustice is the symbiotic bedfellow of corruption and I felt compelled to expose it. Indeed I did so in my very first published work about endemic corruption in the Metropolitan Police. Later, Deed became my justice crusader in a horsehair wig and was likely to prove more effective than a man in a cape.

DEQC Without any spoilers, is the story new or adapted from one of the television episodes and, if it is, what made you choose the one you did?

GFN This is an entirely new Deed story set in 2020, with my eponymous hero the same age as we left him in the television series. I felt it wouldn’t have been honourable or value for money if the story had already played to millions on television. The tale is crafted to take Deed into great personal danger, to make him as vulnerable as a High Court judge could be, where he is forced to face the darkest aspects of his flawed character, which in large part led to his current predicament.

DEQC Deed is not without his frailties and is frequently seen to be taking major risks: legal and personal. What do you see as his attitude to the law and the courts and would you say he always practises what he preaches? In particular, does he ever bend the law to achieve an end he desires? Would he be able to justify that and how significant a characteristic in his personality is ambition?

GFN Deed never considers himself above the law and wouldn’t try to bend the law to suit his own agenda. He wouldn’t be able to justify doing so, and it would be self-defeating as he’d be appealed. Were he to do so, he’d be akin to the detectives on Law and Order who break the rules with impunity and clearly saw themselves as being above the law. However, Deed is prepared to skate close to the to the edge but always on the right side of what is permissible. He is a deeply flawed character; if he wasn’t, he wouldn’t be human and certainly wouldn’t work in fiction. His deepest flaw is his hypersexuality and he recognises just what a problem it is, but hasn’t got enough insight here to realise that one day it might land him in serious trouble. Because of this flaw his ambition is tempered by realism; he knows he’ll never get to the ‘promised land’.

DEQC The relationship between the courts and the government is currently a hot potato with the suggestion that the courts have increasingly encroached into areas that are the preserve of the executive. It sounds like perfect Deed territory. Would he be supporting the judiciary or would you give him a different take on this issue?

GFN Clearly the Executive needs to be checked, especially in this current climate as it proceeds in a way that is barely legal and almost certainly not constitutional. There is no one to check the Executive apart from the judiciary – voters don’t seem to have sufficiently long memories! I’ve never dropped ‘hot potatoes’ nor will I let Deed do so. This is perfect Deed territory and he will continually push against the envelope. My reading of the situation is that the Executive is ever eroding the liberties and freedoms that we have for so long enjoyed, and hitherto casually taken for granted. It is time to wake up, especially as we see the Executive trying to restrict the use of judicial review. We rely on the judiciary to temper the rantings of, what is in effect, an undemocratic Parliament. Deed will fight to maintain the essential separation of powers.

DEQC What is your relationship as an author with some of the characters who oppose Deed? For instance, do you draw a distinction between the Home Secretary, Neil Haughton, and the Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Justice, Sir Ian Rochester? As an author, do you come to like the ‘baddies’?

GFN Inevitably all facets of each character such as Rochester and Haughton are part of me. I might borrow traits and aspects of people I encounter, but they must find resonance within me. Characters in opposition to the protagonist have to be well-drawn and have good weaponry, sometimes more dangerous weapons in their armoury or there is no contest. Each character serves a particular purpose in the story, and although in opposition to the protagonist they don’t run on the same track or work in unison to achieve his defeat. Instead they find themselves pulling in different directions. As an author I like all my characters, but try not to fall in love with them in case I tip the scales the wrong way.

DEQC The series had a stellar cast, starring Martin Shaw as Deed. Any reader who knows the TV series will immediately see their faces and hear their voices on reading the book. Is that the same for you or, as the characters’ creator, did you visualise them differently?

GFN From the time I transferred what I observed in the High Court to paper I wanted Martin Shaw as my judge. I felt he had all the right attributes: right age; good-looking; good actor; good voice. However, I had a real struggle convincing people at the BBC; they saw him as an ITV product. Alternative actors were put up, but I persisted. When casting actors you look for who encapsulates many aspects of your characters, the ability to act being a given. Then you start to write for that particular actor and allow him or her to build on those original characteristics.

DEQC In 1978 a series of four plays was shown on BBC 2 called Law and Order. It was re-shown in 2018. You wrote them. They had a huge impact at the time. They were four perspectives of the same criminal case and followed a major corruption scandal in the Metropolitan Police. They were gritty, powerful, realistic and disturbing plays. At first sight Judge John Deed seems to be a different kind of production. Is it in fact or do you see Deed as continuing the same themes?

GFN What we can’t ever do is go back! 1978, the year Law and Order was transmitted, the world was a very different from today; television was a very different world. Back then there were producers who carried their own budgets and held sway over what they produced; they were trusted by the Controllers to deliver challenging programmes. The sad fact is that you couldn’t make something as controversial as L&O today. The furore that ensued would be terrifying to current television executives, who seem to be little more than the guardians of the Licence Fee. With that over-riding concern they seem to have allowed the BBC to become almost a branch of government – no separation of powers there! After the original transmission there were calls in Parliament for me to be charged with sedition. The Director General was summoned to the Home Office by John Harris, the minister, and read the ‘Riot Act’. He didn’t apologise for this drama going out and it didn’t stop Brian Wenham, the Controller of BBC2, repeating the quartet, after which it was subsequently banned until its 40th anniversary. The Met Commissioner said it was a scandal that the BBC allowed this to be broadcast. Judge John Deed was cut from similar cloth and as producer I held the budget and determined what went into the scripts. From audience feedback we know we tackled issues that are of serious concern to many people here, but we couldn’t do that head on. Instead, we employed sleight of hand, dealing with issues such as a 15-year-old’s right to die, the corrupt relation between government and business, and polluting industry etc through an entertaining format. Even so, we had two episodes banned that dealt with the controversial MMR [vaccine] issue and the series cancelled.

DEQC Might you be tempted to write a prequel to Judge John Deed – Deed QC?

GFN I never say never when considering my work, but I don’t envisage a prequel. I’d prefer to write about past events in the life of John Deed QC, or John Deed, the abandoned child, when incidents and resonances in the present take me back there to explore the problems that impact on what Deed is facing today. There are plenty more critical issues to challenge Mr Justice Deed, should anyone wish to read about them. 

Guilty – Until Proven Otherwise: a Judge John Deed Novel (Ashgrove Publishing) was published in November 2020 (ISBN 9781853982002).
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David Etherington QC

David Etherington QC is former head of Red Lion Chambers and a frequent legal series adviser for film/TV.