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Chris Langham Deserves A Break

I was dismayed to read this week's attempt by the Daily Mail to push Chris Langham, comedian, star of The Pirates of Penzance and Les Miserables in the West End, and of the BAFTA award-winning The Thick Of It on television, once more into the mire of false accusation and social notoriety.

Writing my book about Ken Campbell took me last year back into contact with Chris, one of Campbell's most brilliant collaborators, currently paying a huge price for a moment of weakness in downloading child pornography on the internet.

He was banged up in prison for three months in 2007 on the child porn charges but was cleared of all paedophilia charges, as well as the “sex with a minor” charge that the Kent Police failed to make stick after a girl to whom he’d been giving “acting lessons” after she’d met him backstage after a performance of Les Miserables made a garbled testimony in court.

The facts of the matter are that no-one was hurt; Langham downloaded child pornography from a free site – he never paid a penny, despite the judge’s inaccurate statement that he did – ostensibly, he said, to research a character in a television programme he was preparing with Paul Whitehouse; he served his time, and is now branded a deviant pariah.

As Langham went to prison on the Isle of Sheppey, the Kent chief of police stood on the steps of the court, surrounded by the media, and said that, despite the ruling, he was satisfied that Langham was a paedophile.

That label was further affixed by The Sun, and the “truth” became gospel. He was immediately air-brushed out of all future television plans at the BBC and with his former colleagues such as Paul Whitehouse (who, shamefully, testified for the prosecution; he's now making bad television ads, so serve him right).

When I visited Langham at his home near Sissinghurst in May 2009, he told me that his immediate neighbour, Private Eye editor Ian Hislop – the two of them, and their families, were regular dinner guests in each others’ houses – had severed all contact.

In the village high street, Hislop now crosses the road to avoid saying "good morning" to Langham's wife, Christine Cartwright, a choreographer and stage director; but she, and the couple’s two children, have stayed home and stayed loyal.

The Hislop snub is perhaps comparable to the unceremonious ditching of Angus Deayton as chairman on Hislop’s television programme Have I Got News For You after a damaging bout of Deayton-related revelations involving prostitutes and drugs.

It is perhaps ironic that the leading exponents of the new-style satire boom, exposing and ridiculing the follies and pomposities of the mighty, should take such a high moral tone – almost high church moral tone — when it comes to lapses among their own.

There’s nothing good, or commendable, about child pornography, obviously, or prostitutes or indeed drugs. But doesn’t high profile transgression, once exposed and punished, then deserve the same sort of compassionate tolerance as any of us would extend to members of our own families?

Langham’s spectacular fall from grace is a tragedy for him, but also a tragedy for cultural freedom and the gaiety of nations; it’s not too fanciful, surely, to invoke the righteous hounding, and destruction, of Oscar Wilde in another century. Hislop and co have no problem in invoking Oscar Wilde nowadays when it suits them; in fact, in many ways, they still scrabble about in his giant shadow.

Wilde famously wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol, one of his greatest and most revealing works, soon after his release from the prison in 1897. It was published anonymously. Langham wrote his own “ballad” in the form of a confessional diary during the one hour he was allowed twice a week for “education.” I've read it, and it's painful stuff.

He describes his own history as an abuse victim at the age of eight in Canada, and his revulsion at the child porn he looked at – easily available on a file-sharing website, where you can also see public beheadings and football tricks - while writing a study of a paedophile character for the television programme Help: “Of course I now regret what I’ve done. Because of my stupidity and my arrogance my family and my own sweet children have been deeply and painfully affected by the consequence of my actions."

To say that Langham is in denial about his past would be as wrong as to say that he's not deeply repentant. But the Mail obviously thinks a leopard never changes its spots and that if someone is declared not to be a paedophile, this must only be a case of no smoke without fire.

The best thing that could possibly happen in our theatre would be for thrusting new director James Dacre (son of Paul Dacre, the Mail's editor) to cast Chris Langham in his next production.

The next best thing, of course, would be for James, or indeed Paul himself, to be ruthlessly exposed as harbouring guilty secrets of their own. We all have them, don't we? It's not as if the Mail itself is a bastion of purity, drug-free temperance and good behaviour among its staff (I know, I worked there for seven years).

Meanwhile, two young film makers, Tom Kingsley and Will Sharpe, have cast Langham in their new low-budget movie Black Pond. I haven't seen it yet but, by several accounts, Langham is tremendous as a suburban family man whose life is turned upside down when an eccentric loner he has befriended drops dead at his dinner table.

Sounds like a schizophrenic treatment of Langham's own situation which, according to the reliable film critic Geoffrey Macnab, Langham underplays beautifully.

At the end of the day, nobody died because of what Langham did except possibly himself (he's attempted suicide at least twice). Cannot the British media, and the BBC, grow up at last and find a way of rehabilitating one of the very few original comic talents of our time?


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