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Court Number One by Thomas Grant, review: Old Bailey trials that tell story of the 20th century

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All rise: Jeremy Thorpe arrives at the Old Bailey at the start of his trial in May 1979
All rise: Jeremy Thorpe arrives at the Old Bailey at the start of his trial in May 1979 Credit: Popperfoto

Although the proliferation of Crown Courts around Britain in the past few decades has rather stolen its thunder, for most of the last century all the juiciest trials were held at the Old Bailey (as the Central Criminal Court is universally known). And the highest accolade for any self-respecting villain, the legal equivalent of being asked to sing at La Scala, was to be tried in Court Number One.

This particular courtroom has come to symbolise the English legal system, encapsulating its awesome majesty or, if you prefer, its forbidding inflexibility. Billy Wilder had an exact replica of Court Number One constructed in Hollywood, at great cost, when he filmed Witness for the Prosecution. Jeffrey Archer set The Accused in Court Number One, and must have taken it as a snub when his own trial for perjury was deemed worthy only of Court Number Eight.

Thomas Grant’s new book shows, however, that Court Number One is surprisingly protean. Many of the journalists and authors who have covered the trials there have found this seat of justice poky and cramped; their accounts make one think of Shakespeare’s line about “a great reckoning in a little room”. Defendants and witnesses, on the other hand, have often found it chillingly cavernous.

When the courtroom opened in its current form in 1907, its ecclesiastical furnishings were meant to be awe-inspiring. In the decades since, layers of sadness and even squalidity have accrued there, as the banality of so many murderers and traitors has been exposed, and, on occasion, terrible injustices have been perpetrated.

Jeffrey Archer's play The Accused Credit: Stephen Hird 

Grant’s book is an account of 11 trials heard in Court Number One between 1907 and 2003, some forgotten, some a part of our modern folklore. Part of his book’s potential public may be put off by his high-minded decision to “omit cases notable principally for their ghoulishness” – so no Peter Sutcliffe, Neville Heath or Dennis Nilsen, while Rumpole fans will deplore the absence of the Penge Bungalow Murders. Nevertheless, homicide predominates, with seven of the trials in question being murder cases (or, in the case of Jeremy Thorpe, mere conspiracy to murder – but we all know that affair has high dramatic and entertainment value even in the absence of any corpse apart from poor Rinka’s).

Among the remainder, we find libel, espionage, and – in the case of William “Lord Haw-Haw” Joyce – treason. Grant’s book is subtitled The Old Bailey Trials that Defined Modern Britain, and he dutifully shows how his chosen cases throw a light on the prejudices and assumptions of their times. Thorpe, for example, was to some extent a victim of the homophobia of his era; but then again, his acquittal owed much to its deference to authority figures. Marguerite Fahmy, the French wife of an Egyptian aristocrat who shot her husband dead in 1923, was acquitted because of a defence case that drew on the tropes of white women being seduced and brutalised by upstart savages familiar from popular novels and films of the period.

However, Grant’s interest in sociology does not blind him to what he calls the “aesthetic or narrative appeal” of his chosen trials, and his book really is a hamper of treats, a series of beautifully judged vignettes. In his previous book, Jeremy Hutchinson’s Case Histories, in which he collaborated with a barrister barely younger than Court Number One itself to tell his life story through his famous trials (Lady Chatterley’s Lover; Christine Keeler; Howard Marks), Grant revealed a knack for bringing courtroom intricacies to life; but he excels himself here.

He is a master at conveying the cut-and-thrust of cross-examination, managing to maintain a sense of speed while making sure the reader does not miss the cultural or legal context. His style is drily witty, but just when you start to think he is a bit too detached from what are, after all, matters of life and death, he soars into a rhetorical flight; and although these can sometimes be a little cheesy or metaphor-mangling, they are happy evidence of the humanity behind Grant’s pawky exterior. At times the book is very moving, notably when he describes the trial of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain, and seems almost to be willing himself into the body of her barrister in order to offer a more competent defence.

Grant is a QC but not a criminal lawyer; nevertheless, he clearly knows every inch of Court Number One, and conveys how the courtroom itself may affect the course of a trial as much as the prevailing mores of the outside world. Would juries react differently to some witnesses if they could see them face-on, rather than – owing to Court Number One’s peculiar lay-out – in profile only? Are witnesses’ testimonies affected by the witness box being so uncomfortable? (“Designed by a keen disciple of the Marquis de Sade,” declared Peter Bessell after testifying in R v Thorpe.) When Ian Huntley was tried in 2003 for the murders of the 10-year-olds Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in Soham, Mr Justice Moses ruled that the girls’ families should sit at the back of the court so that they could not make eye contact with jurors – an act of callousness necessary in the pursuit of a fair trial.

Perhaps the outstanding chapter is the account of what seems, on the face of it, the least exciting case in the book, that of William Joyce or “Lord Haw-Haw”. His 1945 trial was concerned less with what he did than with the complicated but mundane question of what nationality he was, and whether he could therefore be found guilty of treason. Grant conveys, unostentatiously but affectingly, the decency of those who conducted the trial, which was marked by scrupulous fairness for the defendant, even in the face of a public baying for Joyce’s blood and death threats sent to his lawyers.

As Grant puts it, with typical eloquence, Joyce’s trial “had a quality of atonement to it; the quietness and fairness of the proceedings were a rebuke to the philosophy he espoused”. This disinterested reassertion of order perhaps explains why the properly conducted trials of traitors or murderers can have a healing power for the nation as well as those connected with the case in question. Governments that try to run justice on the cheap may cause more widespread harm than they realise.

Court Number One by Thomas Grant is published by John Murray,  £25, ebook £16.99 Call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk to order for £20