Saturday, 27 February 2021
LABOUR’S deputy leader Tom Watson did not apologise for his role in a bungled police investigation into false allegations of a VIP paedophile ring when he appeared at the Henley Literary Festival.
Mr Watson was speaking at Phyllis Court Club on Friday last week, the same day retired High Court judge Sir Richard Henriques published his report into the Metropolitan police’s £2.5million inquiry.
They were investigating claims by Carl Beech, who made false allegations of murder and child sexual abuse against prominent public figures.
It said Watson, who met Beech and encouraged him to go to police, “created further pressure upon officers”. The inquiry closed without a single arrest and Beech was jailed for 18 years in July for lying about his claims.
Among the establishment figures Beech wrongly accused of sexual abuse were former Prime Minister Sir Edward Heath, former Labour MP Lord Janner and ex-MI6 boss Sir Maurice Oldfield.
Asked by comedian, broadcaster and journalist Ayesha Hazarika if he had any regrets getting involved as he did and if he wished to apologise to any of the families involved he responded: “If you lived on your regrets you would never go forward” and added that he had tried to do his “very best”.
“All I could do was amplify the concerns of people who felt that powerful people were being treated very differently by the criminal justice system,” he said.
“There’s a tiny part of me thinking ‘you idiot Tom, why didn’t you choose the easy life option?”
He said it was five years since he’d been asked about Carl Beech in an interview with the Guardian in November 2014. At the time he said he didn’t believe he was a “fantasist or mentally ill.”
“Beech was one of the many hundred allegations that came through my office at the time,” he said. “At the time he didn’t seem as significant a figure as he does now.”
But Mr Watson said the case had made it much harder for the real victims of sexual abuse to come forward. He said: “There are still many people out there who have been the victims of very serious sexual crimes who have not been taken seriously and they will worry nothing has changed.”
Mr Watson also said he felt “deeply ashamed” by his party’s failure to deal with anti-semitism.
Luciana Berger, the MP for Liverpool Wavertree, left the party earlier this year and, along with other MPs, formed Change UK but left in June to sit as an Independent. She then joined the Liberal Democrats.
Mr Watson said she had been “bullied out of her constituency by racist thugs” adding that it was a “real low point” in the history of the Labour party. He added: “I have spoken on it. If I had the votes on the National Executive Committee this would be sorted out but I don’t have the votes.”
He also gave his view on former international development secretary Rory Stewart’s decision to run as an independent candidate for London mayor after resigning from the Conservative party earlier this month.
Mr Watson said: “Even though people like him I don’t think they necesarily agree with him. He’s a Brexiteer, he’s not a Remainer, he doesn’t want a second referendum. The one thing I think voters in London are very engaged about is they think leaving the EU is a problem.”
Mr Watson also told the audience he was sitting in a Chinese restaurant in Manchester with his 14-year-old son who was playing on his Nintendo Switch when he heard of the move to abolish his post on the eve of the party’s conference in Brighton.
At the time Mr Watson called the move to oust him last month a “sectarian attack” on a “broad church.” He told the crowd: “My immediate thought was ‘can I get a ticket to Torremolinos tomorrow morning? Do I have to be in Brighton?’
“I genuinely thought ‘there’s a general election coming, we’ll have a quiet conference, I’ll do my speech on the Tuesday, it’ll be seven minutes long and let’s try and hold everyone together.’ By the time I got to Brighton there were about 30 camera crews waiting!”
Mr Watson told the crowd he’d been on a “health journey” and lost eight stone and was previously “leaping out of chairs” and “screaming down the phone”. “These days I find it very difficult to get wound up about many things,” he said. “I think I’m too chilled out for politics!”
On Brexit he said he didn’t believe the UK would “crash out” on October 31 without a deal.
He added: “No matter what the rhetoric is you should never say never but a Prime Minister breaking the law on an issue of this magnitude I mean, it’s possible, but I doubt it.”
This year’s festival featured 170 events for adults and children with talks from poiliticians, actors, novellists, chefs, children’s entertainers and sports stars.
David Suchet revealed that he almost turned down the most iconic role of his career.
The actor, who was in conversation with stage journalist Al Senter about his new photography book Behind The Lens, said his older brother warned him against taking the part of Hercule Poirot.
He had previously played a supporting role in the 1985 television film Thirteen at Dinner, in which Peter Ustinov played Agatha Christie’s Belgian detective. Suchet, 53, a patron of Henley Regatta for the Disabled, was made a CBE for his service to the arts in 2011 and said he ranked his own performance as Inspector James Japp among the worst of his career.
However, during a conversation with Ustinov, he said he would like to play the part one day and his co-star replied that he would be a good choice.
Three years later, Suchet was invited to play Poirot over dinner with a producer at an Indian restaurant in Acton.
He told a packed audience at Phyllis Court Club: “I wasn’t sure whether I wanted it or not so I talked to my older brother, who has always been more intelligent and literate then me.
“He said ‘oh, don’t touch that with a barge pole’, which goes to show you should never listen to your older siblings. Who would have known what that would lead to?”
Asked whether he was a fan of classic detective fiction, he replied that he rarely read at all. He said: “I’ve never been a great reader, which is ironic for a literary festival, but my life is reading or researching scripts. I suppose I do nothing but ‘read’ yet I don’t actually read.”
Despite playing Poirot on ITV for 25 years, Suchet said he never feared being typecast as he was able to renew his contract one year at a time and fit other parts around it.
The audience laughed as he said in the character’s accent: “I’ll often start public speeches with the phrase ‘mesdames et monsieurs’ but that’s not me.”
Suchet, who has been a keen photographer since the age of eight, said he wanted to publish a book of images from throughout his life and not a traditional autobiography.
He said: “I’ve been asked to write one many times but I can’t imagine just writing about myself in the first person over and over — I did this, I did that and so on.”
He was taught by his grandfather, an early Fleet Street photographer, and still carries a camera at all times. The book includes landscape, portrait and still life images. He said he preferred black-and-white film images but didn’t begrudge the growth of smartphone cameras.
He said: “I used to be against them but I forced myself to reconsider as I didn’t want to be a grumpy old man. I now think it’s the best thing that’s ever happened.”
Suchet said his father, a surgeon, initially disapproved of his career choice.
He said: “We had a row because I called acting a profession and he said it didn’t count as one. I said ‘well, our jobs are similar as they’re both in the theatre’ and that didn’t go down well.”
Martin Sixsmith talked to dozens of fans about his new novel An Unquiet Heart at the town hall on Thursday last week. It centres around the troubled life of Russian poet Sergei Yesenin, whose death remains a contenious subject. He became one of Russia’s most celebrated writers and Sixsmith portrays him as a womaniser with a flair for creativity. Sixsmith studied Russian at university and was a foreign correspondent for the BBC until 1997, when he went to work for Tony Blair’s newly-elected government to be the director of communications.
He inspired the 2013 comedy-drama Philomena — which earned four Academy Award nominations — with his book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee.
The audience was captivated as Sixsmith talked about the inspiration behind his latest work. He was interviewed by Daniel Hahn and then signed copies of his novel.
The author said: “It is not a history. It is a novel and written as a romance. I knew from the beginning how it would be and I didn’t want it to be a fictional biography.
“The central thread in the book is this love story, but there is a lot of history in it to explain why he is the way he is. It is about his life and the women that he fell in love with — and there are quite a lot of them! As he got older, he started to feel as if he was losing his gift for poetry and that weighed heavily on him.”
Sixsmith hopes the book will be translated into Russian and he finished his appearance by reading I Loved You, a Russian poem by Alexander Pushkin.
Also on Friday, BBC journalist Frank Gardner spoke to a full house at the Christ Church in Reading Road and Mr Gardner was interviewed by Alistair Bunkall from Sky News.
It covered Mr Gardner’s experiences reporting from Saudi Arabia and the time he was shot by Al-Qaeda militants. He also spoke about his second novel Ultimatum, which is set in Iran, and about his writing process.
He began by saying Saudi officials believed Iran was behind drone attacks on one of its largest oilfields and an oil processing plant last month.
The fires at Abqaiq in Buqayq, which contains the world’s largest oil processing plant, and Khurais, which contains the country’s second largest oil field, were brought under control. However, the country was forced to cut its oil and gas production at the facilities, which are run by state-owned company Aramco.
The Saudis have led a Western-backed military coalition supporting Yemen’s government against an insurgency by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.
Mr Gardner, who visited the facilities following the attacks, said: “They [Saudi officials] do not believe the Houthi were capable of doing something this devastating. It was a really effective and strategic hit on critical national infrastructure. They have been far more resilient than the Saudis expected.”
He also said it was “extremely bad luck” to have been shot while reporting in a town close to Riyadh in June 2004. He was shot six times and left paralysed by an Al-Qaeda gunman. His colleague BBC cameraman Simon Cumbers was murdered in the attack.
Chef Prue Leith talked about how she injured herself during filming for the recent series of The Great British Bake-Off.
She was speaking with fans of the Channel 4 show at Phyllis Court on Friday when she revealed she was having concerns about her weight. She said she had been unable to exercise after she snapped her achilles tendon and had to use a wheelchair.
Sir Alastair Cook, England’s leading run-scorer in Test cricket, entertained fans in a sold-out event at Phyllis Court on Sunday. The Essex batsman was talking about his autobiography and was in conversation with radio and television presenter Matthew Stadlen.
There was further joy for cricket lovers as Vic Marks and Derek Pringle took part in a joint discussion about their international careers at the same venue on Friday.
Spin bowler Monty Panesar was at Christ Church on Sunday to talk about his book The Full Monty. He covered a range of topics, including paranoia, racism in sport and his own playing career.
A record-breaking 24,000 tickets were sold for this year’s festival.
Early festival highlights included former Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May talking to a sell-out crowd at Christ Church and Henley’s Mary Berry talking to fans at Phyllis Court.
Harriet Reed-Ryan, the festival’s director, said: “We have found a winning formula that offers something for everyone and I think that is what makes it such a success.
“The festival is in a really healthy position and it is a record-breaking year, so we are all absolutely delighted.
“We are all so thankful to everyone who has helped to organise and support the festival. There really was a feeling this year that the people of Henley were fully behind us.”
• Next year’s literary festival will run from September 26 to October 4.
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