Obituary of George Carman. Reproduced with permission of the Daily Telegraph.
George Carman, the barrister who has died aged 71, possessed such a fearsome reputation that whenever the rich and famous faced a libel action they hurried to send for him - before the other side did.
A succession of politicians, sportsmen and soap stars were humbled by Carman's forensic skills. Jonathan Aitken, Ian Botham and Gillian Taylforth were among those who were - as Mr Aitken put it - "Carmanised" in the witness box.
Another was Jani Allan, the South African columnist who failed to convince a High Court jury that she had not had an affair with the neo-Nazi leader Eugene Terre Blanche. "Whatever award is given for libel," she told Carman during the case, "being cross-examined by you would not make it enough money."
Carman's standing was established long before libel actions became fashionable. When the comedian Ken Dodd was charged with tax fraud in 1989 he vetted a string of barristers before eventually telling his solicitor: "I want to see George Carman. I ought to see George Carman." It was an acknowledgement of a reputation that was already growing into the sort of celebrity enjoyed by some American advocates.
For many years, Carman practised out of the limelight on the Northern Circuit. But in 1971, shortly after Carman took Silk, the solicitor Sir David Napley saw him at the Old Bailey defending a manager of Battersea Funfair. The man was charged with the manslaughter of four children after the Big Dipper collapsed. Carman secured a verdict of Not Guilty, having, in Napley's opinion, "mesmerised" the jury. Napley determined to make use of him.
Carman was still in chambers in Manchester, however, and Napley briefed him only intermittently during the 1970s. Then in 1978 Napley telephoned Carman to tell him that the leader of the Liberal Party, Jeremy Thorpe, was probably going to be committed for trial on charges of conspiracy to murder and that he was going to retain him. Carman heard the news of Thorpe's committal on the wireless news while he was on holiday in Cornwall. "I realised," he recalled, "that it would be the greatest professional challenge that I had faced and that it might affect my career."
The Thorpe trial in May 1979 caused a sensation. Carman pulled off a succession of masterstrokes - not least his decision not to put Thorpe in the witness box. He ended his closing speech with a flourish that Perry Mason might have been proud of. Thorpe, said Carman, had won millions of votes from the people of this country, but now came the 12 most precious votes of all. Directing his gaze and a finger to each member of the jury in turn, he then repeated the word "yours" to each one. "I thought for a very long time about doing that," he later admitted.
Thorpe's acquittal thrust Carman into the first rank of the Bar. He moved his practice to London where he took on a series of high-profile criminal cases: Dr Arthur, the paediatrician accused of murdering a Down's syndrome baby, whose acquittal gave Carman the greatest pleasure of all his cases; Geoffrey Prime, the GCHQ spy; Peter Adamson, who played Len Fairclough in Coronation Street, acquitted of indecently assaulting two girls; and Ken Dodd, freed from his embarrassment with the Inland Revenue.
The Dodd case bore many of the hallmarks of a typical Carman performance: a famous defendant, seemingly incontrovertible evidence and a sensational acquittal. The result owed much to Carman's deftness at arguing that comic genius and careful accounting were strangers. He encapsulated the hypothesis in a phrase that he rightly judged would strike a chord with the jury: "Some accountants are comedians," he said. Then, after a pause: "But comedians are never accountants."
There were possibly more eloquent advocates, but no one matched Carman's ability to find the words that would stick in the mind. His sound bites were, he admitted, rarely ad lib. They were well rehearsed, often with the aid of a mirror. That they gave good copy for journalists only enhanced Carman's status.
Of Jeremy Thorpe, Carman said: "He is human, like us all. We learn - do we not? - that idols sometimes have feet of clay." Of David Mellor: "Of course politicians aren't angels, nor do we expect them to be. Marbella has sand, sea and sunshine, and if a politician goes there and - in the honest view of some - behaves like an ostrich and puts his head in the sand and thereby exposes his thinking parts, it may be that a newspaper is entitled to say so."
Another of Carman's strengths was his enviable ability to make use of vital evidence that arrived at the courtroom in the nick of time. In the Jani Allan case, he unexpectedly produced a notebook in which she outlined sexual fantasies involving an airline pilot and a gun smuggler. In the Gillian Taylforth case, he came up with a video showing Taylforth brandishing a German sausage.
The most devastating material for his closing speeches had usually been aired in cross-examination. Carman with a witness, said some in the Temple, was a work of art. Although just 5ft 3ins tall, he was blessed with a clear and expressive speaking voice. His technique was one of slow attrition followed by ambush. With easy charm, he would gently lead the witness on, eliciting reluctant yes or no answers to half questions, choices that were then stored away to be put together into something very much more damaging in his closing speech.
He did not feel bound by chivalry, and indeed his line of questioning was often decidedly ungallant. In the Jani Allan case, he closed in on her former friend, Linda Shaw, who had seen something as if through a keyhole. Carman: "You said you saw what you called a bottom. Colour?" Shaw: "White." Carman: "Are you able to identify sex or shape?" Many would have left it at that, but Carman wanted to make quite sure that the jury had the picture lodged in their minds. His follow-up questions included: "Where was the bottom in relation to the knees?"
When it was suggested to him that he dwelt unduly on litigants' sex lives, Carman retorted: "If there is something that touches on truthfulness or credibility, then it becomes important and necessary to go into it. All of us might be vulnerable to that sort of examination, but that is not a reason why an advocate should refrain from embarking on it if it is proper and relevant." With the jury, he adopted an intimate tone, suggesting that only he, and they, were in search of the truth. He used layman's language but was careful not to condescend, and had a gift for speaking in a way that held the attention.
George Alfred Carman was born in Blackpool on October 6 1929. He recalled his father, who ran a furniture shop, as "a very different kind of man from myself: calm, tranquil, content. I've never had the pleasure of enjoying any of those qualities in abundance."
George went to St Joseph's College, Blackpool, where he was taught by Irish Christian Brothers. He spent his Sundays as an altar boy. At 14 he took himself off to a Roman Catholic seminary, Upholland, in Lancashire, where he remembered "arrogantly working on the first sermon to preach". A big part of the attraction of a career in the priesthood, he admitted, was to engage in public speaking.
But the austerity of the routine soon told on the romance of the calling. Discovering also that he was attracted to the maids, who had been deliberately chosen for their plainness, he decided to leave at 16. After National Service in the Army, he went up to Balliol to read Jurisprudence. He seemed to suffer no provincial insecurities - although he claimed to have been in awe of the public school products - and recalled his days there as the happiest of his life. His contemporaries at Balliol included William Rees-Mogg, Patrick Mayhew and George Steiner. At Oxford, he lost his Lancashire accent and his faith, although he later described himself as a "Greene Catholic".
After taking a First in 1952, Carman read for the Bar. He was called by Lincoln's Inn in 1953 as the King George V Coronation Scholar, then did his pupillage in London. But with neither money or connections, he decided to practise from chambers in Manchester.
The early years were hard. "After five years I was earning as much as a Manchester bus driver without overtime," he recalled. "I almost left the Bar three times." His concern about his fees was compounded by his marriage in 1955 to the daughter of a Manchester brewer. To make ends meet, his wife took a job as the manageress of the canteen at Great Universal Stores, and regularly pawned her wedding ring. The marriage did not last; nor did his next two.
Although his career eventually blossomed, there were times, even after the Thorpe case, when the restless Carman felt less than wholly satisfied. Having served as a Recorder since 1972, he accepted a position as a high court judge in Hong Kong in the early 1980s. He was experiencing a period which "every barrister goes through" of disillusion with his work. But his (third) wife fell ill and he could not go. Thereafter he decided that he preferred the excitement of the Bar to the respect of the bench. "I would have found it very hard to keep quiet on the bench," he admitted. "I enjoy the blood and sand of the arena."
Although his reputation often suggested otherwise, Carman was by no means always successful. Memorable reverses included the case against Edwina Currie, with whom it was felt that he rather overdid the cruelty in his cross-examination. His theatrical style could also irritate judges, for example Mr Justice Popplewell, who often seemed annoyed by Carman in the Aitken case.
Successful or not, Carman's performances in court invariably followed extensive research, not unlike that of a method actor. "The courtroom is a forensic battlefield," he said. "It is vital to go in there armed." Once in court, he made it his business to assess each member of the jury, looking out for any change of mood, making eye contact, establishing a mutual sympathy.
He professed to see no ethical dilemma in the fact that his skill as an advocate was such that he sometimes gained acquittals for clients whom he suspected were guilty. "I didn't get them off," he would say. "I merely presented their case."
Carman ascribed his enthusiasm for his work to "a never-failing interest in the human condition". "You cannot consider it as a job you do for a living," he said. "You have to think: 'I am making my contribution, however humble, modest and transient - to something that is greater than any one lawyer, to a legal system providing a civilising process in society'." Though some felt he revelled in media attention, few doubted his deep reverence for the law. He strongly denied that a court was like a theatre where "the curtain comes down, everyone goes home and knows it's a play".
Away from work, Carman was a reasonably enthusiastic guest on the party circuit, but essentially lived a quiet life. Although not universally popular among his peers - some of whom gave him the nickname "Gorgeous George" - he was refreshingly friendly and unstuffy to younger barristers making their way. Few of his friends were lawyers: "That," he said, "would be quite desperate."
Retirement, he admitted, scared him. "People say 'Write a book' but I'm not a writer. I don't play golf, I don't play bridge, I don't garden, so what would be left? If you could find me an adequate substitute, I might eventually be attracted to it. But there is no adequate substitute for work." Last autumn he was forced to retire when he became ill with cancer.
George Carman married first, in 1955 (dissolved 1959), Ursula Peer Groves. He married, secondly, in 1960 (dissolved 1976), Cecilia Sparrow; they had a son. He married, thirdly, in 1976 (dissolved 1984) Frances Elizabeth Venning.
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