On the train, travelling to meet the actor and writer Chris Langham after he was released from jail last week, I reminded myself just how horrific were the images of child abuse he’d been convicted of downloading.
Some of the file names referred to young children and babies. Others included the words incest and rape. Some used the acronym PTHC, standing for pre-teen hardcore.
I’ve not seen them myself, thankfully, but one of the women jurors at Langham’s trial felt sick after watching, bringing the trial to a temporary halt. And that was one of the milder downloads: the judge ruled that it was unnecessary to inflict the worst ones on the court.
One victim of child pornography, whose rape was captured on film, told the Sun this week that she wonders, every time she hears of another conviction such as Langham’s, whether the downloads included pictures of her. Her life has been ruined, she says.
I like what I’ve seen of Langham’s Bafta-winning work, but can’t be described as his greatest fan. I only caught one episode of the political satire in which he starred, The Thick of It, and somehow missed all of Help, the comedy about psychiatry that he co-wrote and performed in with Paul Whitehouse.
But even before meeting him I pitied him, because I believe he’s suffered an injustice. The prosecution took the decision to add to the charges against him accusations that he’d abused a rather disturbed young woman when she was a child. The woman’s claims were entirely discredited, but the effect of raising them in court was to suggest that Langham not only looked at images but also perpetrated hands-on abuse. That misconception, I predict, will haunt him for years.
Most people would think that downloading those images was bad enough.
At Langham’s farmhouse in the Kent countryside, I find him looking thin and pale. But he gives me more than three hours to talk, and never once avoids a question. On the contrary, he has a “very Californian” frankness (as he puts it) about emotions and motivations, and on four occasions his eyes brim with tears.
If you think this is because he’s an accomplished actor, bear in mind that I also meet his wife, Christine, one of his adult sons by his first marriage, and his parents. They’re all impressively supportive, and that’s harder to put on. I notice it most particularly when they greet each other, or say goodbye, with unmistakeable affection.
Christine, who prefers not to talk about the case, points out of the window at a rather depleted willow beside their pond. She says it cracked in half while Langham was in prison, which she thought symbolic, but that new shoots have since appeared.
Dafydd, 24, Langham’s second son out of three from his first marriage, remembers Langham phoning him on the day before the story broke. “He said that there were going to be awful reports but that he couldn’t go into it. I could tell he was very distressed. I said, don’t worry, we’ll be there for you.”
“My three older boys have been fantastic,” Langham says. “I just felt so proud of them, lovely young men and very loving and supportive and completely with me every step of the way.”
When Dafydd visited Langham in prison he was heckled and taunted. (“I thought, just keep walking.”) Another visitor was Langham’s 88-year-old father Michael, a prisoner of war for five years, who advised the actor to be polite and cheerful (“because they hate that”).
According to Michael, who lives with his frail wife in a barn Langham built beside the farmhouse, showbiz friends who rallied round included Armando Iannucci, John Cleese and Mel Smith. “Others have been quicker to rush to judgement than does them credit.”
But even Langham’s most fervent supporters state unreservedly that he did wrong by downloading the films.
He has always said that he did it as research for an episode of Help devoted to paedophilia. The download dates are consistent with that, but in court Langham’s co-writer and former friend, Paul Whitehouse, pronouncing himself angry to have been dragged into the “seedy” business, said such research was not necessary.
Research was not the only motivation, Langham says. He wanted to watch the downloads so that he might understand abusers, having been abused himself, aged eight, by a man on a camping trip.
He had not spoken publicly about the abuse before – not even during 20 years of meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous. He told his parents years ago, but only decades after the event. Ever since, they too have felt shame – because they didn’t prevent it. “That’s the poisoned harvest of sexual abuse,” says Michael. “It’s the victims that carry the guilt.”
After describing the event to me in fairly graphic detail, Langham recalls the moment he did that in court. “The prosecuting barrister, a red-faced, shouty man, said it was a plea for pity and asked why I hadn’t mentioned it to the police. And I heard myself shout out, ‘Because I’m ashamed that I had some guy’s cock up my arse!’”
At that moment, Langham instantly felt liberated. “I suddenly experienced a freedom that I hadn’t experienced for 50 years.” He wells up and his voice breaks. “I had locked up that eight year old in a room with no windows and said, don’t you come out, you embarrass me. And I kept him there for years. But now I felt like he was there with me in the dock, holding my hand.
“It was a great feeling. So I’m grateful to the, red-faced, shouty barrister. He did what 20 years of therapy and the AA couldn’t do.”
In trying to understand why Langham downloaded images that others would prefer to avoid, it’s worth remembering that there can be many motives for looking at things, not only including child sex abuse, and many reactions to the experience.
“One of the things that really gets my goat is the general perception that you would not look at anything at all except to entertain yourself. Isn’t it possible that we can look at things to feel compassion?
“If you look at a painting of the passion of Christ I don’t assume you’re looking at it because you’re a sadist. If you see a picture of the victims of the Holocaust I don’t imagine that you might go out and round up a few Jews. I would assume that you feel compassion and that it’s important for you to have those pictures so that you understand, as I wanted to understand, the terrible things that we humans do to each other as a species. You know the picture of the little girl running from the village in Vietnam? That was a non-consensual, war correspondent’s photograph of a naked girl running down a road. But I don’t suppose anybody looked at it and thought, ‘Mmm, nice.’”
Still other explanations are possible. An amazing 60 per cent of internet users download porn. If a file is ambiguously labelled they might find only too late that it contains child abuse. But the law takes no account of motive, and the consequences of arrest are bleak.
Operation Ore had involved more than 3,500 arrests when Langham was charged. The officer who arrested him told him that people who look at images like the ones he’d downloaded “invariably” go on to make contact offences. He’s since learned that fewer than three per cent do that. “So we have 3,400 families torn apart needlessly, and at least 33 people who have killed themselves.”
Langham too thought seriously about suicide before eventually deciding against it. “I’m one of the lucky ones. I actually lived to appear at my own trial.”
After he was charged, Langham was forbidden to be alone with the two younger children, then aged nine and 11, because they were of a similar age to the children in the downloads. How did that feel? “Very sad, because I take being a parent very seriously.”
He asked his sister-in-law, who works in the probation service, to recommend somebody who could tell him if he was a paedophile. “I said, ‘If I’m a paedophile I need to know, because I have kids.’” Wouldn’t he know already? “I know all about denial because of alcoholism.”
Two separate experts profiled him and put his mind at rest. They later told the court he did not present a danger. But meanwhile the children were exposed to alarming newspaper headlines with his name in it. How did he explain what was going on?
“We took advice from a child psychologist. It was very important not to give them information that might distort their sexuality. I could not try to explain details that would be too complicated. I passionately believe that children should be allowed to have their childhoods. So I said that I had been looking at pictures of children being hurt, and that the police were worried that I might be someone who would hurt children. They said, ‘But that’s mad, you would never hurt anybody.’”
During the trial, he learned to fear the paparazzi. “They punch you in the back or kick you so that you turn round looking angry… Whenever I’ve seen pictures of people going in to court I have thought, look how ashamed he looks, how furtive. I have never appreciated that the shame comes from the accusation.” What does he mean? “In our culture, the idea that you’re sexually interested in children is worse than murder.”
What was it like being in prison? Reports suggested he was singled out for abuse.
“Being locked up is horrible. It was a B-category prison, so you’re never more than ten feet from the next gate. The cells were designed for two people and there were three of us in there. A lot of people have uncontrollable rages, and sharing a cell with someone like that is tricky. One time this guy lost it because I dropped my lighter. I said I was terrified. And he said, ‘Look at you, you’re a frightened old man.’ And I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s right.’”
Even now, with his liberty restored, he has lost a lot. “They stripped it all away – dignity, career, awards, money, nice car, all the dressing on the tree, the stuff you put in the brochure. When you rip that up you are left with a little kernel: yourself. You might think that’s not much. But it’s everything.”
This kind of talk may owe something to the AA, but in prison Langham joined a Buddhist group and that too made a big impression. “It should have been the worst time for me, but this wonderful thing fell into my lap… In any experience there is stuff that you can learn from it. Going through all this has been an interesting journey.”
He made a terrible mistake, he says. “I shouldn’t have done what I did. I know that we have to have these laws to protect children, and I completely accept that. But I know what my motives were. When I told my dad I was sorry, he said, ‘Listen, I brought you up to be inquisitive.’
“People who have a sick interest in this stuff often routinely have hundreds of thousands of images on their computer. I had 15, and only four were fully downloaded. Of those, I only saw the first few seconds because I couldn’t bear it. I found them too upsetting and distasteful and disturbing.”
Why did he keep looking?
“The thought that went through my mind was that these children had to endure it and I didn’t even have the courage to witness it.”
To me, this sounds pretty authentic. But it raises a question: when he says he has done wrong, as he does often, is that because he has changed his mind? Or is he just being politically correct?
“People who know about this stuff have pointed out to me that to look at these images of abuse is itself a kind of abuse. I had not looked at it that way. I didn’t think of that. And I’m sorry.”