Carman stands accused

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He was described as a man who could get the Devil acquitted, but the devil, as they say, is in the details, and the details recently released about George Carman QC have been hellish.

Prior to his death from prostate cancer in January 2001, George Carman was the most respected, feared and successful advocate in Britain. His clients were drawn from the top echelons of business, entertainment and the establishment. Tom Cruise sent a case of 1979 Chateau Petrus, at 300 a bottle; Elton John said thank you with a crate of vintage champagne. Richard Branson seldom entered litigation without him and Mohamed al-Fayed viewed him as a legal genius. Carman wielded words like a scalpel, and those who faced dissection on the stand held an altogether different view. Neil Hamilton, who lost his court case against al-Fayed, described Carman as "a malign squid squirting inkjets of half-truths".

Over the past 20 years, no QC had handled so many high-profile cases so successfully. His work helped clear Ken Dodd on charges of tax evasion, Jeremy Thorpe MP of conspiracy to murder, the Sun of libel against Gillian Taylforth, and most recently he acted for The Guardian against Jonathan Aitken. Then "Gorgeous George" skewered the former minister with his own "Sword of Truth" and hammered him with his "Shield of Fair Play". When he finally announced his retirement, at the age of 70 in the summer of 2000, he was asked by a journalist if he knew of anyone whose life would stand up to being "Carmanised".

The answer was certainly not his own. A new biography, No Ordinary Man, A Life of George Carman, has revealed that, far from being a giant of the court, he was lucky to escape a visit to the dock.

An alcoholic, a gambler and a secret bisexual, his most appalling behaviour was reserved for his three wives, whom he beat viciously and abused verbally. Ursula Groves, his first wife, would crawl into a ball on the floor as he beat and kicked her, and emerge with bruises, black eyes and cut lips. Celia Sparrow, his second wife and mother of his only child, was punched, her head regularly hit against walls. Once she was threatened with two carving knifes, when Carman asked: "Which one do you want in you first?" Frances Atkins, his third wife, fought back and was thrown down the stairs where she cracked her hip.

London’s legal establishment is in shock. But it is not the stark revelation of Carman’s wife-beating that has barristers whispering. They are shocked as much at the author of the biography of the "Great Defender". George Carman was not posthumously smeared by an investigative author such as Andrew Morton, Kitty Kelly or Tom Bower. He was shopped by his own son, Dominic.

When the first extract of the biography appeared in a Sunday newspaper, Karen Phillips, the barrister who had a long platonic and live-in relationship with Carman, said: "It’s like a tabloid version of Mommie Dearest, the book by Joan Crawford’s daughter."

The book has also produced a schism in the author’s own family, with Dominic’s son by his first marriage, Matthew Carman, rushing to the barricades in defence of his grandfather. In a letter to the media last week the 17-year-old wrote a strong rebuttal to the slur on his father, insisting his grandfather was a "kind, honest and loving man". He concluded by writing: "It saddens me deeply that the greatest defender of our time is not here to defend himself."

In his own defence, Dominic Carman insists he is merely carrying out his father’s dying wish, pressed on him along with the watch, a gift from the Guardian, inscribed with the words: "Sword of Truth." Carman had been in discussions with publishers to write an autobiography for the sum of 500,000, but as he approached the end with not a word written, or a contract signed, he reportedly said to his son: "I’m not going to be able to do it, you better have a go."

Phillips denies Dominic made such a pact, insisting she herself was appointed to be his Boswell. The two have not spoken since last spring and in his book Dominic portrays Phillips as a woman who enjoyed his father’s money as much as his company and who embarrassed him publicly by openly discussing the fact that there was no sexual relationship. Phillips, who received a share of Carman’s 2.6 million, along with Dominic and his four children, has branded the book "scandalous and cowardly". She told reporters: "It’s something Dominic would never have dared say to his father. The only reason he is saying it is that he knows his father is not going to be able to sue."

As the first author to make it into the bookshops, Dominic has stolen the lead, but lost a good deal of public affection. How could a son write such a book? Did Dominic do it for the money?

"I would like to think this book was written more from the heart than from the wallet, because it is the truth," says Dominic, a tall man with greying hair and a face that echoes his late father. He is sitting in the London offices of his publisher, Hodder & Stoughton, and the tone in his voice is one of weary justification.

"I know people will say: ‘You have only written this to sell books.’ Fair enough, they are entitled to their view, but if that was the only reason I had written this book, it would not be a very good book. Is there a price for honesty? - I’m sure that there will be and that there will be criticism from a lot of people who do not like the full picture. If you are writing a biography, you can’t miss out huge chunks. These are not minor things. This is how he lived his life from day to day from his twenties pretty much up to the day he died: for 30-odd years he gambled heavily, for 45 years he drank heavily."

On Karen Phillips, Dominic would only say: "I wish her luck in her work. It’s not an easy task writing a biography."

Dominic appears intermittently throughout the book. First he is the small child shocked as his father beats his mother. Then we see him endure the long silences, struggle to answer paternal cross-examination and live with the long shadow cast by a disturbed genius. When he grew up Carman would often describe his son in interviews as "my best friend" or "my closest male friend", but it was a friendship constructed on false foundations.

Dominic was tied to his father by family loyalty, bruised love and, for many years, a degree of financial dependence as Carman grudgingly cleared credit cards or settled debts. They met in pubs like El Vinos or dined at The Garrick and even when Dominic achieved a successful business career with a six-figure salary, there was still criticism served up with the steak and Sauvignon.

The deep unhappiness of the father was always apparent to the son, and it remains a deep regret to Dominic that he never explored the cause while his father was alive. An abiding image of Carman was of his lonely departure each evening in the back of a black cab. "I regret not speaking to him about what was really troubling him. I saw the effects very clearly, but I blame myself that I was not competent or aggressive in pursuing the cause much, much earlier. People, if they drink, do so for a reason. If they gamble heavily they do so for a reason."

Since Carman’s death, Dominic has constructed a hypothesis to explain his father’s deep unhappiness, his alcoholism, violence to women, and almost total lack of sexual relations with women, including his three wives. He believes his father may have been sexually abused as a child, either while resident at St Joseph’s College, a boarding school in Blackpool run by the Irish Christian Brothers, or on a school trip to Rome at the age of eight. The circumstantial evidence was Carman’s refusal to discuss his childhood and the known existence, documented by former pupils, of two predatory paedophiles among the school’s teaching staff. One, nicknamed "Dracula", was known to detain boys in the science block for his own pleasure. "He was physically beaten. I spoke to 15 of his school colleagues, and as well as physical punishment, sexual abuse happened. I don’t know if it happened to my father, but I fly a kite and say it might have and that that may have had an incredibly traumatic effect on his life."

At Oxford Carman indulged, as was not uncommon, in a gay affair which led to the collapse of his engagement to Dame Anne Mueller. His first wife suspected his bisexuality was behind his lack of interest in sex. Although he asked Ursula to dress as a showgirl, the marriage was never consummated. The violence also flowed from this root cause. "I think it was partly a form of sexual gratification, since a lot of his anger was linked to his frustration," she explains in Dominic’s book.

Only in the court-room did the turbulence, anger and depression that constantly swirled around Carman drop to a quiet calm. There the ferocious intelligence that earned him an unvivaed First - only one of two given for law at Oxford in 1952 - was brought to bear. The case that made his name was the successful defence in 1978 of Jeremy Thorpe against the charge of conspiracy to murder. He said Thorpe had won millions of votes from the people of this country, but now came the 12 most precious of all. He then stared, pointed at each member of the jury individually and said: "Yours."

While the Thorpe case and many others are celebrated in the book, the image of Carman, fists clenched over a fallen, battered woman, lingers longest.

In March the BBC will screen a documentary about Carman, which will explore the complex character that emerges from the pages of his book. David Suchet will recreate Carman’s finest court room moments. He hopes to fare better than the actor who played Carman in a reconstruction of the Hamilton/al-Fayed case. Carman said: "The wretched man who delivered my lines wasn’t very impressive. I think my friend John Thaw might have done it rather better." Dominic has passed some tips to Suchet, but they have not yet met.

Dominic Carman has forever changed the image of his father in the public’s perception, but how does he think his father would react if still alive? It was clear from his early assistance with his father’s proposed autobiography that Carman himself planned to exclude every aspect of his private life. Dominic slows and thinks for a moment. "I have thought about this. If he were here now and I handed it to him across the table I hope he would have respected the intellectual honesty. He might have said: ‘I don’t like some of the things that are in it, but you have done your best to get it right and that I respect.’" But if he caught Carman on a bad day? "On a bad day? ... ‘It’s totally outrageous!’"

Carman classics

Some of George Carman’s best days in court:

On David Mellor: "A man with no honour left," and someone "who behaved like an ostrich and put his head in the sand, thereby exposing his thinking parts".

On Ken Dodd’s taxmen: "Some accountants are comedians, but comedians are never accountants."

On Sonia Sutcliffe: "She danced on the graves of her husband’s victims. She is a clever, confident, cold and calculating woman. She has sought to excite sympathy at every available opportunity in the witness box. The truth and Sonia do not make good bedfellows."

On Jeremy Thorpe: "He is human, like us all. We learn - do we not? - that idols sometimes have feet of clay."

Cross-examining Linda Shaw, the former friend of Jani Allan, a South African columnist who was suing Channel Four after they alleged she had had a sexual relationship with Eugene Terre Blanche, the neo-Nazi leader (Shaw had seen something through the keyhole):

Carman: "You said you saw what you called a bottom. Colour?"

Shaw: "White."

Carman: "Are you able to identify sex or shape."

Shaw: "I didn’t see any genitals. It was a large bottom. It was on top of Jani, rising up and down. I assumed they were having sex."

Carman: "Where was the bottom in relation to the knees."

Shaw: "In between her two knees."