His writing is gritty and exposes life’s underbelly but at the same time G F Newman is a passionate vegan who cares deeply about animals and the environment.
By Tony Wardle
There aren’t many TV series that are sufficiently compelling to make me stay home (okay, I haven’t yet come to terms with catch-up TV). But without doubt, one of them was the legal drama Judge John Deed, which ran for six series from 2001 to 2007.
A High Court judge, Sir John Deed (played by Martin Shaw), tries to bring a more acute sense of justice to the cases which come up before him. They invariably involve controversial subject matter such as the MMR vaccine and radio masts and sprinkled throughout the series is a positive portrayal of animals, animal rights and veganism.
Largely filmed at the partly-abandoned, red-brick masonic school at Bushey, it was there that I interviewed two of its stars, Martin Shaw and Jenny Seagrove (barrister Jo Mills, who Deed is involved with both in and out of court). Both have subsequently become Viva! patrons. We had lunch on the location catering bus and Martin surprised me by saying that all the food was veggie. Who, I wondered, was behind that decision? It was pretty obvious, really! The man who conceived, wrote and produced Judge John Deed was G F (Gordon) Newman, a vegan who says he wrote much of the series by hand with his trusty Waterman pen. He writes everything by hand – whilst traveling in the back of cars and told me:
“I would spend my entire life writing if I could.” I thought that’s what he had done as his output over the last 45 years and more has been utterly prodigious and includes novels, stage plays, film and TV scripts and for which he’s won two Bafta awards.
Over the years, journalists have had a pop at him for his insistence on veggie catering but not me – I insisted on exactly this when I was making TV programmes. The Sun compared him to Goebbels and his reply to Geraldine Bedell of the Independent back in 1994, however, is the kind that leaves a stunned silence hanging in the air:
“Liberty is not the most important thing we have,” he argued.
“Compassion is the most important thing and you can’t compartmentalise it: you can’t go out and kill a pig in the morning and in the afternoon embrace your children as if nothing had happened. Murder is murder and the murder of an animal is the same as the murder of a human.”
G F Newman first came to public notice in 1970 with his best-selling novel, Sir, You Bastard, which sold 200,000 copies. Several more followed, each about a bent copper. Gordon doesn’t have a terribly high regard for the police. Who knows, but the seeds may have been planted when he was just six and a man down the lane gave him some pears. Gordon was then stopped by a policeman who accused him of scrumping and to Gordon’s disclaimer he replied, ‘you lying little bastard’ and clouted him around the head so hard that it left him permanently deaf in his right ear. So much for the good old days! Anyway, the books in this series about a bent copper showed there was little difference between the police and those they chased. In 1978 he created the original Law & Order – a four-part TV series that looked at crime from four different perspectives – police, criminal, solicitor and prison system: “It stirred up huge controversy and caused questions to be asked in Parliament about the state of criminal justice. I’d written several novels about police corruption featuring a bent detective, Terry Sneed, and in 1982 wrote a play for the Royal Court in similar vein – Operation: Bad Apple. This also caused a furore and briefly stopped a trial at the Old Bailey where two corrupt policemen were in the dock.” The threats to Gordon from the establishment were pretty profound and an up-and-coming, radical young barrister came to his aid. It was none other than Viva! patron, Michael Mansfield, not yet having been awarded silk.
Almost everything G F Newman writes takes on the status quo, grabs it by the neck and shakes it around a little. It’s worth saying that Gordon didn’t make up all the stuff about bent coppers but did extensive research which involved an awful lot of drinking. He took his director, Les Blair, out with police and criminal contacts, alternating between the two groups, night after night. Blair summed up his experience: “I learned that coppers are sensible villains and villains don’t have the sense to be coppers!” I spoke to Gordon at what seemed like a million miles away from the grit and grime of big city policing. He has swapped cops for copses and his house in the beauty of the Wye Valley is reached down single track lanes, hemmed in by high hedges and trees. Once through its electric gates, the 100 metre long drive slopes uphill to a large Victorian house against a backdrop of trees on all sides – only it isn’t Victorian! “This was originally a cottage which Rebecca and I bought in 2005 with the intention of knocking it down but that wasn’t allowed. It took 18 months to get planning permission to build an ecological, late Victorian-style house on the foundations”. And so it is. The house has wind turbines, a ground-source heat pump, solar tubes and rainwater harvesting. Sewage is filtered through a reed bed before emerging into a large pond as clean water – still not sure I’d like to drink it, though! Gordon was very hands on in building this absolutely gorgeous, responsible, welcoming home. It is expansive, light and airy inside, and we start talking in the comfortable kitchen as I gratefully snack on olives and a host of tasty things. We’re accompanied by a little scrap of a dog, Mini, who was tossed from someone’s car abroad and rescued by Gordon and Rebecca. We retire to the spacious conservatory/dining room where Gordon serves me a gorgeous lunch he has prepared. I would have taken it easy on the olives et al if I had known it was coming. It is one of two conservatories, one on top of the other. By the way, Rebececca (Hall) is Gordon’s long-term partner who is a vegan writer and activist. It was she who started Gordon on the vegan road way back in the 1970’s when they had a little farm in Ireland. “I would walk my Irish wolfhound and became friendly with a local farmer and his calves, who would all be periodically driven off in a lorry from time to time. I’d never really thought about where they went and, I suppose, like many people I just blanked it out. It was Rebecca who told me, incredulously, that they were going off to slaughter. That was enough for me!” It was not many years before he became vegan. I had heard that G F Newman can be quite prickly – difficult to work with so I asked him if it was true.
His look was deadly serious when he replied: “Difficult to work with? I am compliance itself; there’s no one easier – providing I get my own way.” I thought I detected a twitch of a grin at the corner of his mouth but I’m not sure. Gordon looks really quite stern, with his shaven head (shaved decades ago, long before it became trendy) and dark-rimmed glasses. Had he been an old-school headmaster you had been sent to see for a disciplinary matter, you would quake at his door before knocking. But looks are deceptive. I found him warm and welcoming and remarkably candid about his own life but there is a determination that will be deployed whenever necessary. When he won his first Bafta, he demanded he sat on an all-vegan table and when the request was granted he immediately went back into battle trying to get the whole function made vegan. God, it reminds me of the person I work for! Has he stuck to his beliefs over the years, I wondered, or have they mellowed as they so often do with age? “There is nothing more important to me than veganism – nothing more important to the whole world. Unless we radically change our diet there is no future for the planet. We have to wake up and we have to do it very soon because we are rushing towards the edge. “Don’t ask me to sign a petition against war whilst we continue to torture animals in laboratories and on farms. We talk of humane slaughter but it’s just cowardice – a refusal to face the facts. Jews and Muslims defend their versions of killing when none of it is in the Tora or the Koran. The truth is, there will always be strife so long as we continue to whack animals down.” In the battle to save animals from suffering and the planet we need every ally we can get. To have one of England’s greatest living writers on our side, we are extremely lucky. G F Newman’s latest novel – which he is self-publishing as an e-book to avoid paper usage – is called Dark Heart – aptly named as it explores some truly dark areas of life. Jake Mann is a sexual obsessive who was responsible for the death of his wife and daughter in a car crash and, perhaps looking for absolution, becomes a Jesuit priest. Jake is also an exorcist who gets drawn into some grim encounters with demons as he is chased by his own demons. It begins in the Niger Delta where the voracious production of oil is destroying the environment and local people are ruthlessly suppressed by their own police, whose job it is to protect Big Oil at any cost. Jake moves back to England and to exorcism and possession as well as exposing the sexual exploitation of children by the Catholic Church. It is the first book of a trilogy so there is no neat rounding up of all the story lines.