Nemone began to make a name for herself defending East End “faces”.
“The East End thugs tended to get into big fights on Friday nights, ” she recalls. “When it came to pleading for them in the morning, I was usually the only one available. I defended many of the East End names of the day: the Kray twins, Red-Faced Tommy, Freddie Foreman, Frank Mitchell – the so-called `Mad Axeman’.
I always got them off and, to begin with, I thought it was because of my brilliant advocacy. It was only later I realised all the prosecution witnesses had been terrified into silence.”
Was it only later? Was there that much translation needed between classes and their realities? The article argues that yes
Fishman became a convert to O’Connor’s cause, and a friend and helper in getting him work on Fleet Street, where his speciality was the life stories of crooks: he ghost-wrote such gems as Burglar to the Nobility and I was the Priest of the Underworld.
For Fishman and other Fleet Street editors, Jimmy was like a foreign correspondent reporting from the underworld, someone who could interpret for them news and even language they could not understand themselves.
Nemone Lethbridge, the daughter of a distinguished general, was beginning a career at the bar when they married in 1959, so they kept the marriage secret. When, in 1962, the news slipped out, she was expelled from her chambers, and despite brave and persistent efforts, was only able to return to the bar some 20 years later. She helped and encouraged O’Connor in his writing and penned some fine dramas herself, while raising their two sons.
O’Connor wrote 13 plays for television, and in the early 1990s his own life became the subject of a proposed drama which Ken Loach had hoped to direct. Television drama now dealt in safer subjects, and although it came close to a commission, nothing transpired.
Turns out the daughter-of-a-general and author of those maudlin verses had defended characters like the Krays
The three names involved are Nemone Lethbridge, Jimmy O’ Connor and Tommy Godfrey. I wonder if like me anyone remembers these plays now.
I remember them as utterly brilliant at the time and when it was first aired “The Portsmouth Defence” caused quite a ripple.
The title is legalese for – well perhaps it’s better if you look it up.
Anyway, not only were the plays far and away the best plays dealing with the law since John Mortimer’s “The Dock Brief” but the writer had plenty of real life experience in such matters.
Nemone Lethbridge was a stunner – I remember her. She was a barrister who in 1961 had successfully defended the Kray Brothers.
The success of her defence led directly to the “Esmeralda’s Barn” incident. (Who knows – our very own Sandy might well have been there at the time? ) Here’s a brief rundown on that.
Not long after Reggie was released from Wandsworth prison, he was arrested on a charge of housebreaking.
The woman who had originally filed the charges failed to identify him in court and the case was dismissed; Reggie was awarded costs.
Then, he and Ronnie were charged with “loitering” with intent to steal parked cars in the Queensbridge Road, a main thoroughfare that connects Hackney to Bethnall Green.
It was a ludicrous charge and Ronnie was determined to use it to expose what he perceived to be a vendetta against him and his brothers by the local police.
He hired a famous young female barrister, Nemone Lethbridge, to defend them, and used private detectives to check out the charges.
Eventually eight witnesses came forward to provide a cast-iron alibi. Through contacts he had on at the local paper, Ronnie made sure the East End press carried their side of the story.
On May 8th 1961, the Marylebone Magistrates’ Court dismissed the charges.
A full-scale party was held at Esmeralda’s Barn, where Ronnie proposed a toast to “British Justice.”
He had all the national press coverage he wanted. The Daily Express, one of Britain’s leading newspapers, carried a long article about them. Ronnie felt he was untouchable.
Now comes the story of the “bit of rough”.
The playwright and ex-convict Jimmy O’Connor, who has died aged 83, overcame the trials of poverty, war and prison to join the vanguard of British contemporary television drama in the 1960s.
He wrote the first of the BBC’s renowned Wednesday Plays, working with, and inspiring, the bright young talents of that golden age of television drama, among them Ken Loach, Tony Garnett, Roger Smith and Kenith Trodd.
O’Connor’s plays opened up to popular culture the shadowy universe of crime, prison and policing.
Real working- class life, and the London underworld patois that is now part of the small change of contemporary drama, were once subterranean mysteries.
They first broke surface in O’Connor’s television plays. The zeitgeist that inspired films like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Frank Norman’s Fings Ain’t What They Used To Be, and Joan Littlewood’s productions at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, was with O’Connor too.
Possibly his proudest moment came in 1964, when the BBC televised, to immense acclaim, and 11m viewers, his play Three Clear Sundays.
Based on his own harrowing experiences, it told the story of the sentence and execution of a young man, played by Tony Selby.
The play was a strong boost to the abolitionist lobby, which delighted him, during the then raging debate over capital punishment.
Other dramas, such as the extraordinary The Coming Out Party (1965), directed by Ken Loach, had huge audiences and wide impact.
O’Connor was born into the destitution of the slums of working-class Paddington, and they formed him as a man and a villain.
His hard, early life was that of the wide-boy of any era, spending lavishly when his petty crime paid off, and time in prison when it did not.
His restlessness took him into a post with the armed forces catering service, the Naafi, when he joined the army in 1940.
He went to France with the British Expeditionary Force, making minor profits from army stores in small deals with the French underworld.
During the army’s retreat from France across the channel, O’Connor was lucky to survive the sinking of the SS Lancastria, which, out of St Nazaire, was sunk by German aircraft with the loss of thousands of lives.
Shortly afterwards, O’Connor’s life changed even more dramatically after an ageing receiver of stolen goods was found battered to death in his Paddington flat.
O’Connor was one of the local usual suspects and, by his own admission, his attempts to get himself out of a murder charge only landed him deeper in it.
The trial was quick, and the defence sloppy. He only met his barrister five minutes before the trial started.
Convicted, he was sentenced to hang. O’Connor spent eight weeks in Pentonville prison awaiting the long drop, which was set for his birthday in 1942.
But two days before, the home secretary, Herbert Morrison, reprieved him after receiving advice that he might not have been the murderer. But the conviction stood.
In 1994, Freddie Andrews, a notorious Paddington thug of that era, was dying and confessed to his son that it was he who had killed O’Connor’s supposed victim. Before this could be translated into an affidavit to help overturn the conviction, Andrews died.
During the 11 years of the life sentence O’Connor served in Dartmoor and Parkhurst, he educated himself by reading extensively and taking a correspondence course in writing with Ruskin trade union college in Oxford.
Shortly after his release, he began a campaign to prove his innocence of murder, which persisted off and on right up to his death.
O’Connor’s leonine, severe visage became well known in media and criminal circles in the 1950s, and it was in the legendary Star Tavern in Belgravia that he first met and impressed Nemone Lethbridge, 14 years his junior.
Attracted by his dignity and apparent insouciance at the injustice he had suffered, she fell in love with him. Lethbridge, the daughter of a distinguished general, was beginning a career at the bar when they married in 1959, so they kept the marriage secret.
When, in 1962, the news slipped out, she was expelled from her chambers, and despite brave and persistent efforts, was only able to return to the bar some 20 years later.
She helped and encouraged O’Connor in his writing and penned some fine dramas herself, while raising their two sons.
In the three plays written by Lethbridge,
“The Portsmouth Defence” (1966), Little Master Mind (1966) and “An Officer Of The Court (1967),
The little character actor, Tommy Godfrey (1916 – 1984) played very memorably a bent solicitor by the witty name of Plantaganet King, a role he reprised in the two ensuing plays.
Here’s a little about him.
If you cant place him he was the bus conductor in “Passport To Pimlico” as well as appearing in many films and TV plays. Yet another interesting character.
Stand-up comic Tommy Godfrey turns actor for tonight’s production.
Here he talks to Mark Cleveland: Tommy Godfrey, who plays Plantagenet King in An Officer Of The Court, has the true clown’s stage background – comic mime. Born and bred in Lambeth – he has lived in the same road all his life – he was a dancer at eleven and developed as a comic feed in music-hall.
Soon he had a worthy act of his own. A mixture of Keaton and Marceau that won him a place in the Ronald Frankau review Beyond Compere.
Jack Hylton spotted him and booked him for the Palladium. It was 1940.
Tommy got his calling-up papers on Monday and battle-dress on Saturday. The Army must have been something of a rest-cure.
He’d also been playing the Holborn Empire that week, rushing frantically between the two theatres every night. In 1946, transition from foot-slogging to the footlights was just as speedy.
Demobbed on Friday, he was back to his mime act on the Monday, at Victoria Palace variety.
A lengthy national tour followed. Tommy did sketches, feed scenes, patter.
He still remembers most of his jokes. “Now I went along to the doctor and he said take your clothes off and I said but I’ve only got earache and he said take them off all the same. So I went into a room and there was a fellow standing there without any clothes and I said I’ve only got earache and he said you’re lucky because I’ve only come to read the gas-meter”.
Tommy, whose round face has been likened to a pleasant-looking plaice, told me: “Then Hylton cast me as second lead in the hit Hippodrome musical High Button Shoes.
Audrey Hepburn was in the chorus and the late Alma Cogan was one of the singing quartet.
After three years in Australia, I’ve concentrated on straight acting. Doing so many sketches has helped.
The BBC were looking for a Plantagenet King when they saw me in their play The Coming-Out Party.
Nemone Lethbridge went on to write the 1967 BBC version of Jane Austen’s “Pride And Prejudice”.
After her divorce from O’Connor in 1973 she fell on hard times while he lived it up in a villa abroad but she also wrote the notable 1973 play – “Baby Blues” (I wonder if any female Turnips remember that one?) which had such a powerful impact that like “Cathy Come Home”, it led to the setting up of a body to directly deal with the problems shown in the play.
“Depression Alliance” is still doing its work today in the fight against problems caused by depression.
If you have got this far, congratulations, as I know this post was a bit wordy. But dont say I didn’t give you value for money – three for the price of one. Take your pick. Besides, I like a bit of gossip.
If any of the above strikes a chord, a comment would be welcome.