Published on May 3rd, 1999 | by admin0
All played out
He was one of the original line-up of Radio 1 DJs in the 60s and the first voice of BBC2. He helped to launch the careers of the Bay City Rollers and worked with the Beatles. But from his Prague prison cell that all seems a long way away. Now Chris Denning is standing trial in the Czech Republic for running a paedophile ring and having sex with children as young as 10. Kate Connolly reports
The Guardian, Monday 3 May 1999
Chris Denning is desperate to talk. He has crammed two sides of A4 with tiny blue notes of points he wants to make before the visiting hour is up. When he speaks, his words flow rapidly, in a speeded-up version of that transatlantic parlance of the old school of Radio 1 DJs.
This is the first visit Denning has had in the year and a half he has spent in his three metre by six metre cell in Prague’s Pankrac prison. The 57-year-old DJ feels he has a lot of explaining to do – or rather he no longer has a reputation to lose by telling his story. ‘Once I start spouting, it’s difficult to get me to stop,’ he grins through the Perspex window. ‘You can see why I became a broadcaster, can’t you?’ Denning’s career in the music industry would be the envy of most. He was one of the first Radio 1 DJs when it launched in 1967, working alongside Kenny Everett, John Peel, Alan Freeman, Tony Blackburn and Jimmy Saville. His was the first presenter’s voice to be heard on BBC 2. He worked as a music producer with the Beatles and helped launch the careers of, among others, the Bay City Rollers and Gary Glitter.
But for someone who has been convicted several times in 20 years for abusing young boys and being found in possession of child porn, his association with Radio 1, he says, has been nothing but a curse. ‘Every time I got in trouble with the police there was interest in me,’ he says. ‘The splash next day would always be: ‘Former Radio 1 DJ did such-and-such…’ Now that reputation has followed him abroad. Since November last year he has been on trial in Prague’s Number 2 district court for sexually abusing children and young people and ‘corrupting their morals’.
During past spells in prison in Britain, he could rely on letters from his old Radio 1 pal, Kenny Everett. ‘But now Kenny’s dead,’ he says. ‘People at Radio 1 are still pleasant to me, but we’re not in close contact.’ I have a fascinating tale to tell,’ he says, pulling up the sleeves of his faded blue and burgundy prison uniform. ‘It has all the elements – of showbusiness stars, the picturesque background of Prague, vice, a little love affair and a tragic murder.’ The allegations against Denning do not immediately inspire sympathy. He stands accused by Czech police of being the ringleader of a paedophile network, sharing boys as young as 10 for sex sessions with two Frenchmen and an American businessman who are also on trial with him. The former Radio 1 DJ angrily denies the charges. ‘There is no evidence of any ring,’ he insists.
He says he is writing a book, Just A Normal Prague Holiday. It might start with his dramatic arrest, which followed a two-month-long international police surveillance operation. On a sunny November afternoon in 1997, Denning was sitting drinking iced-tea just off Prague’s main tourist artery, Wenceslas Square, with three Frenchmen. ‘The police had been tailing me all day. They pounced on us in the cafe and rugby-tackled us to the ground. At the police station they forced us to stand facing a wall for hours.’ At Pankrac prison, an officer took a picture of him with a compact camera – a picture which later appeared splashed across the front of the country’s main tabloid, Blesk. A sexologist was then brought in to test Denning’s sexuality by attaching a vacuum device, linked to a meter, to his penis. ‘They gave me pictures of boys to look at. If your penis twinges they take a reading. Mine only twinged when I looked at an 18-year-old, so they said I couldn’t technically be a paedophile, I was an ephebophile.’ Placed in a cell with three other men, he says he was attacked and received a broken nose and bruised jaw. He spent the next four and a half months in isolation – ‘for my own good, they told me.’
But he manages to retain an almost disturbingly cheerful disposition. ‘This is partly because I have a 100% conviction of my total innocence of any actual wrong-doing,’ he says. He claims his guilt is mitigated by the fact that he was ‘caring’ towards the boys he became involved with. ‘I wasn’t like the other men who continue, as we speak, to come into town for a quick wank and then disappear, leaving the boys confused.’
Denning’s love affair with Prague began back in the 1950s when he visited the city as a backpacker. He had been enticed back during the 1990s by the same things that still bring many well-heeled sex tourists to the capital; a low incidence of Aids, highly tolerant laws (the age of consent for gays and heterosexuals is 15), authorities often susceptible to bribes and, of course, low prices.
It was a far cry from Denning’s constant struggle with the authorities in Britain where he already had a string of convictions for indecent assault and gross indecency dating back to 1974, when he was convicted at the Old Bailey. In 1985 he was convicted of gross indecency with a child and jailed for 18 months at Bournemouth Crown Court. Three years later he was jailed for three years at Northampton Crown Court for the indecent assault of a 13-year-old boy and possession of indecent photographs. In March 1996 he was jailed for 10 weeks for publishing indecent articles.
According to officers from the National Crime Intelligence Service after the 1996 conviction, Denning decided to move his music and video production company to eastern Europe. They were tipped off about his activities in 1997 and contacted a new unit that had just been set up by police in Prague to deal with crimes involving young people.
Denning insists that he was looking for friendship when he returned. He says he tried to build up long-term relationships with the boys he met. ‘It seems I really made the mistake of getting fond of them, but then I couldn’t possibly have done otherwise, bearing in mind how very nice they all were and how much they obviously needed and appreciated someone who cared about them.’
Some of the witnesses in the case feel they could have done without his care. Jiri, now aged 16, recalls meeting Denning just over two-and-a-half years ago. ‘It was in an internet bar in the centre. He made a proposal and said we should go back to his flat. He offered me 1,200 crowns (£20) the first time,’ he says, peering from underneath a brown fringe, his voice shaking, apparently on the edge of tears. ‘I had to undress. Chris was sitting on the edge of the bed, and after five minutes of looking at me he told me I could go.’ Jiri visited Denning on several other occasions. ‘I spent the money on clothes, shoes and paying urgent bills, he says, adding that for those who needed money, ‘Denning’ became a buzz word. But since the court case has been widely reported in the media, with some of the boys involved even appearing on prime time chat-shows, Jiri says he has been ostracised by his school friends and teachers.
‘He knew what he was doing. I agreed to do it, yes, but you don’t know the effect it will have on you until afterwards. But now it’s too late and I can’t rewind the clock , I feel totally ashamed.’ He says he has learned a lesson, that he will never succumb to the temptation of western money again. Now he earns his pocket money by washing trams.
The statements given to the police of around 26 boys describe more encounters with Denning, in clubs and swimming pools. One boy, Josef, boasts how he had ‘business’ 50 times in three months (with other men as well as Denning) and how he became ‘zasek’ or hooked on arcade video games and pervitin, a low-quality form of speed, which Denning is not accused of supplying the boys. Stanislav, who was 12 at the time, admits lying about his age to get ‘business’. Another, Josef, tells of meeting Denning when he was 14, in a bar called the ‘Slunicko Playroom’. Then we went together in his right-hand drive Ford Transit to his apartment… I got 500 crowns (£9) and I went home. Before I left we made an appointment for the next afternoon.’
Denning, the only child of middle-class parents who grew up in Cowley, Oxford, worked as a rent boy himself for four years, until the age of 18. ‘If they were to arrest all the people who slept with me, half the showbiz world in Britain would be in jail,’ he says. He claims his clients included a top Scotland Yard officer, a pop star who is now married with children, and the ballet dancer Sir Robert Helpmann.
Denning admits using this past to get close to the boys in Prague. ‘[They] were very interested in my history. They asked me how much I had earned and treated me as if I was one of them, which I enjoyed.’ He said he was careful to find out that the boys were over 15 – the legal age of consent in the Czech Republic. The sex was ‘limited’ because of his diabetes. ‘It did not feel morally wrong. In fact, it was the happiest period of my life.’ Through his contacts he met and fell in love with Tomas Holecek, a blond-haired, blue-eyed 14-year-old from a broken home. His mother worked nights, which meant that during the day Tomas was often alone. ‘So it’s easy to see why I became so important to him,’ says Denning. ‘His sparkly personality, affectionate nature and dazzling good looks were simply a delight. His positive, uncomplicated attitude to his own sexuality reminded me so much of myself as a youth.’ The boy brought Denning gifts of ornaments, wine, grapes and a table lamp. Denning took him on trips and bought groceries and dog food for the family. But following Denning’s arrest, he says the boy underwent a profound personality change. ‘He was devastated. He had a male figure around and suddenly he was taken away.’ A few weeks later, he murdered his best friend, Daniel Cermak, and is now serving a six-year jail sentence.
Denning is convinced that the murder is ‘directly linked to my arrest and consequent disappearance from his life’.
Having lost everything, including his Bracknell home and his music and video production business, Denning says all he has left now is to fight for a life for him and Tomas. He says because of his situation he has nothing to hide anymore. And he goes back to talk about where it all started for him. When he talks about his Radio 1 days he becomes animated, like a boy reminiscing about his school days.
‘Most people at Radio 1 knew I was gay,’ he says. ‘Kenny Everett hated me at first because I had come out and he hadn’t managed it. One day he said: ‘Talk to me about it, Chris.’ I did and we became best friends.’ After leaving Radio 1, Denning went on to become the No 2 producer at Bell Records, which launched both Gary Glitter and the Bay City Rollers and had many hits with them. ‘Tell me,’ he says, suddenly drifting off into another world. ‘Have you any idea what’s happened to Gary?’