Water Cooler Moments
Television Gold .... Drama
Crown Court (1972-85)
If daytime tv hadn’t been invented, then we would never have had "Trisha", "Kilroy" or "Loose Women", but on the other hand we would never have had "Crown Court". Like most things in life, daytime tv was better in the Seventies, and "Crown Court" was not just a good reason to skive off school. It made sure you stayed off until the end of the week to catch the verdict too.
"Crown Court" was devised as part of ITV’s revolutionary move in 1972 to add a further twenty hours of television to the weekly schedules. The stroke of genius was in not deliberately gearing the programmes towards an assumed audience, but instead merely bringing a standard mix of genres to the daylight hours. There was a new soap, "Emmerdale Farm", (a very differnt animal to the indistinct soap that runs in primetime today) a surreal children’s show in "Rainbow" which allowed an ex- Z Cars actor to play silly buggers on the same set for twenty years, the most twee game show in tv history in "Mr & Mrs", and crime drama with "Crown Court".
"Crown Court" ran for fourteen years and within that time boasted casts including Ben Kingsley, Peter Jeffrey, Vivien Merchant, Nigel Havers and Juliet Stevenson. Regularly appearing as the barristers were the firm but sympathetic Bernard Gallagher, as Jonathan Fry QC, Sweeney star John Alkin as Barry Deeley, and, gracing the programme with a little lunchtime sex appeal, Dorothy Vernon as the stern Helen Tate, while writers included playwright John Godber and Cathy Come Home’s Jeremy Sandford.
The premise was simple. Over three half-hour episodes, usually shown from Wednesday to Friday, a case was introduced to the viewer in the form of black and white stills with narration by the very proper Peter Wheeler. We then watched the case presented before a judge and jury at the fictitious Fulchester Crown Court. The twist was that the jury was made up entirely of members of the public, and the verdict they reached on Friday afternoon was completely unscripted.
"Crown Court" was loved by malingering schoolkids because its alarming subject matter was a good deal stronger than one would usually expect in a pre-watershed slot. Regular crimes featured included rape, illegal abortion and terrorism, and the content could prove pretty disturbing, thanks chiefly to the combination of the claustrophobic setting and extremely good acting.
One especially interesting early story starred future Taggart Mark McManus, with an ill-advised Cockney accent, firing Helen Tate in the opening moments and choosing to defend himself on a charge of armed robbery. While the viewer marvelled at his raw and incisive methods of cross examination, ultimately it was inevitable he would be found guilty, although one suspected what had incriminated him in the jury’s eyes was his obvious familiarity with criminal terms rather than the ambiguous evidence.
"The Medium" saw the series play with more quirky areas of the law, as a Lennonesque young man is charged under the Fake Mediums Act, and "R v Lord" was a gripping story of a middle aged woman (Freda Downie) who had committed a brutal assault on a police officer (Ian Marter) in what seemed an open and shut case until the court was thrown into indecision by bizarre medical evidence. On one occasion a jury found a suspect not guilty only for the defence to then overhear them commenting on how they’d “got away with it” in the closing seconds.
"The Death Of Dracula" is a good example of Crown Court’s inventiveness with what could appear to be a very limited format. A legendary stage illusionist dies when a performance of his most celebrated trick, in which he plays the vampire count and is staked and then resurrected, goes fatally wrong. Before the court can determine whether or not it was murder it must first try to understand how the illusion was performed to begin with.
"Milly", by Doctor Who scribe David Fisher, starred future EastEnders actor Oscar James giving an extremely highly-strung performance as a foster father charged with kidnapping the child he was facing losing. By the time the verdict came in, the court had journeyed into a world of racism, neglect, alcoholism and infidelity. An equally affecting case was the magnificent "Theft By Necessity", in which Fulchester acquitted a man of deliberate theft by evoking a little known clause allowing any citizen to steal if it is proved to be the only available option.
Probably the best ever "Crown Court" story was one of the very last, "Her Father’s Daughter". Starring future Oscar winner Brenda Fricker, this brought the drama right into the courtroom, as a case of attempted murder actually changes course entirely halfway through the episode leaving the entire court at a loss as to how to deal with the revelations that are unwittingly revealed by a mentally handicapped witness.
"Crown Court" now only exists in occasional pub conversations of the “didn’t one episode star...” variety, and in its marvellous theme tune, the tranquil ‘Distant Hills’. But for disposable daytime television, it was well above average and the verdict for me is that it was a superb playground for actors and writers that allowed them to tell a powerful range of stories within a format that relied entirely on brevity and concentrated acting. Skiving off can’t be anything like as much fun for kids these days.