Crown Court

Crown Court and...

Crown Court…and other programmes to be taken into consideration

by Andrew Cobby

Dad at work, tick. Mam at work, tick. Bogus phone call made to school to explain my absence, tick. All that can only mean one thing – it’s time for Crown Court.

I won’t give you chapter and verse. All I’ll say is that Crown Court was produced by Granada Television between 1972 and 1984 and was set in the fictional town of Fulchester. You can Google the rest. 

Crown Court
Crown Courtroom drama

When I watched it as a kid I never had a clue what was going on. All those wigs and gowns and long words were way above my pay grade. Apart from the thrill of being off school, the only things I could appreciate were listening to a great theme tune and counting how many Don Revie look-alikes I could spot in the court room. The Revie look certainly was popular in the early to mid-1970s.

Don Revie
Don Revie never appeared in Crown Court - but his hair might've

The regal music that heralds the start of each episode leaves the viewer in no doubt that the Crown Court belongs to Her Majesty. Apparently, the air is from the opening of the fourth movement of Sinfonietta by Leos Janacek. He may not have known it, but this guy was way ahead of his time TV-wise. Not only did he think up a cracking theme tune, he also has a last name that sounds like Banacek. I wouldn’t have minded sitting down and having a chat with Mr Janacek and there aren’t many composers, living or dead, I can say that about.

Crown Court
Suspects in the Crown Court

Crown Court was shown three times a week, in half-hour segments and covered a fictional court case from beginning to end. One of the best things about it is that the camera concentrated solely on the events within the confines of the court room. The viewer was given devilish hints, but no more, on the after life of participants – a bit like The Bill used to be before it started fancying itself as a soap opera.

To entice the viewer the early episodes at least kicked off with a photo story of events leading up to the trial, narrated in a matter-of-fact way by Peter Wheeler. The technique reminded me of those photo stories found in Jackie or My Guy. I used to have furtive reads of these when my sisters weren’t looking in the hope of gaining some insight into the female psyche. For all the good it did me I might as well have stuck with Shoot!

One of the unique selling points of Crown Court was that, with the exception of the foreperson, the jury was selected at random from the electoral roll. I am not sure that claim would stand up in court because I have definitely witnessed Ivy Tilsley sitting self-importantly in the jury. I have no idea where Fulchester was supposed to be, but it must have been quite close to Weatherfield.

Crown Court
Vera (far right)

It’s a Granada production so we shouldn’t be too surprised to see residents of Coronation Street among the participants. Norris Cole seems very efficient and business-like as a court usher, Alan Bradley is in the dock charged with murdering his wife (some people never change) and even Vera Duckworth reports for duty in a blue uniform as some sort of court guard. Vera looks every inch the professional, but I bet underneath she’s dying to have her two penn’orth and give the defendant a piece of her mind.

Vera was never the most discreet of characters. I haven’t checked but since her appointment the HM Courts and Tribunals Service, or whatever it was called then, must surely have learned its lesson and added the words ‘Must not be a blabbermouth’ to all its job adverts.

Crown Court
Charles Keating

My favourite barrister is Charles Keating as defence counsel James Elliot QC. I think I am justified here in stealing a line from the old sherry advert - Quality Counts. Mr Elliot is the ultimate barrister because he does everything the viewer expects a barrister to do. When it’s his turn he stands up gracefully, allows for a pregnant pause and sets about dismantling the testimony of the unfortunate prosecution witness standing before him. It’s an unpleasant task but someone has to do it so it may as well be done by a barrister as compelling as Mr Elliot.

He has an impressive range of judicial gurns that he throws in for no reason at all, but they are extremely entertaining to watch. I wouldn’t want to be the foreperson who voices a guilty verdict on Mr Elliot’s watch. I think if I was on the receiving end of one of his gurns, I would be applying for a transfer to the The Main Chance.

Even after fifty years some of the performances seem so spontaneous and fresh. I could well be wrong but it seems to me that actors in the witness box are given a rough idea of their part in the story and are then given a free rein to tell it how they like. Then again, looking at it forensically it might all be down to a tight script and canny use of the scissors.

Crown Court
Tommy Godfrey

But have a look at Tommy Godfrey’s performance in the witness box in the episode Whatever Happened to George Robins? and try and tell me it’s not full of vitality. You always get your money’s worth out of Tommy Godfrey. He puts on a great show in the witness box as an associate of the unfortunate Mr Robins. There is no mistaking his cockney persona as he peppers his testimony with references to pulling birds and hot potatoes.

Crown Court
Richard Warner

He is only prevented from going full-on apples and pears by severe reprimands from Richard Warner as the Honourable Justice Waddington who has to request clarification on the meaning of some of Mr Godfrey’s locutions. Yes, there’s even time for an interlude with the old duffer of a judge whose diction is a few years behind everyone else’s. They should throw away the key on that one.

Crown Court
John Ronane

An equally powerful, if more sinister, performance is provided by the great John Ronane in the same episode. Like Tommy Godfrey you’ll usually see him down the cast list but he had a hulking presence that was hard to forget.

I had an unpleasant surprise when I realised that I am older now than Tommy Godfrey was when he took up residence in the witness box. Do I really look as old as him? I can’t tell a lie so I refuse to respond to that one on the grounds that I might not like the answer.

Now seems as good a time as any to resurrect a good one from George Cole. I remember reading a newspaper interview years ago in which he said that he was in his ‘Heinz year’. I thought at the time that it was a great way to say that you’re 57. I have kept it stored up for the last forty odd years and, having recently turned 57, I can also proudly say that I am now in my Heinz year. Thank you for that, Mr Cole. You were always a good’un.

The air that closes proceedings is the magnificently wistful Distant Hills. This was the B-side to Eye Level aka the theme tune from Van der Valk, the number one smash by The Simon Park Orchestra. Both tunes were written by the same man – Dutchman Jack Trombey, which seems to be one of the many pseudonyms employed by Jan Stoeckart. I wonder who he was hiding from. Whatever his name is, he shoots up to number 3 in my list of favourite Dutchmen behind Johann Cruyff and, still holding on to the top spot, Jan Vermeer.

The distant hills have receded even further, all the way back to those blue remembered ones.

One of the pleasures of watching old editions of Top of the Pops is seeing an orchestra full of beige polo necks performing Eye Level. Even if you don’t care much for the tune you should still be able to appreciate the masterful baton work of Simon Park. The orchestra is not so much conducted by him as being teased into a crescendo which he allows to gently subside and then fade away.

The Simon Park Ochestra
Attack of the beige polo necks

Whenever I hear Eye Level I am thrown back to Spring and Summer of 1982. I was doing my O-levels and, for parts of certain days, I didn't have to go to school. Early afternoon viewing included another opportunity to see, i.e. watch repeats of, Van der Valk. In the opening credits Barry Foster would look all moody perched atop a church tower and carelessly throw his cigar wrapper to the four winds. Then he would drive around the streets of Amsterdam waving to a load of Dutch cops judiciously placed by the side of a canal. You’re not fooling anyone Piet. Never mind the mugshots, the footage of those Amsterdam bobbies has Library Pictures written all over it. 

Arthur Lowe
Arthur Lowe was on Pebble Mill but not in Crown Court

From Amsterdam I go to the Pebble Mill Studios in Birmingham for Arthur Lowe's final TV interview. I remember watching it and thinking he seemed to be a bit distracted. I was 16 and didn’t really know what to make of the doddery old bloke who was getting caught up in the microphone wires. He died later the same day. Whenever I watch Dad’s Army I can’t fail to see how talented Arthur Lowe was but, at the same time, I also remember that sad, final TV appearance on Pebble Mill at One.

Talking Pictures TV are currently showing Crown Court in the middle of the afternoons and, strangely, in the middle of the night as well. Catch it while you can. Older but no wiser, I feel another bogus phone call coming on but this time to my work place.

Now that we inhabit a 24-hour media landscape I could just go to work and record it or watch it on Catch Up – but where’s the fun in that?

It seems strange that there was ever a time when watching programmes like Crown Court was the nearest viewers would come to seeing a court room in action. Now, if you like your justice served with an American accent you can tune into Court TV for in-depth coverage. In England and Wales, all the viewer gets to see is the judge passing sentence, but it probably won’t be much longer before the whole proceedings are filmed and all concerned can pretend that they’re in an episode of Crown Court.

Art imitates life so I suppose it’s only fair that life sometimes returns the compliment.

Of course, we now have a king, so we’ll have to get used to hearing ‘Rex versus….’ This is a shame because I always enjoy a good snigger whenever I hear the word ‘Regina’. I refer the learned reader to my previous comments about me being older but no wiser.

Published on April 16th, 2023. Written by Andrew Cobby for Television Heaven.

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