Until 1972 restrictions in broadcasting meant that television in Britain could only be transmitted for a certain amount of hours a day. But the lifting of restrictions in October of that year opened the doors for the ITV companies and the BBC alike to explore new territory, particularly with daytime television. Yorkshire Television offered a new soap opera called Emmerdale Farm, Border Television gave us the twee husband and wife quiz Mr. and Mrs. and Thames Television came up with Harriet's Back In Town. It was Granada who came up with the series that wouldn't have looked out of place in the primest of primetime television; Crown Court.
The idea for Crown Court wasn't necessarily that new. An earlier Granada series The Verdict is Yours was transmitted from 1958 to 1963, although in this earlier version, the shows were unscripted, the actors being provided with background notes which the Television Annual of 1960 informs us were 'written in chatty story form...from which they find their 'characters' and learn the facts to which they will testify.' In The Verdict Is Yours the resident Judge was played by David Ensor who was at one time a practising barrister and the actors who played counsel also had some legal experience. Granada viewers were recruited to form the jury and the show was broadcast over three consecutive nights. A similar series at the same time was In Court Today in which cases were played out in a mock court room but in front of a real-life magistrate; Alderman Joseph Cleary of Liverpool, who had been on the Liverpool City Bench for 23 years.
But in 1972 it was the 'Verdict' format that Granada returned to. The most significant change is that the cases were fully scripted but apart from that very little was altered. It is unclear whether or not it was Granada's original intention to follow the same format as the first case 'Doctor's Neglect?', although transmitted in October 1972, appears to have been made somewhat earlier than the full series which continued the following week. In this first story a doctor is accused of neglect in allowing a patient with a head injury to leave hospital before his condition has been fully assessed. When the patient collapses outside in the street he is rushed back for surgery but his surgeon is unable to save his life. His widow is now seeking compensation. But by the following week a number of significant changes appear to have been made. There is no jury in this first story and it is the Judge who makes the final decision after hearing all the evidence and retiring to deliberate. The opening theme tune is different from the one used for the rest of Crown Court's run ('Distant Hills'), and the title for this episode stands alone as subsequent titles were always along the lines of 'Regina v.' whoever the defendant was that week.
Once again the jury at the fictional (Fulchester Crown) Court were made up of members of the public (all except for the foreman as he was required to speak when giving the verdict). But what set this series aside was the quality of the writing and the performances that gave Crown Court a truly authentic feel. This was no light lunchtime snack of a programme but heavy stuff as indicated in the second story when a barrister asks a defendant if she told her estranged fiancé to 'piss off?' The question would hardly raise an eyebrow today but this was 1972 and was deemed language most offensive as indicated by the gasps of exasperated disgust from the court gallery. Subject matters covered over the ensuing weeks included armed robbery, drug supply, acts of terrorism, a town councillor charged with indecent assault on his 18 year old secretary and a husband who is accused of giving his dying wife an overdose of morphine.
Played out over three 30 minute episodes transmitted on consecutive days the final scene of each story delivered the jury's verdict with the actors primed for one of two reactions depending on the result. Apparently the jury only had 30 minutes to make their decision so that filming could be completed on time. Great attention was paid to detail in each case and judicial law had to be followed to the letter leading Howard Baker, producer of the 1983 series, to describe the task as "like ballet dancing in corsets". But the end product was worth it, because Crown Court was by far the most believable courtroom drama to have graced our screens and that's why it ran for 12 years.
The series also presented a veritable who's who of British acting talent with many established stars as well as those who would go on to become household names in the UK and abroad such as Ben Kingsley, Bob Hoskins, Michael Gough, Connie Booth, Richard Wilson, Michael Elphick, Fulton MacKay, John LeMesurier, Maureen Lipman, Diane Keen, Brenda Fricker, John Barron, Mark McManus and Roy Marsden. Writers such as Martin Stellman, Franco Rosso, Ian Curteis, John Godber and Jeremy Sandford had written or went on to write award-winning drama for television and film.
The other remarkable thing about Crown Court is that 25 years on the series has hardly dated. Each case is sharply written, thoroughly absorbing and totally convincing and season one, released by Network DVD in June 2007 is testament to that. This release is highly recommended as a wonderful opportunity to observe the British justice system in a series that was shot with an authenticity rarely seen in more recent productions.
Published on December 5th, 2018. Written by Laurence Marcus for Television Heaven.