Friday 1 July 2022

First Impressions: Crown Court

Lunchtime television in Britain is a peculiar beast, prone as it is to serving up peculiar fluff including half the features on Pebble Mill at One, forgotten oddities such as Raw Energy (see the clip I uploaded to YouTube for damning evidence) and a whole gaggle of preschooler’s television alongside equally ubiquitous gameshows. This is partly due to the scattered demographics watching: the retired, the stay-at-home parents and young children; a landscape which ensures that the vast majority of the public are rarely exposed to these shows.

Occasionally, though, some of these programmes make more of an indelible mark on our viewing habits. Doctors, of course, has been running for 22 years now, and I would argue my last shilling that most of the country have watched at least one episode. Another is Crown Court, a programme which ran for 12 years on ITV, and one which I had never seen a single second of. This would make it just perfect for another (assuming you've ever read the Curious British Telly fanzine) installment of First Impressions.

I was only 18 months old when Crown Court’s final episode aired in March 1984, so I had grown up completely oblivious to its judicial offerings. However, a number of those wonderful souls that I follow on Twitter are several years older than me and had grown up with Crown Court. For many, their encounters with Crown Court had been the result of lying on the sofa (or settee as they were called them back then) whilst off school with a cold and clutching a glass bottle of Lucozade.

And there was an undeniable fondness for Crown Court, despite it not exactly being a child-friendly series. And those who were more knowledgeable about the series told me you could dive in anywhere, given that each serial ran for no more than three episodes and contained (mostly) unique characters with no callbacks. But this is First Impressions, so I went back to the very start. And, unbeknownst to me, I was watching the pilot episode Doctor’s Neglect? which was not transmitted during the series’ original run and went unaired until Legal TV broadcast it in the 2000s.

The first thing to strike me about Crown Court was the regal elegance of the opening theme, which I shall soon be petitioning to have included during the coronation of our next monarch. However, as is often the case with pilot episodes, this was not the theme used in the series proper (Sinfonietta by Janáček, 4th movement) but an unnamed composition. Anyway, with these rousing and authoritative tones still ringing in my ears, it was time to start digesting the nature of the case at the heart of Doctor’s Neglect?.

The episode begins with a series of black and white photos – narrated by the prosecutor Jonathan Fry QC (David Neal) – playing out the fate of Arthur Simpson, a man in his mid-40s who is taken to Rudkin General Hospital following a minor car crash and then, after an initial assessment from Dr Warner (Jeremy Bulloch), leaves without notice whilst awaiting his x-ray results. Collapsing outside in the street, Mr Simpson is rushed back into the hospital but later dies on the operating table.

This edition of Crown Court centres on a civil case and, as such, there is no jury. It’s a mild inconvenience that the pilot opens with this approach, and indeed the first transmitted serial also did, as there’s much joy to be gleaned from the fact that Granada used real life members of the public to sit in as the jury – aside from one actor due to Equity demands – and, in most cases, come to their own judgement. But, you know, this is very much a first world problem, so I’ll cease my griping before you feed this blog into a shredder and make me sleep on the results.

Overseeing the case is Justice Waddington (), a dusty and old-fashioned gent, but one with a reputation for fairness and integrity within his courtroom. Representing Mrs Simpson (Petra Davies), and going up against Rudkin General is Jonathan Fry, a confident, intelligent barrister capable of lacerating those in the dock with each flick of his tongue. Battling the might of Fry, with a generous helping of friendly rivalry, is James Elliot QC, () a barrister from a different mould, whose calm approach is disarming in its ability to wheedle out convincing conclusions. Elliot’s aim is to both clear the name of Rudkin General and protect the career of Dr Warner, a capable clinician but one with a tendency to dip into incandescent rage when pushed.

So, what did I think? Well, the first episode, hmmm, it feels a little… arid? All serials need time to warm up, but this first installment undertakes a laborious trudge to establish the basics of the courtroom and the case. It’s crying out for a gentle tease that dangerous undercurrents ergo drama lies ahead. But no, much of the episode is, instead, turned over to Mrs Simpson detailing life with her husband and a medical expert explaining the standards a hospital should maintain. A brief respite from this formality comes, 3/4 of the way into the episode, in the waiting room where, away from the plaintiff’s ears, Dr Warner reveals that a frisson of romantic rejection may spell danger for his defense. Maybe, just maybe, the press of drama is about to start squeezing the juice out of Doctor’s Neglect? 

And, oh yes, the second installment of Doctor’s Neglect? is overflowing with juicy drama. It quickly kicks into gear with a visibly strained Dr Warner taking to the stand to provide his testimony. At first, his counsel builds his confidence and easily dispels his fears that a court environment serves only to magnify the negatives. Fry, however, has Warner lashing out within seconds as he boxes him into the corner and lays bare Warner’s short fuse. Next to take to the witness stand is Nurse Dowling (Jacqueline Stanbury), a discarded lover of Warner’s who, until this point, has mostly consisted of nothing but a series of awkward glances directed towards Warner. And, no spoilers, it’s a brief slip of the tongue from Dowling which threatens to gift Fry his most straightforward case since prosecuting that fellow with a swag bag over his shoulder.

In comparison to its preceding installment, the final episode is a slight comedown but certainly no less enjoyable. Warner continues to battle with Fry to save his career, but with Fry suddenly called away on urgent business, it appears his understudy may well let this simple catch slip through his fingers. Drama of a less legal variety also emerges outside the courtroom as Warner and Dowling show signs of rekindling their casual romance, and there’s also a nice hint that Mrs Simpson has been indulging in more than legal assistance with Fry. Waddington delivers his verdict that… well, just watch it, and there’s time for some quick banter from the dewigged barristers before the credits roll.

Despite its slow start, Doctor’s Neglect? soon sucked me in thanks to the script from Paul Wheeler – who went on to write several more episodes of Crown Court – which, although far from complex, contains some excellent dialogue that the talented cast sink their teeth into. So, have I reached a verdict? Yes, Crown Court is guilty of making a fine first impression on me. Being a pilot, not everything made its way through to the series proper, and it’s far from perfect, but the seeds of intrigue have been sown and I will most certainly be back for more.

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