Classic TV Review: Crown Court (1973 to 1984)

When I was a little kid in the seventies, there were only three TV channels in the UK, and there were very strict rules about what they were allowed to broadcast, and when. TV in those days was something to be feared, and the government was very paternalistic about what could be shown. There seemed to be the idea that if too much TV was on offer, everyone would stop working and we’d all turn into idiots. Perhaps that has actually happened, but I won’t debate that here!

When I was growing up, the two main channels, BBC1 and ITV, would show schools programmes in the morning, and then some entertainment-related stuff in the early afternoon. The BBC’s offering was generally “Pebble Mill At One”, essentially a chat show with a bit of current affairs and music. ITV, three days a week, would show “Crown Court”.

This show ran from 1973 to 1984, and was very well-known – given how little was actually on TV back then, shows got their reputations very easily. It was produced by Granada TV in Manchester, and each week there were three half-hour episodes, shown on Wednesdays to Fridays. Essentially it was a classic courtroom drama. You’d see the defence and prosecution make their cases, then everything would wrap up, and the jury would retire to consider their verdict.

What made it very interesting was that, although everything was fictional, the jury was actually “real”, in that it was made up of actual members of the public who then considered the verdict. For each story, two endings were filmed, and the appropriate one would be played based on the verdict. Only the jury foreman was actually an actor, as you had to be a paid-up Equity member to have a speaking role on-screen in those days.

The show was interesting in that usually the action was entirely confined to the courtroom. You’d see nothing of the alleged crimes themselves. Usually a narrator would give some background, and then it was straight into the courtroom scenes. It encouraged viewers to think carefully about what they were seeing, and try to reach a verdict themselves.

I remember a friend of my family being a big fan. Said friend, known to me as “Aunty Jenny”, was the mother of one of my sister’s schoolfriends. The family lived just up the street from me, and I was pretty familiar with their house. I’d often be looked after there while my mum was at work. Jenny was quite attentive and friendly and would talk to me a lot – except when “Crown Court” was on! It was made very clear she was not to be disturbed until it was finished.

I paid no attention to it at the time, as it was a sombre and serious programme that was of no interest to a kid of four or five. However, more recently, I came across a mention of it somewhere, and decided to give it a watch. Some episodes were available on YouTube, and I soon found myself hooked.

Despite the early episodes now being fifty years old, and it being quite obvious in some cases – attitudes and circumstances have changed enormously – the show bears up very well. The episodes I’ve seen so far have been well-written, well-acted and full of atmosphere and tension. The episodic format has enabled a few cliff-hangers to be thrown in, and it’s great fun trying to work out if the various witnesses and defendants are being honest or not.

The show regularly featured well-known British actors, including quite a few young ones making their first-ever TV appearances. Colin Firth played a young police officer before he ever appeared on-screen anywhere else. I also recently enjoyed watching Bruce Boa doing his “stock angry American” thing as he shouted aggressively from the dock – perhaps there wasn’t any Waldorf Salad on offer in the cafeteria.

The court is supposedly located in the fictional town of Fulchester, a name which has rather amusingly been borrowed by another cultural institution, and it’s now more famous as the home of The Fat Slags, Spoilt Bastard, Roger Mellie and Gilbert Ratchet.

You can currently watch the show being repeated on Talking Pictures TV. Annoyingly they show it on Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays, which screws up the experience a bit, and seems a bit silly. However, it’s nice to see it broadcast again in near-enough original format. The technical quality is a bit iffy in places, and the whole thing tended to get done in one take, so the odd blooper or fluffed line would make it onto the screen. It rarely detracts from the quality, though. The only annoyance I really have is down to Talking Pictures TV themselves – they have a bunch of highly annoying “fake retro cinema” continuity, and the adverts are truly dire. The channel is clearly aiming at a very senior demographic, so the ads are all related to funeral plans, equity release, bladder leak underwear and associated other horrors related to failing health and impending death. Thankfully I record the episodes and don’t watch them live, so that’s crap I can skip.

Of course, for most of “Crown Court”‘s run, people didn’t own videos, so the only way to see the show was to watch it live. As it was on at lunchtimes, and was occasionally very popular, I wonder if it led to any deliberate skiving from work or school, if a case was of particular interest? I guess we’ll never know now!

It’s all enough to have got me pretty hooked – there’s a lot to like about this show, and the care and talent that went into making it. Well worth catching if you can. Below are a couple of the stories I particularly enjoyed, just to get you started.

This one seems like a forerunner to the real-life case involving Victoria Gillick, a morality campaigner, in the 1980s. Interesting plot about a genuine moral dilemma faced by doctors and others back in the day.

Good example of a famous face here, with Geoffrey Palmer playing a well-known and wealthy man accused of stealing from and assaulting a young girl.

This libel case has a great cliffhanger in it, and features the aforementioned Bruce Boa getting agitated! A good look at what can happen when people are under intense pressure. (This one only features the first episode, but links to the next episodes are displayed).

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