Case 5: R v Vennings & Vennings

Shortly after midnight, on July the 29th this year, the motor cruiser Sunbird VI entered the Thames and, passing through a customs check, she anchored further upriver.  The yellow quarantine flag was flown to indicate she had arrived from a foreign port and required formal customs clearance.  At first light, Sunbird VI was boarded by officers of HM Customs and Excise, headed by preventive officer John Wellby.  They found the vessel to be in the sole charge of Paul Brandon Vennings, a 20 year old economics student.  Vennings stated he had just motored across the channel from Cherbourg, and had nothing dutiable to declare.  The officers were not satisfied, and commenced a search of the vessel.  They examined the engine compartment, the fuel and water tanks, the bilges and lifejackets, until Officer Wellby, checking the cabin, noticed a newly fitted panel.  The panel was removed, and a total of two kilos of refined heroin, worth not less than £200,000 on the black market, was found hidden beneath the locker.  That evening, Paul Vennings was charged by the police with offences under the Dangerous Drugs act of 1965, and with attempting to smuggle two kilos of refined heroin.  At 10.45 next morning, William Asquith Vennings was charged with being an accessory to the crimes of his son.  Both father and son pleaded not guilty.

Original broadcast: Wednesday 15-Friday 17 November 1972

Written by: Roger Parkes (1933-2008)

Mr Parkes wrote for many TV shows which have since become labelled as “cult”: The PrisonerMan in a SuitcaseStrange ReportDoomwatchSurvivorsReturn of the Saint and Blake’s 7.  Before working on Crown Court he contributed a script to Thames’ magistrates court drama Six Days of Justice.  Other popular shows he worked on include Z CarsThe Onedin LineAngels and The Bill.

Directed by: Brian Mills (1933-2006)

Mr Mills’ greatest achievement is to have directed episodes of Crown Court‘s Granada stablemate Coronation Street in all of its first five decades, helming 527 episodes of the show between 1968 and 2000.  His innovatory techniques included not telling all the actors what had been planned for a scene so as to take them by surprise (an example in 1983 where Anne Kirkbride was unaware William Roache was going to grab her by the throat would probably be greatly frowned upon today, but she was very happy to have had her genuine tears of shock captured).  His other work (all for Granada) included episodes of SamThe Cuckoo WaltzBulman, Sherlock Holmes and the Coronation Street video special Viva Las Vegas!

Presiding: Richard Warner as the Hon. Mr Justice Waddington

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At this stage in Crown Court‘s production, cases usually alternated Mr Warner with Edward Jewesbury’s Judge Bragge.  However, the chosen transmission order means this is the third week in a row we’ve seen Mr Justice Waddington on the bench.

The accused:

Peter Jeffrey (1929-1999) as William Vennings

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One of British film and TV’s most indispensable (and most instantly recognisable) character players, Mr Jeffrey was always brilliant in everything.  And it really does feel like he was in everything.  In 1972 alone audiences had the chance to see him in The AdventurerThe Onedin Line (in an episode by Crown Court scribe Bruce Stewart in which he plays a slave-trading defrocked priest who meets an unpleasantly graphic fiery end), The Shadow of the TowerCrime of PassionDead of Night and the horror films Dr Phibes Rises Again and What Became of Jack and Jill? Regular readers will know of my fondness for pointing out actors who’ve been in Doctor Who, so I’ll note that Mr Jeffrey appeared twice – in 1967’s sadly lost The Macra Terror and 1978’s The Androids of Tara (by Crown Court writer David Fisher), in which he gives one of the show’s most joyous guest turns as the wicked Count Grendel.  He also made several return visits to the Crown Court, including a couple of appearances as a barrister.

Michael Ridgeway as Paul Vennings

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Beginning as a child actor in the 60s, Mr Ridgway was in Crossroads and a couple of big films, The Pumpkin Eater and Goodbye Mr Chips.  This was his final screen appearance.

Appearing for the prosecution: Charles Keating as James Elliott QC

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Appearing for Mr Vennings Sr: Michael Gover (1913-1987) as Peter Carson QC

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Mr Gover is best known to cult TV fans for his role in Survivors as malcontent Arthur Russell, who discovers that being a millionaire tycoon doesn’t mean a great deal after the collapse of society.  His other roles (usually trading on his distinguished bearing) include Steed’s boss in a couple of early episodes of The Avengers, Sir Tommy Barnett in the BBC soap The Newcomers, the prison governor in A Clockwork Orange, a recurring chief superintendent in Z Cars, and a Kryptonian elder in Superman.

This is his only appearance as Peter Carson, and it’s a very brief one as the charges against Mr Vennings Sr are dropped before the end of part 1.  The character must have been forgotten about as Mr Gover returns to Crown Court five years later as a barrister called Laurence Bass.

Appearing for Mr Vennings Jr: Bernard Gallagher as Jonathan Fry QC

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Assisted by: David Ashford as Charles Lotterby

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The line-up of Elliott, Fry and Lotterby is the same as in last week’s case but they’ve swapped sides, with Elliott prosecuting and Fry defending for the first time (Lotterby regularly shuffles between the two positions).

Witnesses for the prosecution:

William Simons (1940- ) as John Wellby

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Best known now for playing the role of PC Alf Ventress for the entire 17-year run of 60s-set police drama Heartbeat (yes, it was set in the 60s for 17 years – I think that qualifies it as science fiction), Simons started acting as a child in the 50s and acquired his distinctively acne-scarred countenance in his teens.  In 1972 viewers could already have seen him as Harry Bates, the common-law husband Rita Littlewood left for Len Fairclough in Coronation Street.  His turn to pop up in Doctor Who came with 1977’s The Sunmakers.  In 1973 he returned to Crown Court as barrister Martin O’Connor, becoming one of the show’s mainstays.

Witnesses for the defence:

Jean Harvey (1930-2013) as Mary Vennings

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Ms Harvey made her name on TV as a regular on the BBC’s early 60s soap Compact. Subsequent roles included Terry-Thomas’s wife in sitcom The Old Campaigner and guest appearances in The Power GamePublic EyeSpecial BranchNew Scotland YardCATS Eyes and Keeping Up Appearances.  She was in two BBC adaptations of Jane Eyre 10 years apart (1973 and 1983, playing a different character in each).

Lynn Dalby (1947- ) as Jennifer Harley

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Ms Dalby was a familiar face to TV viewers in 1972 thanks to her role as Adam Faith’s girlfriend in the hugely popular series Budgie.  At the time of R v Vennings and Vennings‘ broadcast she was also appearing in Emmerdale Farm, the show that occupied Crown Court’s 1.30pm timeslot on Mondays and Tuesdays, as Ruth Merrick. She also appeared in Special BranchThe Return of the Saint and the 1975 horror film Legend of the Werewolf.  She was married to a fellow Crown Court guest star, Ray Lonnen, and when their marriage broke up in the early 80s she moved to Australia, where she appeared in the soap Sons and Daughters.

David Casey as Hepel Gastard

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Mr Casey’s appearance here was his first time on screen.  He went on to regular roles in the Liverpool-set 1975 sitcom The Wackers and the fifth series of the BBC’s Angels, and was in an episode of The Sweeney and that show’s second spin-off film.

The jury:

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This week’s jury foreman is a genuinely familiar face: Peter Ellis (1936- ), best known for playing The Bill‘s Chief Superintendent Brownlow from 1984 to 2002, and most recently seen in blockbuster Netflix series The Crown.  But to me, as I’m sure to many others, he’ll always be Wicked Cousin Jerez from Victoria Wood’s Acorn Antiques.

The verdict (highlight to reveal): Paul Vennings is found guilty on both counts (sentenced to five years in prison).

Case notes:

  • This case departs from the normal Crown Court format in a number of ways: it begins with the case for the prosecution wrapping up, with the bulk of episodes 1 and 2 comprising the case for the defence.  Episode 2 ends with the court adjourning, and Jennifer Harley running in to announce that Paul Vennings has absconded.  Episode 3 then begins with a cleared court, where Jennifer and Paul’s parents are seated in the jury box to try and account to the judge for Paul’s decision to run away.  Eventually we fade from that to Jennifer in the process of giving evidence to the jury.  After the verdict it’s announced that Paul has turned himself in, and there’s a brief tag showing him being sentenced the following day.
  • SIGNS OF THE TIMES: The whole case is a comment on the wayward youth of the early 1970s.  Mrs Vennings insists that “Paul isn’t like a lot of the youngsters of today, with their wretched demos, and their pop this, that and the other, and their permissiveness”.  James Elliott refers to “the Asian drug tour”, and suggests that alcoholic Mrs Vennings has “exposed [Paul] to her own brand of permissiveness”.  Mr Vennings agrees with Elliott that he deplores “the general drift of morality in the young”.  Elliott insists that Paul has cut his hair to appear more respectable to the jury.  One of the drugs we learn Paul has been taking is “bennies” (benzedrine).
  • We hear of the town of Fulchester again – that’s where the Vennings live.  Paul attended a private school called Felhams which is either in Fulchester or near enough for him to attend as a day pupil.  His girlfriend Jennifer Harley lives in a town called Renton.

Summing up: As implied above, this is easily the most complex Crown Court case to date, featuring lying witnesses, lots of people being recalled to give further evidence, and a defendant who changes his plea (then quickly changes it back again).  But even though international drug smuggling seems a potentially more exciting subject than some of those that have been heard in recent weeks, all these comings and goings prove more irksome than thrilling (though there’s certainly plenty of gasping, oohing and ahhing in the court throughout the proceedings).  Michael Ridgeway’s totally stiff performance as Paul Vennings doesn’t help (it would be very uncharitable to say it’s no surprise he didn’t act on screen again but, well…).  R v Vennings and Vennings is most interesting when it’s prising out the guilty secrets behind the respectable facade of the Vennings family – it’s just a shame this gets lost a bit behind the restless format of the case.

In the charts:

Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Clair” is still at number 1, but it’s soon to be toppled thanks to the British love of innuendo, which has already seen Chuck Berry’s “My Ding-a-Ling” rapidly ascend to this week’s number 2.  You can see the full chart here.

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