Case 11: Criminal Libel

Everyone who watched Wimbledon last year remembers the climactic moment when the British champion Rodney Maitland stormed off the centre court after an angry argument with the umpire.  Two games down in the second set, he threw his racquet down and made an insulting gesture to the booing crowd, then ran off to the clubhouse, refusing to talk to pressmen and and smashing the camera of one of them.  Next morning, 200 miles away in Fulchester, near the home of his girlfriend, Gail Holt-Matthews, he was found unconscious in a hotel bath, with both wrists slashed.  A suicide note was found in the bedroom, and as a result of what he wrote in it, Roddy is today in the dock, facing a charge of criminal libel.  He’s pleaded not guilty and further pleads justification.  Mr Jonathan Fry QC has finished his opening speech for the crown, and is examining his first witness.

Original broadcast: Wednesday 27 – Friday 29 December 1972

Written by: Peter Wildeblood

This is Mr Wildeblood’s second Crown Court script.  He previously wrote the first case to be broadcast, Case 1: Lieberman v Savage.

Directed by: Gerry Mill

Mr Mill previously directed the unbroadcast Case 7a: A Genial Man.  This is his first Crown Court work to reach the screen.

Presiding: Richard Warner as the Hon. Mr Justice Waddington

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This is the seventh time we’ve seen Mr Warner as Justice Waddington.  He last appeared in Case 9: Conspiracy.

The accused: Michael Petrovitch (1945-1999) as Rodney Maitland

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Mr Petrovitch’s other screen work includes appearances in Department S and Jason King and, also for ITC, a regular role in The Zoo Gang.  On similar turf, he was in The New Avengers and The Professionals and made various other appearances in action-orientated stuff, including the fairly infamous Australian video nasty Blood Camp Thatcher (while in Australia he also made an appearance in A Country Practice).  At the time of Criminal Libel‘s broadcast he could be seen in cinemas as Susan Hampshire’s undead lover in Neither the Sea Nor the Sand (based on a novel by newsreader Gordon Honeycombe).

Appearing for the prosecution: Bernard Gallagher as Jonathan Fry QC

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This is the sixth time Mr Gallagher has played Jonathan Fry.  He too last appeared in Case 9: Conspiracy.

Assisted by: John Alkin as Barry Deeley

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This is the seventh time we’ve seen Barry Deeley (or ninth, if you count cases that never made it to the air).  His last appearance was in Case 8: Espionage.

Appearing for the defence: Charles Keating as James Elliot QC

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This is the sixth time we’ve seen James Elliot (seventh if you count the untransmitted pilot).  He was last seen in Case 9: Conspiracy.

Assisted by: Dorothy Vernon as Helen Tate

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This is Helen Tate’s seventh appearance (eighth including the untransmitted Case 7a: A Genial Man).  She was last seen just last week in Case 10: Queen v Starkie.

Witnesses for the prosecution:

Neil Seiler (1925-2003) as Detective Inspector Revill

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Mr Seiler’s other TV roles included two appearances in Doctor Who (in 1972’s The Sea Devils – which was repeated in cut down omnibus form on the same day episode 1 of Criminal Libel was broadcast – and 1974’s Death to the Daleks), a role in another ITV courtroom drama, Six Days of Justice, and parts in Z Cars and Softly Softly Task Force.  And he’s one of two actors in this week’s Crown Court to have been in the 1974 Hammer horror Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter.

Bernard Archard (1916-2008) as Dr Denis Holt-Matthews

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An actor whose extraordinary hatchet face was his fortune, Mr Archard was for decades one of British film and TV’s most distinctive and prolific character performers. For starters, he appeared four more times in Crown Court (twice as barrister William Boyce), played memorable villains in the Doctor Who stories The Power of the Daleks (1966) and Pyramids of Mars (1975) and married Annie Sugden in Emmerdale (only to become a victim of the soap’s infamous plane crash shortly afterwards).

Elizabeth Dear as Gail Holt-Matthews

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Ms Dear is the other of this week’s players to appear in Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter.  That was her second Hammer film – she’d previously been in Nightmare (1964) as a child actress.  The same year she played one of Anne Bancroft’s many children in The Pumpkin Eater.

Doreen Mantle (1926- ) as Verity Holt-Matthews

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Ms Mantle is of course a national treasure thanks to her role as the spectacularly hapless Mrs Warboys in One Foot in the Grave, and it cheers me to discover that she’s still working in her 90s, having been seen most recently in an episode of Father Brown just a couple of months prior to the time of writing.

The jury:

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An embarrassment of riches this week.  The gent with the eyepatch, who looks like Fulchester’s foremost diabolical mastermind, is obviously the star of the show, but the quite extraordinary print sported by the lady next to him is definitely worthy of mention, as is the chap on the end with the kind of severely clipped moustache often sported by unpleasant authority figures in the likes of The Beano.  Below you get a good look at a rather queeny looking gentleman and his toothless neighbour, who keeps his mouth open almost permanently throughout the proceedings.

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The chap with the beard is this week’s foreman.  He’s Kenneth Alan Taylor, whose most significant TV role is probably Newton & Ridley executive Cecil Newton in Coronation Street in the 80s (when the character was brought back for an actual storyline some years later, Mr Taylor was replaced with George Baker).  Other roles include “The Mayor” in an episode of the final series of Grange Hill, and (funnily enough) a judge in Hollyoaks.

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The verdict (highlight to reveal): Guilty (Roddy Maitland is fined £1000 and has to pay the prosecution’s costs).

Case notes:

  • SIGNS OF THE TIMES: Roddy Maitland is clearly inspired by real life “bad boys” of 1970s tennis, such as Ilie Nastase and Jimmy Connors.  There’s the required mention of the “permissive society” from James Elliot with reference to Roddy and Gail’s relationship (Dr Holt-Matthews prefers to call it “sexual immorality”).
  • SWEARWATCH: Roddy’s “insulting gesture”, as seen in the opening to episode 1.

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  • That’s not the only dodgy photo composite we’re treated to:

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  • Things we learn about Fulchester this week: it’s 200 miles from Wimbledon and has a lawn tennis club.  Medley Green, where the Holt-Matthews live, is presumably an upmarket district.
  • There’s a goof at the beginning of part 3 when the narration informs us that Roddy has said Mrs Hot-Matthews was drunk when he spoke to her on the phone.  That hasn’t actually happened yet, but will during the course of the episode.

Summing up:

The most frequent memory people relate about Crown Court is watching it whilst off sick from school.  Indeed the fact it was able to get away with some surprisingly adult content in its early afternoon timeslot probably has a lot to do with the fact that most children were in school when it was on.  So it seems almost perverse that Criminal Libel, which features some of the darkest stuff we’ve seen in Crown Court so far (to summarise: a man attempts suicide, writing a note accusing the father of his girlfriend (who’s 16 years old and, we’re told, young for her age) of carrying out an abortion on her in order that a baby won’t impede her promising tennis career), was broadcast during the Christmas holidays, when the nation’s children were at home and might quite possibly see it.  Not that there’s anything at all sensationalist about Criminal Libel – it’s Crown Court at its most restrained.  This works well in presenting the Holt-Matthews family, ruled by a “Victorian” patriarch, whose tyranny (we’re led to assume) has driven his wife to drink.  Bernard Archard is perfectly cast as the forbidding father.  Doreen Mantle’s performance at first seems to absurdly overstress Mrs Holt-Matthews’ timidity, but as we gradually learn that she’s a woman in deep shame about her alcoholism it becomes extremely moving.  As for Elizabeth Dear as Gail, she manages to seem genuinely traumatised throughout.  Michael Petrovitch’s Roddy Maitland’s the weak link – he’s sullen but never quite shows any of the flashes of anger that would make him believable as the bad boy of British tennis.  Unlike some other Crown Court directors Gerry Mill remains interest in the witnesses after they’ve given their evidence, and some of the best work from Archard and Mantle is in the reaction shots as they watch the rest of the proceedings.  The big problem with Criminal Libel, as with some other early Crown Courts, is that all the witnesses are out of the way before we’re even halfway through part 3, meaning the bulk of the episode’s taken up with speeches to the jury and summing up, which are never the most exciting parts of the show (and in future will be much shortened, and sometimes omitted altogether).

Elsewhere on TV this week:

Sunday (Christmas Eve) sees the broadcast of Alan Bennett’s first TV play, A Day Out, as well as the acclaimed adaptation of M R James’ A Warning to the Curious as the annual Ghost Story for Christmas.  Christmas Day viewing includes another ghost story, Nigel Kneale’s brilliant The Stone Tape.

In the charts:

Jimmy Osmond snatches that coveted Christmas number 1 spot, but a few places down at number 4 here’s a slightly more seasonal offering:

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